Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Secret to Superhuman Strength’

“I looked in the mirror what did I see? a nine stone weakling with knobbly knees”

I’ve had a very brief moment with Alison Bechdel, who probably doesn’t remember it at all, but it remains one of my nadirs as a reviewer (yes, I probably have many nadirs, but let’s not dwell on them right now). When her breakout book, Fun Home, came out, I wrote a speculative post about why people liked it so much. Now, I really like Fun Home, but I was puzzled why it seemed to resonate so much when other, as-good comics did not (with non-comics people, that is). So I wrote a post about it at the old blog, speculating that it hit all the “trendy” spots for the literati – it was written by a lesbian, it was autobiographical, it dealt with suicide and coming out of the closet – and I published it. Our Former Dread Lord and Master, to his credit, didn’t tell me not to do it, although his one rule has always been not to speculate about why others like something. Which I did. And lo, did the comments fly! I don’t regret it too much, but I did use the word “overrated,” which people latched onto (I always have to point out that “overrated” does not mean “bad,” just that something isn’t as good as people say – Time named Fun Home the Novel of the Year, not Comic, but Novel, and that surprised me a bit; again, I like Fun Home quite a bit!) I would find it on the Wayback Machine, but it wasn’t my finest moment, so I’m not gonna. Anyway, I did write an actual review of Fun Home explaining why I liked it, but the “damage,” so to speak, had been done. It would have ended there, but a few months later, Bechdel was doing a book tour and came to Tempe to read from Fun Home at Changing Hands bookstore, which is a pretty great place. So I went to see her, and afterward, I asked her to sign my copy. She did so, but as she did, she got a strange expression on her face and said something to the effect of “You’re that dude who wrote that thing.” Apparently someone she knew had seen my post and forwarded it on to her. I was sufficiently mortified and apologetic, but she was very cool about the whole thing. She even signed my copy thusly:

Because she’s awesome

So that’s my very minor interaction with Bechdel. Fun Home is great, and I didn’t love her follow-up, Are You My Mother?, as much, but it was still pretty good. So I was looking forward to her latest book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), despite knowing that’s another autobiographical book, which as you know, I’m not a fan of. However, Bechdel has a good track record with autobiographies, so I trust her more than I do some others with regard to autobiographies. This is a more comprehensive one than her first two, which were specifically about her father and his life and her mother and her life. This is about Bechdel’s life, so while she mentions her father’s suicide and her mother’s death, they’re not the focus of the book. It’s about Bechdel’s quest for superhuman strength, of course!

Well, of course it’s not only about that, but Bechdel uses her fitness quest as a … metaphor! Oh, everyone loves metaphors! She begins by addressing the reader about her – and the American – fitness obsession, and then links it to “the very essence of the progressive spirit” so that she can go back in time to the Romantics – notably Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and mostly Margaret Fuller, a friend of Emerson’s who becomes Bechdel’s guide through early progressivism and women’s issues of the 19th century – and the life of Jack Kerouac, whom she admires in her early life. She also breaks the story into decade chapters, as she was born in 1960 and so can do so easily. She jumps back and forth between the four time periods – the late 1700s/early 1800s (Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850), Kerouac’s life, her own younger life, and her current life – and examines her own thoughts about self-improvement in the context of her family dynamic and the society in which she lives while also writing about how the Romantics were trying to break the mold of their own society, despite the difficulty in doing so. It’s a juggling act, sure, but Bechdel is a good writer, so it works.

One thing that comes across beautifully is Bechdel’s sense of self, and while it’s done beautifully, it’s not a pretty picture. Bechdel pulls no punches when she writes about her substance abuse, which despite never seeming to be too bad is still not good, and it affects her life in subtle and distressing ways. It ties in with her obsession with fitness – she wants to improve herself so she can be “worthy” of something – her own respect, the love of others – but she also wants to rebel against society’s forced norms, so she drinks too much and abuses pills. At the same time, she feels like her substance abuse is something that she deserves, because she’s so self-regulating in other aspects of her life. The substance abuse ties into her lack of respect for herself, though, and that leads us to her self-sabotage of relationships, which she is also unflinching about. Bechdel does not act well when she’s in a relationship, and the way she acts makes the reader uncomfortable, not only because we want the protagonist to not be so self-destructive when it’s an actual person and not a fictional construct, but because, watching from the outside, we can see the train wreck coming even if Bechdel can’t. She constantly pushes people away, and she often uses her belief in self-improvement as an excuse – this person doesn’t want to hike with her, but this one does, so she’ll dump the former and take up with the latter. It’s an astonishing self-portrait, because it’s not as if Bechdel is agonizing over these things all the time. Most of the time, she thinks she’s doing well, but things sneak up on her and bring her down, and the cycle of improvement and abnegation and indulgence begins again. By examining Fuller and the Romantics, Bechdel can also link this to the creative impulse, revealing that the Romantic poets were kind of dicks (which we know), that Kerouac was kind of a dick (which we also know), but how that kind of dickishness can infect her, as well. As with her own life, all of this is fairly subtle – she celebrates Kerouac and Wordsworth and Coleridge for the most part (not completely), but little asides show us that they weren’t that great, just like little asides show us that Bechdel allows her devotion to her muse color her personal life as well. It’s interesting because Bechdel yearns for a life full of love, but she also rejects it. She wants to be “superhuman,” but gradually realizes the futility of that and what she needs to do to move past that. It’s a fascinating book precisely because there aren’t a lot of dramatic moments where Bechdel throws things or storms out on a relationship or has a grand epiphany – she learns about things the hard way, by recognizing the subtle ways she destroys her own life even while keeping in shape because that’s what the world wants from her, and she takes decades to finally arrive at a place where she’s happy. One of the reasons I like Bechdel’s autobiographical comics over many others is because she’s a good writer – she knows how to suggest things rather than stating them outright, and she knows that self-awareness is a fragile and rare thing, so she never overdoes it. Her books reveal her personality slowly, which makes it work better than most comics of this kind.

Bechdel’s art is solid if unspectacular, and it gets the job done well. This is the first time she’s done a book in full color, and it makes her art – especially the Romantic era stuff – pop a bit more. She has a very naturalistic style, so we get a good sense of the tough times she’s going through as she works to improve and maintain her fitness, but she also stays on the slightly cartoonish side, so when she moves into metaphors the goofiness works for what she wants to do. The shading on the book is marvelous – Bechdel and her wife, Holly, worked on the coloring together – as it has a beautiful watercolor look that adds a nice amount of nuance to the panels. There are several panels or double-page spreads where Bechdel goes minimalist, using black-and-white ink washes to create Japanese-esque tableaux of nature. They’re breathtaking, and they jolt us a bit as we’re reading (in a good way). Bechdel’s line work is very good, but not great, but her storytelling abilities are magnificent, and the entire book flows beautifully through the artwork.

This is a terrific book, and while I’m sure Bechdel has good comics left in her, this book is kind of a crowning achievement, bringing in elements from her first two books to create a new view of them, seen by Bechdel more clearly with her benefit of hindsight. It’s a wonderful critique of American culture, not one that is angry or bitter, but one that is thoughtful about what Americans believe and want (or want to believe). It’s an autobiography that links Bechdel to a larger tradition of creative people, and it allows us to examine our own creativity and our own desires for life and where they come from, which is always an interesting introspective turn to take. And if you do like it or don’t like it, I’m not going to question why that is, so that’s a bonus!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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