Updated: Feb 1, 2021
A Family Tragicomic, memoir, by Alison Bechdel tracing her journey from a young girl to a young adult as she comes to grips with her own lesbian sexuality. It also focuses on her father Bruce's (most likely) suicide, and his secret homosexuality or bisexuality that he kept hidden throughout his life while having affairs with young men.
I am not used to reading graphic novels, my knowledge of them is limited to a couple of comics when I was around 10. So going into this I was very excited; combining a visual and written medium would surely be a recipe for success. And yes I truly enjoyed the graphic form, however the novel itself I had mixed feelings about.
Allison was presented in a positive way, in terms of her sexuality. As readers we saw her explore her sexuality from literature to the real thing, and we see here connect with other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. (There are also two very ‘intimate scene’ between Allison and her girlfriend). Although, we see many coming out stories and I feel like we are passed that. This novel was written in 2006, a time when there were very few books about LGBTQIA+ people. So, it was justified to write a story about coming out; in an attempt to help people better understand their sexuality. The novel is a memoir of Allison’s life, so the story obviously felt very real and authentic. It also makes it hard to criticize how people are displayed; that was who they were.
The novel focuses on Allison and her father’s relationship. It’s essentially an attempt for Allison to better understand her father. The memoir jumps around in time. We start the novel finding out about her father’s suicide and proceed to discover other facts about her life throughout the rest of the novel. Personally I really enjoy this structure as I think if it was told chronologically she couldn’t tie events together so well, further adding to the novel. Allison doesn’t shy away from the low points in her life: such as when she suffered from OCD and other mental illnesses. She also talked of how others may be able to aid their own mental health; without sounding preachy. I think that this is really important as lots of young members of the LGBTQIA+ community suffer from mental illness, and many times when people talk about how they recovered from mental illness they act as if they did something impossible and no one else could do it. Finally, I really enjoyed the drawings in the novel, I thought I would find the lack of colour annoying. However, it didn’t bother me, and I actually think that it added a layer of authenticity too the novel.
There are also many negative aspects of the novel. Such as: complicated intertextuality and language making it less accessible to standard readers. Even though there are pictures you feel like you don’t truly understand the graphic novel unless you have read and understand all these books. One of the books used in metaphors is ‘Ulysses’. Now I don’t know about you, but I have never read this 700 page modernist novel. This metaphor is used over a whole chapter, it isn’t vital to understanding the chapter or novel. However, it does add another layer of meaning that gives the novel a lot more impact. So, if you truly want to understand this novel, you’ve got to do some extra reading I guess. Not the best if you ask me! The novel also partially glorifies paedophilia, Bruce Bechdel (Allison’s father) is said to of have sex with young men. We never find out their age, however, a few of them are his high school students. At the start of the novel Allison is shown to have a very negative relationship with her father. But, throughout the book their relationship improves as she starts to understand her father, and she starts to sympathize with him. In my eyes this isn’t right; we cannot sympathize with a paedophile just because he’s gay. This doesn’t help anybody, and sets up double standard in society. Even if these people were of age the book portrays it in such a way that he manipulated these boys. And then Allison starts to sympathize with him. This should not happen. What he did was wrong, and yes he had a hard life, but that does not justify his actions!
Overall, I feel that the novel had a lot of areas to improve upon. If you are a high brow intellectual this book will probably seem perfect as you understand all the references and complex language. But, otherwise you are lost at references and you are constantly searching your dictionary for the meaning of words.