Life in the Box: Outside the Box


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Alison Bechdel just won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her creativity. She says it has been hard to accept—she’s spent her life creating comic strips and graphic novels about being non-mainstream. I got to meet her recently, when she made some public appearances in Iowa. And, while this story has nothing to do with television, it’s a follow-up to my article about telling the truth as a creative person.

Bechdel is a lesbian who created a fantasy lesbian community, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” a fictional comic strip place where lesbianism is just a given. The drama unfolds in kitchens, book stores, coffee shops and bedrooms, and is peopled with all shapes and shades of women. The plots revolve around characters who relate to each other and the world intensely.

Her serial cartoon strip was published in lesbian, gay, and counter-culture newspapers starting in 1983, and ended in 2006. For the nearly 25 years she published this series, hers was the only cartoon with these sensibilities. It was a beacon for so many women who were closeted, scared, self-doubting, and marginalized. I know this cartoon lightened up many lives; I wonder how many lives it saved.

With gay marriage going mainstream in 2006, she thought maybe her voice wasn’t necessary anymore, and ended the strip.

From there, she published a graphic novel about her father, called “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” as part of a journey to discover everything she could about this closeted man who died by suicide. Time magazine named it the best book of 2006. Harder yet to believe, for the modest Bechdel, this book became a Broadway musical.*

More recently, she turned out a graphic novel about her relationship with her mother, “Are You My Mother?”  She doesn’t have any more parents, so is not sure what her next projects are going to be, but the pressure is on with the 5-year grant.

Bechdel’s works of fiction and non-fiction tell truths that are sometimes wince-worthy in their honesty. Achingly honest. Laughingly honest. Gritty and honest. She writes as if there could be no bad consequences. She ignores any voices, internal or external, that ask her to compromise.

And, to me, that’s an unusual talent, whether she’s mainstream or not. When she was working on the book about her father, her mother asked Bechdel to fictionalize it. Bechdel refused. She said, “If I fictionalize it, I have nothing. Telling the truth is the whole point.” And, as illustrated in her books, she works harder than most people to dig out layers of personal truths.

For someone who admits to telling lies from an early age, often to appease her parents, Alison Bechdel is determined to use her art from her mind, heart and dreams, using words and pictures to stop the lies. She’s a warrior in truth-telling. And, lesbian counter-cultural or not, her work is genius, startling, and yes, still needed.

*Announced as “Best Musical” Tony Award, June 7, 2015. 

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Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

“Dykes to Watch Out For” 

Fun Home – The Broadway Musical  

Alison Bechdel’s little video about Fun Home

NPR 2014 Interview with Alison Bechdel 

Escape Into Life: Toon Musings 

Life in the Box: Where Truth Lies