Back in the fall, Matt and I ran a graphic novel book club at the Brooklyn Public Library. These were really great discussions, and lots of people asked at the time if we would post video. That wasn’t possible, but we’re going to try to post complete transcripts instead.
The following is a transcription from our book group meeting on “Fun Home”, by Alison Bechdel.
Saturday, Oct 15, 2011 at 4:00 PM
Fun home by Alison Bechdel
Matt: We posted this page up on our blog this morning—This is page 153 from the book, and it comes at the point where, unbeknownst to us, Bruce, the father, has been arrested for trying to pick up two teenage boys and buying them beer. And she, Alison, doesn’t know about this yet; she’s thirteen. So let’s read through this whole page and look at the way she uses text in not just the narration, but also dialogue and writing and images, and crucially, this is another element of comics that I’ll talk a lot about in this meeting, the way everything is laid out on the page. You’ve got a horizontal panel at the top, and four smaller panels.
“The summer I was thirteen, my father’s secret almost surfaced.” And then we see her diary, “July 1st, Monday: Mom went to state college. Dad’s gonna go to a-” and then it’s crossed out, trying to spell it, “-psychiatrist. He says it’s because he does dumb dangerous things and because he’s bad and wants to be good… or something.
“At breakfast that morning he’d been in a jacket and tie, not his usual vacation dishabille of cut-off jeans.” Then we see Allison in the kitchen and she asks him, “Where are you going?”
“The import of what he said was remarkable, but less so than the fact that he was saying it to me.” Now notice that we don’t actually see him saying it right here. There’s a gap there, an ellipsis, and we just get her reaction, her jaw dropping and the Life cereal box hanging limp. “Why?!”
“The sudden approximation of my dull, provincial life to a New Yorker cartoon was exhilarating.” And we see her, this kind of awkward silence as her mind generates this image of a generic New Yorker cartoon of a psychiatrist with a patient on the sofa. “But my father’s abject and shameful mien quickly sobered me up. I’m bad. Not good like you.”
So we learn about this new event in her life, which we’re going to learn a lot more about in this chapter, in this kind of herky-jerky way. There’s narration explaining, we see a bit of her diary, we see this fragment of the dialogue where we’re missing big parts of it. It’s interjected by this bubble, like a cartoon inside a bubble balloon, that sorta sends us off of our track, and then the father doesn’t speak until the very last panel of the page. And he just says, “I’m bad. Not good like you.” And if you read it then as a page, almost ignoring the writing, we just get this long sequence of tension, of the father standing there quietly, holding his coffee, until the last minute.
Jess: We sort of wait for him to actually say it—we know what’s going on here because we read it in the journal. What’s he going to say about this? How’s he gonna interact with Allison about it, because he’s just so bad about interacting in all ways at all times. How’s he going to explain this one?
Matt: Did anyone think it significant that it’s Life cereal that she’s holding and not Raisin Bran?
Matt: Her life is thrown out of balance in that moment. The use of the product placement is very ironic in this book, I think.
Jess: Also, there’s something interesting about, and I’ve just been thinking about this, New York is a thread that runs throughout the book: her visits to New York, and the Village, and so on. And it’s sort of this proximity of sophistication, and this life where they could actually be true to themselves in some way or another. And then you get this New Yorker cartoon as yet another reference to this high life she thinks of being centered in New York. What’s funny to me is that, while the father would probably be the one to enjoy life in New York the most, in the sense that he could come out and be himself, he’s the one who decides to not go, he’s the one who keeps them where they are, and then invents the life that is a picture of something else.
Matt: For me it’s one of the fundamental mysteries of his character. Yes, there is the story that he and the wife were in Europe when his father, her grandfather, died, and he had to go home and take care of the funeral home. Yes, that’s a problem, but you’d think if you really—
Jess: He probably could have sold that funeral home.
Matt: Yeah, sell the funeral home. The thing is, it talks about how his whole extended family is right there. There’s almost a perverse, masochistic need to stay in this little town. Any thoughts on that?
