It may be true, as Ken Chen suggests, that ‘comics lost most boyish readers to video games and MTV decades ago’, but this isn’t to say that they gained a mainstream readership at the same time. It is still possible to count the ‘breakout’ comics on one’s fingers: titles like Maus or Persepolis, Palestine or Pekar – there’s not a lot of fiction on the list – which have found an audience among people who don’t usually read comics. (Actually, in the case of Pekar, I’m not wholly convinced that American Splendor did ‘break out’ – whether the success of its remediation as a smallish indie film had a real impact on the comic’s readership, or simply meant that moviegoers were aware of the comic and favourably disposed towards it, like any number of films I’ve seen and enjoyed but which didn’t send me scurrying back to the novel they came from. Moore’s From Hell springs to mind, impressively monolithic, arising from its jungle of footnotes, but lacking the charms of Johnny Depp and Heather Graham.)
Anyway, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, which tells the story of her father’s suicide, can safely be said to have joined that handful of breakouts. Published in 2006 to considerable acclaim, Fun Home picked up a slew of awards that year, both within and outside the comics world, and ended up on many reviewers’ Book of the Year lists.
Among the adulatory critics was Sean Wilsey of the New York Times, who described it as ‘a comic book for lovers of words’. I’ve been turning this phrase over in my head for days and from a certain angle it seems to be the single most stupid thing you could say about a comic. I keep picturing a guy in Forbidden Planet who’s read every graphic novel from Alan Moore to Zeb Wells but still feels a nagging dissatisfaction with the medium: ‘If only they’d invent a comic with no pictures, just words…’ But of course that’s being unfair on Wilsey. He knows who he’s writing for, and he’s trying to reassure the Times readership that they needn’t feel threatened by a book with pictures: this is a comic for people who don’t normally read comics.
But what if Wilsey really didn’t know, or couldn’t decide, whether he was writing for the literati or for Comic Book Guy: for people who never read comics or for people who never read anything else? This is the problem which Alan Kunka identifies in his review of Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature:
Part of his intended audience is academics, to whom he makes the argument that alternative comics are indeed a form of literature deserving greater attention. For this group, he assumes a lack of familiarity with both the individual works and the art form as a whole. But another part of his audience is the comic fan or avid graphic narrative reader, who has distinctly different requirements. During his discussion of Hernandez’s Human Diastrophism, Hatfield warns readers of ‘a big spoiler’ regarding the graphic novel’s conclusion. [...] Would an essay on, for example, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway need to warn readers of ‘spoilers’ when discussing Septimus Smith’s suicide?
And this is the same problem which Bechdel keeps running up against in Fun Home.
She certainly seems out to impress the literati, especially lovers of early twentieth-century fiction. The chapter titles reference Proust, Joyce, Camus and Wallace Stevens, and many other authors, notably Wilde and Fitzgerald, are woven into the text. Often, Bechdel’s method is to introduce one of these works explicitly into her characters’ world (as in the above frame where the undergraduate Bechdel is attending a tutorial on Ulysses), then return to it analogically as her characters’ actions imitate those of their fictional forebears.
It’s a neat device. The problem is the audience: Bechdel never trusts us to get it, to be already familiar with – or to go off and find out about – the books she alludes to. The effect is rather like listening to someone explain their own jokes: a bit awkward; a bit annoying. In the Ulysses example here, the problem has become almost absurd: even when Bechdel can spell it out for other texts – ‘was it really necessary to enumerate every last point of correspondence?’ – when it comes to her own, she can’t help herself – can’t trust us to make the connections ourselves. Was it really necessary to show us the point of correspondence, that she and her father are ‘like Stephen and Bloom at the National Library’? Bechdel exhibits an addiction to controlling the discourse – an addiction to ‘See what I just did there?’ – whereby the work ends up as a literary Pompidou Centre, always trying to show you its workings, and the reader – or at least one type of reader: the type whom Wilsey has in mind – ends up continually patronised and frustrated by the explanatory interruptions to the narrative.
Or maybe it’s just me. If Fun Home seems to address a readership which falls between two stools – between two brows, perhaps – that hasn’t stopped it shipping in truckloads. And as yet another bus passes my window telling me to go and see Tamara Drewe, I might do just that. It’s based on a book that’s based on Far from the Madding Crowd, you know…
The Pompidou Centre, incidentally, is a big building in France which wears its plumbing in bright colours on the outside. See what I just did there?