Given the timing of its publication, you would be forgiven for thinking Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic novel, The Secret of Superhuman Strength, might have been borne out of lockdown. After all, the book charts her decades-long fitness journey, and the pandemic has been a boom time for work- outs, when many of us are doing online HIIT classes, being shouted at by annoyingly perky Peloton instructors, or planking with Joe Wicks on YouTube. (That’s to get in shape for the evening’s binge drinking; maybe I am only speaking of personal experience.)
But the book has been in train for some time, and besides, a quick-hit surface-level book is not really in the comics superstar and queer icon’s wheelhouse. “It was supposed to be a light and fun book that I would do pretty quickly,” Bechdel insists over Zoom from her studio deep in the Vermont woods. “My previous projects had been long, searching family memoirs, which left me a little burnt out. But apparently, long and searching is the only kind of book I’m able to write. So what started out as something about how I’ve been obsessed by exercise over the years ended up being about my lifelong journey to kind of get my mind and body on the same page.
“But I feel like the culture at large has been going through that process, kind of in tandem with the span of my own life, this more Eastern idea of how the mind and body are connected. That’s really been taking hold in the West over the past 60 years in a way that it hadn’t before.”
The Secret... is every bit as deep, searching and multi-layered as Bechdel’s previous efforts, 2006’s Fun Home (focusing on her father’s closeted homo- or bisexuality and his ultimate probable suicide; in this reporter’s humble opinion, the best memoir of the 21st century) and 2012’s Are You My Mother? (which dealt with Bechdel’s exceedingly complex relationship with her mum). But the new book is fun, too. One of the joys isBechdel’s wry scampering over the past 60 years of fitness trends—the memoir is structured by decades—neatly, as she was born in 1960—and at one point we see Bechdel scuttling up a rope above a gym full of people on treadmills, jazzercising, in spin class. “It’s a world gone mad,” her comics alter ego tells us. “Pacifists paying for boot camp! Feminists learning to pole dance! Geeks flipping tractor tires! And the trends keep coming...”
Bechdel’s fitness damascene moment is revealed in The Secret... when she sees Jack LaLanne on TV. LaLanne was the one of the US’ first celebrity fitness gurus, and to describe him to a British audience, I would say he was a cross between Mr Motivator and Liberace: insanely fit, telegenic and, with revealing velour jumpsuits and slippered feet, more than a bit camp. “Oh, he was mesmerising, wasn’t he?” Bechdel says of LaLanne. “As a little kid, I just was so fascinated with him, especially his big, muscular arms. And that’s where the title comes from, my child- hood fixation with him and all the muscle- man ads on the back of my comic books.”
Bechdel was not one for team sports, but throughout The Secret... she plunges deeply into vigorous exercise: downhill skiing, calisthenics, karate, hiking, she’s an early adopter runner. But the book is less about athletics and more about how she uses it to try to find herself; a sort of very sweaty A Portrait of the Artist. There are enjoyable asides about other authors using the physical to expand the mind, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s long treks, or Jack Kerouac’s mountain ascents.
Bechdel says: “I didn’t think I would write about Kerouac that much, as he is such a fraught character, a bit of a car crash of a life, and a lot of his books really only appeal to 14-year-old white boys. But maybe it’s the 14-year-old white boy in me. I mean, he’s very annoying, self-centred and privileged. And his whole idea of spontaneous writing and whatever came out was great—I’m very contemptuous of that. Or maybe jealous... I would love to have that much faith in my own creativity that whatever I wrote or drew off the cuff was genius. But his immense self-destructiveness interested me because another strand in the book is looking at my own tendencies toward self-sabotage, and how I didn’t end up like Kerouac.”
NEW YORK, NEW START
Bechdel first started drawing comics professionally shortly after she moved to New York fresh out of Oberlin College in the early 1980s, with the fortnightly Dykes to Watch Out For. The comic strip became hugely popular, and is an American touchstone as one of the first ongoing representations of the real-life lesbian experience in popular culture. (And yes, the famous Bechdel Test—a set of criteria about gender bias in films, TV and books—first appeared in the strip.) Bechdel wrote the strip for 25 years, wrapping it up in 2008. One of the recurring themes in The Secret... is deadline stresses, which Bechdel categorically does not like.
But does she miss the strip? She laughs: “Well, I don’t miss constant deadlines, but I do miss the sense of accomplishment that I had of finishing a strip and sending it off every couple weeks. And I did miss it in the past four years of Trump. I missed being able to comment, as the strip was always a way for me to make sense of what was happening in the world. But I think it might have killed me if I had to do it through four years of the Trump administration’s shitshow.”
Fun Home’s massive success was spun off, almost improbably given the book’s difficult undercurrents, into a successful Tony- winning Broadway musical. Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company has picked up the film rights, with the actor set to star as Bechdel’s father. A few years ago, Bechdel was given a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the $625,000 annual prize awarded to top artists. Is she now mainstream? She says: “When Fun Home got turned into a musical, I hadn’t quite grasped what musicals really meant and how mainstream of a medium they are. The story has reached a much broader audience than any of my work ever had. That makes me happy, and I’m glad for it. But I’m still in the adjustment phase. My identity was formed as an outsider. So it’s very strange to suddenly find yourself an insider.”
Does that represent a broader acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in general? “I don’t know... queerness [after Trump] feels much more imperilled. It’s also true that, in general, attitudes have shifted. But then I realise my privilege, that I have the luxury of living in my own little universe. With the strip, being queer used to be my job—but when I look back it was really about trying to make room for myself in the world. Thirty years ago, I probably couldn’t have written a book about my exercise fetish because my queerness would have been seen first. And that maybe is the biggest thing the LGBTQ+ movement has done over the past few decades: made it so queer people can just be ‘normal.’”
The Secret to Superhuman Strength (9780224101905, £16.99) will be published by Jonathan Cape on 6th May