Jess: Yeah, there are several maps. There’s a map with all the relatives, a map with the places he lived and died, there’s also the mention of his accent—you don’t hear his voice in this.
Speaker: It’s later in the book, where she’s talking about- [inaudible]
Jess: But I also feel the pretending was so essential to his character. Could he fake a life like this if he were in New York?
Matt: He’d have to be honest. He had to lie because he doesn’t know anything else, maybe.
So, there are a lot of his maps. This is the last time we see one of them, of how conscripted his life was. Where he was born, his grave, where he was killed, where he raised a family… And notice it’s inscribed by a circle, which is also entrapped and almost squashed by this square panel. It reinforces this almost closed-in circle of his life. I think it’s significant that she keeps on going back to maps in general, and these very closed-in ones.
Speaker: Another thing about this page that’s very characteristic of this is that she does her own pagination as well.
Matt: It’s actually a font made from her own handwriting.
Jess: Isn’t it ironic, though, that she’s done all this hand-lettering and lettered everybody else’s stuff, but her own lettering is a font. I know it’s not intentional; she would have rather used her own lettering, but she was willing to sacrifice her own writing but not everybody else’s.
Speaker: The point I want to make is the fact that it’s kind of multi-textual, with multiple references, because the way she describes herself as kind of an amateur archivist—the reason she was able to do the work and detail in this is because she kept all of her journals and writing as a kid and all these photographs. Part of it feels to me like she wants to provide a an incontestable narrative in a way, that’s not just her story, but that it’s documented, that it did happen. Although in her writing, she clearly says that “this is my perspective” and “this is my interpretation of my father’s life,” etcetera, etcetera. But really, as I flip through it, almost every page has either a copied photograph or one of these other things; even on this page we have a facsimile of her own childhood journal and this classic New Yorker comic, I’m guessing she referenced a very specific one. I think it’s a very cool element of her process.
Jess: But isn’t it ironic that the central event of this book, the thing on which everything else turns, is the one thing that she actually can’t document? She wasn’t there, there are no notes, there’s no way to know whether he really saw a snake or whether he did this on purpose. And it suits her purposes to believe the he did it on purpose. But she’ll never know.
Matt: So, in this scene, we have this missing moment where we never actually see him tell her that he’s going to the shrink. On page 162, we revisit this scene (at the bottom of this page) and we rewind. In other words, it’s gone back and is explaining what happened in the previous days. The whole family went over to a sleepover at a friend’s house because her mother was finishing her Master’s degree, and it jumps around time. What we learn later is that her father had gone off cruising with these teenagers when they were in town, and then we return to that opening question, “Where are you going?” And we get the answer that we didn’t get the first time around: “To Danville.”
Jess: While she takes her Life out of the closet.
Matt: This is filling in what happened between those previous panels. “To the mental hospital?” she jokes. “I… I have to see a psychiatrist.” You can almost cut-and-paste and rearrange it to get a longer strip of the actual sequence. But she presents it to you out of order, and I think that gets at what’s so interesting and rich about this book, that she’s told it in this chopped up and rearranged kind of way. And it feels so organic, it’s hard to tell how she made these decisions, like, “I know, I’ll cut this out here and bring it back later.” But it really feels like a way to use the form of comics, in a way where you do divide exchanges in dialogue, exchanges in glances, and you can remove stuff to express the unknowability of a situation. One of the themes of this chapter is ellipses, and in her diary at one point she starts putting in a lot of “dot dot dots” and leaving things out.
Jess: Actually, right above is where she mentions them, the ellipses, and then we see a three-panel ellipsis that was removed from a previous section.
Matt: And that makes me think that’s a very explicit connection she is making here between the ellipses in her diary and the fact that she used that as a storytelling technique a few pages later on.
Jess: Notice: three panels, three dots.
Matt: Did anyone notice other interesting examples of ellipses or things like that where bits of information are left out and then come back later?
