by Jessica Moll & r & & r & Fun Home by Allison Bechdel & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's always a bit nerve-wracking when one of your beloved underground heroes goes mainstream. Of course, you're happy for her success. But what if she's signed away her soul? What if her contract with a big publisher means she's watered down her work to appeal to a "universal audience"?
And maybe you don't want to share her with the rest of the world.
So it was with a slightly uneasy happiness that I picked up my copy of Alison Bechdel's new graphic-novel memoir from Auntie's last week. Granted, Fun Home is quietly tucked away in the store's gay/lesbian section on the second floor. But still, I was shocked that Auntie's already had a copy -- I didn't even have to special order it. And to all outward appearances, there's nothing particularly subversive about this brand-new Houghton Mifflin hardcover, which sports an elegant yet somber jacket with nifty lace-like cut-outs and a dull metallic sheen. Except for a certain quirky tremble in the line, the cover art holds no trace of the hand that penned the wickedly funny graphic portrayals of lesbian life that characterize the Dykes To Watch Out For comic book series.
But if the book's prettiness is meant to seduce, it didn't take long for me to fall. In fact, once I dipped between the pages, I didn't want to come out. Bechdel has broadened her subject matter while maintaining her candor and dark humor. The memoir centers on Bechdel's relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who applies his sublimated obsessive-compulsive energy to everything he undertakes, from restoring the family's Gothic Revival house, to coercing his tomboy daughter into wearing dresses, to fixing up the corpses at the funeral home where he is director. Alison and her brothers are also expected to work at the family business, which they dub the "Fun Home." The morbidness of their daily life makes the Addams family seem normal.
Bechdel's graphic art has also achieved a new level of mastery. She's always had a knack for capturing gestures and using cues like newspaper headlines and food labels to add contextual depth to her stories. Now she's exploiting the graphic format like an expert cinematographer, layering her drawings with cultural and literary references from the very first page. But the book's most powerful scenes draw on intimate sources -- like Bechdel's own childhood journals, as well as the letters written by her father in the months leading up to his ambiguous "accident" and death.