In some ways it marks so much of the whole book, even the way it’s dropped casually at first that her father is dead in the opening pages and also that he had this thing for teenage boys. It’s almost like a throwaway thing the first time you see it on page 17, where she’s talking about how he seemed like the perfect family man, all the details were controlled. At the top of page 17, “He appeared to be an ideal husband and father,” for example, “but would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys? It’s tempting to suggest, in retrospect, that our family is a sham” and it goes on. It just has this one shot; we don’t get any details by this point, we just see a reference to it as we see him looking at the choir boys walking by, in church of all places. And that’s a little bomb that’s dropped in the middle of the story, and it’s not till much later where you get into a little bit more detail about how that happened. I feel the same way with his death; you learn a bit more detail each time it comes back to it, how it happened or how it might not’ve happened.
Jess: I’m looking at page 16 and 17 now and there’s something else I wanted to bring up, somewhat unrelated, and that is her really frequent use of silhouettes. On page 16, in the top-right panel of the top tier, you see her father appear in the background. He’s a hovering presence while she’s doing her chores. And on the next page, you have the moment when the kids are scolded for moving the vase a little too close to the edge of the table. Again, you can’t see the expressions, you just see the edge of the body, as a way of projecting that meaning. And that’s something she does throughout. Page 21 is the next time you see it, and it’s a very benign moment.
Matt: I think there’s a kind of irony there with the narration and the visuals because she’s talking about this rare moment, “his bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark,” and we see him singing to her as she’s lying down in her bed. It is a sweet scene, and yet he’s this dark silhouette and his glasses are glowing like a monster’s eyes; the monster is still there lurking.
Jess: I agree with that. And also, it talks about how his tantrums are dark and he is dark in this panel. One of the other things I noticed on this page is that in the top panel, when he is freaking out about something ridiculous, this lamp cuts his face off.
Matt: The details of the house are always kind of interweaving. On page 31, in the middle of the page on the right, it’s talking about the house and how popular and perfectly designed it was, and in this scene, Bruce’s sister is showing the house off. She’s saying, “Helen? Don’t stop, I’m just showing off your house to some friends.” The narration says, “And why my cultured mother, who had studied acting in New York City, would live there cheek by jowl with his family is more puzzling still.” You get the sense with the narration of constant interruptions taking over her life. Jess pointed out last night that the word balloons and even the box labeling Aunt Sue, who’s off-panel, are literally covering her head. Behind her is very prominently this little floral hold-back that’s pulling back the curtain, that’s like: Bruce has been here and everything here is designed and controlled. She’s playing piano with this kind of studied nonchalance. There’s a metronome sitting on the piano that’s in action, which implies the motion of it going tik, tik, tik. She’s sitting in the corner with the piano, and her creativity’s an act, trying to shut off the rest of the house to put some small measure of control in her life. The metronome appears several times later in the book as this kind of leitmotif.
Speaker: Back on page 18, with that silhouette that you mentioned of the vase, notice the unbalanced tablecloth, which I didn’t see until just today. You know that he left it balanced, so obviously one of the kids had pulled the cloth.
Jess: Something happened, probably not something important, but it’s not okay, he can’t let it go.
Matt: It didn’t break, but just the fact that it came close to where it might break is enough to throw him into a rage.
Speaker: And it’s obvious because the tablecloth is touching the ground.
Jess: This vase is something that appears over and over again. It’s just a creepy shape. I’m sure it’d be very lovely if you saw it in person, but it’s this weird, scifi—
Matt: Well, it’s kind of sexual in a sort of vague way too, along with a lot of other, especially phallic, symbols. She talks specifically about all the [unclear] his gravestone.
Jess: This whole opening section here, from 14 to 25 or so, is so interesting, so dense with information about their relationship. Page 20 is one that I bookmarked because it’s one of the only times she uses three-point perspective. I think it’s a really great illustration. The choice of how an image is drawn can have a really strong emotional effect. Because you see that and you’re looking down on her, and she’s very small and kind of alone in this space.
Speaker: Even the bottom panel, the visitors getting lost upstairs; it’s like they’re about to be swallowed up. Just the precariousness of the stairs…
Matt: I love that drawing too, it’s very funny. But this page is very emblematic of how the role the house plays in this story. It made me think, “Well, the book’s called Fun Home because it’s a funeral home, but most of the book, it’s really the house more than the “fun home”.
Jess: It’s a funhouse.
Matt: It’s like a funhouse, like a funhouse mirror.
Speaker: It’s got a carnival sense of “scary”.
Jess: Exactly. It’s a scary maze. I mean, look at these panels: there’re doors behind doors… weaving through here, even without the mirror to really drive it home, this looks like a funhouse.
Matt: And also the idea of the house designed to deceive, like a funhouse ride you would walk through.
Jess: So then also the top tier on 21, the panel we were talking about before with the lamp, that’s also three-point perspective, looking down on the children. The father ends up being much higher in the panel than he’d end up looking otherwise.
Speaker: I’m really new to graphic novels, so I’m just wondering about the process; I don’t know if you know about her process specifically, but just the idea of drafting a panel. How many drafts do you go through?
Jess: We actually know a lot about Alison’s process. It’s really interesting and not necessarily like a lot of graphic novelists’. She actually invented this process, and I wrote about it in our new textbook coming out in June, using a program called Illustrator, she would create panels and draft the writing and describe what was going to happen in words in these panels. Instead of writing a script and then trying to translate it into a visual mode, she writes directly in a visual mode but without pictures. So she’s always thinking about what the images are going to be and how it’s going to break. So a page like this one, she would have a big panel and two little panels and she’d describe what’s going on in there, and she would know that the rhythm is going to be big and then smaller, and also that these panels are going to be bigger than most of the panels in the book. She tends to have a three-tier structure; continue on from there and you’ll see. There tends to be a three-tier structure on most pages, but in moments with a dramatic action or a thing she needs to show, where it’s a lot more about the image and visual material, she’s gonna go to a two-tier design. So she knew all that before she started to draw. She has all kinds of reference material and she actually shoots photographs of herself in the position of every character in every scene. She would take digital photos of herself from all of these spots and use those as drawing reference. It’s a little bananas, and most cartoonists don’t do this.
Matt: It’s the more healthy, present day manifestation of her obsessive-compulsive nature. She’s channeling it through her art. She photographs everything with a digital camera and she views it on the camera screen. It would be even crazier if she printed it out and traced it, but it’s more like a quick reference that she can then use to copy from.
Jess: We don’t know how many times she’ll work over an individual panel. She does a lot of YouTube videos, and there are a few videos about this that you could look at. For something like this, if you’re asking about the drafting of the perspective and stuff, obviously she doesn’t have this photographed. She has photos and maps of the house, she knows how it’s laid out, but then you can go in and use the rules of perspective to draft how the lines are going to work and you can lay in vanishing points and you just draw it. It’s a skill that’s difficult to master, but once you’re there, you’re there. It’s pretty technical, but very straightforward. The point is that she’s not tracing a photo here; she’s making this up. Which means she’s not just saying, “This photo’s three-point so I’m doing three-point,” she’s saying, “This should be three-point, and the reason it should be three-point is to give it this feeling of weakness and being in power of the house, being overwhelmed by the house.” And she had to have done that very intentionally, especially since if you flip through the book, you hardly every see three-point perspective. You almost never see this kind of “zooming from above” perspective. It’s almost always two-point perspective, which means there are two vanishing points and all the lines that are vertical are parallel to each other, and you have very much of a sense of being in the room with the people, kind of at the same eye-level with everybody else.
Matt: Like this page is rather typical, every panel is kind of a straight-on shot on the same level as the characters.
Jess: In the bottom tier, you’ll see that the eye-level is a little elevated; it’s a bit higher than the kids’, like an adult eye-level. See how you’re looking down slightly? She could tilt the angle to make it three-point, but she doesn’t. So you’re an adult, standing in this room, but you’re not elevated and gazing down on it like they’re little ants down in your power. I think that this is a fairly deep way of looking at how people are composing panels, but especially when you have this situation like this, and it’s so striking that that all of a sudden she uses a different method of perspective, there’s a lot to interpret from that.
Speaker: I think that’s part of what makes this drawing different from, say, a superhero comic.
Jess: Yeah, most superhero comics will use three-point perspective frequently; not all the time, since it’s a lot of work, but whenever you’re outside, zooming around in a spaceship, you’re using three-point perspective. But in this, you never would.
Speaker: I read some time ago that, at least in older movies of the ’50s and ’60s, they would frequently scale down the furniture to make the heroes appear larger. The idea that he or she would be dominant, and the perspective she uses in the hallways is the opposite.
Matt: And the opposite angle, a low angle, which you see a lot in film as well, is traditionally also used to make a hero look strong or menacing from below.
Jess: But even without scaling furniture, if you shoot from a low angle and put the person in the foreground, they will look very large in comparison to other stuff around. Even a really slightly low angle can have that effect.
Matt: [Another example on page 97] Right, there’s this view, “My earliest memory of my dad…”
Jess: It’s the point of view of a three-year-old.
Matt: It can connote different things.
Jess: It can be comforting…
Matt: It can be frigid. Or it can also be a powerful, strong rock.
Speaker: I’m fascinated by the top tier on page 52, especially in terms of what she doesn’t show. It’s the same image split, and on the right hand side, she talks about how she doesn’t really believe it’s her dad until she sees this mark on his hand. But it stays there; she doesn’t show you the mark on his hand.
Matt: In terms of emotion, I felt very strongly about that. It’s two panels, but it’s a single image; it’s a fairly common tactic that you can use on multiple levels in comics, unlike in film or tv where you’re always moving from one image to the next. As an artist, you can design a reading experience in certain ways to have these multiple readings. And in this case we have two panels and one image behind them, and it’s composed in a way that he’s cut in half, her father’s head and body on either side of the border.
Jess: Although, if you look at it, the head and the body don’t line up. There’s too much space there. So maybe she’s moved.
Speaker: There’s also this sense that she’s getting confronted by her dead father, and so I think that image, having it as a single large image, gives you an impact that she must’ve felt when she said that, but she couldn’t take it in all at once. She started with the left frame, taking in the face, and moved on. That could also be why the body is separate, because then she turned and looked at the hands, and so we’re kinda being given that whole time frame in almost one picture.
Jess: Well, standing there too in the next panel afterward, how long did this take? As long as was appropriate.
Speaker: Let’s talk about the perspective used in pages 123 and 124. It’s kind of striking.
Matt: This would be another instance of three-point perspective, except when you’re in nature, you can fudge it much more easily. But the fact that all the trees seem to converge toward a single point in the sky gives the sense that you’re downhill, and also the way that the diagonal is compositionally the slope of the line from the left up to the right, with the sun shining up there… it’s a lovely panel.
Jess: But it does look surreal, and I think that is because of the perspective. The perspective would be three-point perspective if you were standing there, looking up the hill, but this isn’t quite accurate. It’s a little bit warped, and if she made it really accurate, it would just look like looking up the hill, but instead it gives this slightly warped sensation because I don’t believe she has one vanishing point for the trees, which is what you would need: one vanishing point up above for all the trees to point toward. Instead there seems to be multiple vanishing points for all the trees, which makes them look kind of spread apart, and then it goes back to a regular two-point in the next couple of panels.
Speaker: I was thinking that of those four panels in the dream sequence, the first one is the most striking, but it keeps changing subtly between the four panels.
Jess: The second panel seems very naturalistic to me, like it really feels like she could be in the woods, and then the third panel, there’s no perspective at all, so you’re in this non-space.
Speaker: And another example, on the next page, there are the silhouettes again.
Speaker: It looks to me like they’re all in the same perspective, two-point. In the first panel, you’re looking straight on, but you’re suspended in air, as though the hill goes down and slopes back up, and you’re standing where it slopes upward again. In all the panels, you look at her directly, so they appear to be in two-point.
Jess: Well, she appears to be in two-point, because you’re not looking up at her, but you are looking up at the trees, so she’s done a dual thing in that panel. It looks like you’re looking straight into her eyes, but the trees, because they start pulling together like this at the top, indicate three-point perspective, making it appear like you’re looking up at them. But it may add to this warping sensation. She looks like she’s straight on to us while the trees are receding away in a different direction.
Matt: She looks almost superimposed in that drawing.
Speaker: Is this an autobiographical novel?
Matt: Yeah, this is all true to the best that she can present all of her documents.
Speaker: I will assume that the pictures are more important than what is said, because there are more pictures than words.
Jess: What does everyone think about that?
Speaker: If you took all the words out, I don’t think you would get her questioning and confusion about her father’s identity. I think you might get a sense about what it was like living in that very turbulent home, because it’s really quite annoying as a kid growing up, and I think you might get a sense of how the house and her life and her family’s run parallel to the fictional sequences, but I’m not sure you would get a sense of her very layered connection to her father.
Speaker: Is Bechdel the illustrator or did she get someone else?
Jess: She did everything.
Matt: She wrote it, she drew it, she did the color…
Speaker: To go back to the perspective issue, the two-point perspective, this goes back to what was said earlier about the accumulation of all the documents she did show that this was a documented truth, the two-point perspective is more factual. She uses the three-point perspective in places like in the dream or when there’s very strong emotion, where emotion overwhelms and is more important than the fact. But the rest of it is so well paced and it appears that there’s this factual presentation without any of the emotional impact of the three-point perspective.
Matt: In fact, I just thought of this while we were talking about the film setups, Yasuhiro Ozu is a Japanese filmmaker who had a system where he would set the camera in a certain way, kneeling at a low-angle but straight on, very stage-like, so you feel like you’re sitting in the room with these characters. And I think she’s doing something similar. It’s not that rigorous, but she’s generally right in the room, looking at people straight on.
But I want to go back to the thoughts regarding the drawings versus the text. Let’s look at this sequence and see how these things play together. On page 10, at the bottom, there’s this nicely done sequence about Christmas. So let’s look at these three pages together. At the bottom of page ten, the narration says, “It could have been a romantic story, like in It’s A Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed fix up that big old house and raise their family there,” talking about her house, and we see the movie. “Hello, darling!! Hello, Daddy!” And we see Alison in the picture, holding a tray full of glass and crystal, by the way, from which she is later taking sips from when she’s a teenager. On the next page, 11, “But in the movie, when Jimmy Stewart comes home one night and starts yelling at everyone,” and you see that scene playing out in the movie, “Tony, stop that! Janie, haven’t you learned that silly tune yet,” and you see the father helping with the sons putting up the Christmas tree, and again this is Alison doing chores in the foreground. “It’s out of the ordinary. He’s not yelling at anyone.” The tree starts to arrive in the picture here, and her brother says, “The needles are sharp!” Dad says, “Goddamn it!” Then Jimmy Stewart says, “You play it over and over—now stop it! Stop it!” And so the anger is blurring with the TV, the visuals, and the narration. “Daedalus, too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects.” So again here, like the gentlemen in the red shirt was saying, there’s a level of allusion and reference in the narration that you’re not going to pick up any idea of Greek mythology just from the pictures at this point. “Daedalus, too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects.” We’ve already established this picture of him as a “mad inventor.” The tree falls over, and then the son cowers and says, “Don’t hit me,” as Alison looks on. The narration continues, “He blithely betrayed the king, for example, when the queen asked him to build her a cow disguise so she could seduce the white bull,” and then there’s a two-panel sequence where the mother speaks up in the movie now, not in real life; she’s not actually there. “George, why must you torture the children?” And then, again, in the movie there’s this cute scene, sort of like a moment of friction before it turns back toward Jimmy Stewart. But here it’s like a really menacing admonition.
Jess: And notice too while we’re on this page that there are silhouettes being used on this page, but the silhouettes are of the room, so the room that Allison’s in is essentially silhouetted, and that functions to put her on a separate plane of action, a separate space from the brother, so she and Jimmy Stewart are in one room while her father and brother are in the other.
Matt: And she’s watching Jimmy Stewart on TV while she’s watching her father and brother in the next room, on two different screens or two different windows. The kid runs out, she drops the crystal, and then the scene ends on the next page, page 12, again with the silhouette of the father. “Indeed, the result of that scheme—a half-bull, half-man monster—inspired Daedalus’s greatest creation yet.” And then we see Alison holding the broken crystal vase and we get this very visual sequence of her running out of the house and returning after the Christmas tree is up, whereas the narration continues talking about the comparisons to Daedalus and Icarus.
Jess: This is where Daedalus is introduced, I think? No, he’s introduced on the first page, but this is where the Minotaur is introduced, and then the fact that Daedalus designed the labyrinth and is responsible for the existence of the minotaur. She’s constantly reaching and searching for literary comparisons for her father, trying to figure out how, “If I understand him via The Great Gatsby, is that enough? Or do I also need to make him Daedalus? Is he also Icarus? Is he also the Minotaur?” And I think in this scene she makes a very strong case that he is the Minotaur but he’s also Daedalus; he designs the labyrinth from which they can’t escape, which is the house, and he is the beast who’s there, as well as having designed the thing. And this is only a few pages before the sequence we were just talking about, how we see the house become the labyrinth. Ten pages later, on page 20, when we get these images we were just talking about of the labyrinthine house and the mirrors, and the funhouse aspect of the home.
Matt: What I like about that sequence, and a lot of the sequences like that in the book where she’s describing her father’s personality and the way the family functioned, it’s imbedded in a narrative sequence. You can take away the narration and this would still work. You can see a family putting up some Christmas decorations, the tree falls down, and the dad gets angry and chases the kids out. That works as a kind of silent sequence. But when you add on, first the dialogue happening on the TV, and then the narration kinda reflecting on all of this, the combination of all of these things is I think quite powerful. And it would be very hard to take any one of those elements out and still have the same book.
Jess: It’s interesting, then, that you should raise this idea that “Are the pictures more important because there are a lot of pictures,” because people who read comics a lot would look at this and say, “Well, there’s so many words.” So, there are so many more words than there are in most comics, it must be that the words are more important than the pictures, which is actually why we started with this book, because we wanted to address that idea right up front. In comics that are good, you can’t decide what’s more important. One day, you think the pictures are what really makes it, and the next day, you think it’s the words. And if you pick one or the other, you’re gonna lose out. It’s the interplay of the two that really makes the work what it is.
Speaker: I wonder what the format is for doing a book like this. I mean, does she make the pictures first?
Jess: No, as I was saying, she works on the words first, but she makes ideas for the pictures at the same time. There’s a simultaneity even while she’s building the thing from the beginning.
Matt: Different artists do it different ways. Some artists write a screenplay-like script, or like a play, and then illustrate it. But in her case, she’s doing it on the computer. She’s thinking about the drawings that are going to interact with the text that she’s writing.
Speaker: It talks about on page 10, middle tier, left panel, there’s this depiction of time—the shadow is like a second or two before the foreground.
Matt: Right, it’s not like a typical—usually you’d see motion lines there, or a more narrowly-spaced repeating motion. But yeah, that’s a weird one. And the silhouette doesn’t seem to match; it almost seems like a different person working.
Jess: I wonder if it’s one of the boys.
Matt: It could be. It does seem like another person.
Speaker: The text seems to imply that he’s doing it himself.
Matt: Right. “He would manipulate flagstones that weighed half a ton.”
Jess: But the silhouette looks like it’s wearing pants, while he’s wearing shorts. But yeah, I think it’s an interesting—I’m not sure if it’s an entirely successful attempt to depict motion, but it’s certainly something I’ve never seen before.
Speaker: Maybe she just decided that the page needed more visual [inaudible]
Matt: Yeah, you’re right. Sometimes there’s a purely compositional reason to add some black in.
Speaker: Or it could be the idea of his shadow identity, kind of.
Matt: Being out-of-synch with his—
Speaker: Or a dual personality, that of the light and that of the dark.
Speaker: One of the things, in the case of the use of words here in the book, is that it’s very nuanced. Words are sometimes used to block communication, she explores the irony… There’s an incredible number of literary references in here that it’s just mind-boggling. And then she’ll periodically go to Webster’s and give you the definition of the word, and then she will draw the irony out of that to great effect. And then, I can’t put my finger on it, but it seems like there’s sometimes an irony between… something, an interesting disconnect between visual and the written word that appears as well, that plays with your mind and plays with your perspective.
Matt: Sure, yeah, and I think that irony is very key to this whole book, the way that she kind of juxtaposes what’s happening—well, in this scene, with Jimmy Stewart playing on the TV, this sort of benign scene of family strife, and then this very scary actual strife happening at the same time, and the way they interact is very ironic, a kind of dark humor runs through it.
Jess: Well yeah, the ironic juxtaposition of all the literary figures with her father, who is a small town funeral home director… That alone, his own attempt to elevate himself just by making it look right, but then adding in all of his sort of self-aggrandizing feelings, and his favorite works. I think that’s all very much there. And the densely layered references to literary works and characters is, I think, one of the things that sets this book apart from almost all of the comics. There’s nothing like it out there. Even in prose books, you don’t usually get this kind of dense web of “Isn’t this like that?” and “Look how this is like that,” and your head’s constantly spinning with all these things. And while we were working on preparing this, as I was saying, trying to figure out who she thinks her father’s like, and I thought, “Well, she kind of thinks her father’s like all of these guys.” Not just Daedalus, but Steven Daedalus.
Speaker: And Zelda Fitzgerald.
Speaker: Yeah, it’s interesting, because on page 60 she did this drawing of the library, which is again from above, this three-point perspective, and it’s all about his pretensions, and she lists two sculptures that are lamps, Don Quixote and Mephistopheles. But the picture of her dad underneath is again two-point perspective…
Jess: It’s like she’s sitting right next to him.
Speaker: …it’s like this perfect contrast of the two perspectives and their impact.
Matt: There’s a line about it on the next page that I think says something about the book and his life as a whole. It says, “The library was a fantasy, but a fully operational one. And he so fervently believes this thing that he creates that it becomes…
Jess: And what is it that he’s doing in this scene?
Jess: Right. What’s the most mundane thing you can do at your desk?
Matt: Although, on this page, we see that it’s also his web for luring in boys.
Jess: Well again, three-point perspective. We’re looking down on him hitting on Roy.
Speaker: What should we think about, again since I’m new to graphic novels, what can I think about from this book as I start to transition to other comics?
Matt: Our next book is Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes, and there are a few copies here if you don’t have one yet, library copies. It’s a very different book from Fun Home: it’s fiction, not a memoir, so you’ll get a break from the heaviness. So everything we’ve talked about, all this stuff about the way the text and the image have ironic interrelations, one thing to look at is to see how that plays out the same or differently in Ice Haven. One thing that will strike you about Ice Haven is that the drawing style changes almost every… they’re almost like short stories. When you first read it, you might think that it’s an unrelated collection of short comics, but as you read, you’ll find that they’re all connected to form a longer work.
Jess: It has some of the same kind of “weaving” characteristics that Fun Home has; stories come back and you suddenly realize that this thing your learned earlier is actually relevant to what you’re reading now. But yeah, I think this thing of different drawings styles is… think about what these different styles remind you of, if it calls anything to mind, and is there a reason why you think Dan Clowes picked this style to draw as opposed to a different style for this segment of the story. But he is a writer who uses irony very heavily, so there will be a lot of that kind of stuff to think about. Different characters speak different ways, the different segments of the story are told in different ways, as well as just having different characters in them.
Matt: The colors are different, the mood, the kinds of registers are different. He references… there are comics that look like children’s comics, that look very much like Dennis the Menace or Peanuts or something, but they’re talking about very adult things, and not in the sense that children’s comics do, either. So the way that he changes the register visually and narratively is very different from Fun Home.