On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her newest graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength. They discussed how she pushes herself to her creative limits, the research rabbit holes she goes down for her books, and why she chose to work with two different drawing styles for her new book. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: You have very effectively made your life your subject. Yet, I was really aware, The Secret To Superhuman Strength is an intensely structured book—the timeline of the book, the way you bring people and places back into the story. The control that you have over it is really masterfully done. But you’re also telling a story from your own life, and you have to have a satisfying ending. It’s lucky that you had this wonderful realization at the end so you had this nice conclusion. Can you talk about how you deal with figuring out how to end a book when you’re telling a true story, but it’s from your own life, and the end of the book is not also the end of your life. That must be really hard.
Alison Bechdel: It is hard. What I love about trying to make stories out of the real material of my life is that challenge. It’s this endlessly absorbing puzzle to find a narrative there, and the hardest part of any narrative I think is always the ending.
I would struggle with the endings to my 10-panel comic strips, because endings are always at some level about not just finality, but really the ultimate finality about death, about being done with a thing. That’s hard. You want to go out on a good note. This book was set up in such a way that it had to end at the end of my 59th year, because each chapter is about a decade of my life, beginning with my birth in 1960. I was born in that nice round-numbered year, and it enables me to break the book down by decade like that. But this book was taking me a long time, as all my books do. I finally realized, it’s a good thing it’s taking me a long time, because it needs to run through the 2010s.
I had a different ending. I had finished the writing in the spring of 2020, just before everything went crazy—before the pandemic, before the election, before the whole campaign season. As I was working on the book, the outside world was going through these spasms—the George Floyd protests, the world was just in an upheaval while I was quietly at my little monk’s drawing board trying to put this thing all down on paper. I didn’t actually get to the end of the drawing until November, until the throes of the election. I felt like I can’t end the book until I know what happens. It was really when Biden was finally acknowledged as the winner that I was able to end this thing. So there were different false endings up to that point.
Has writing these graphic memoirs gotten easier with practice?
No. To me, these books all feel impossible at the outset, which is why I want to do them. I’m trying to figure something out. If I already had it figured out, there’d be no point in doing the book.
Throughout the book, there are references to obsolete technology. I wonder how different the process of creating this book was from, say, the early Dykes to Watch Out For books or even Fun Home?
When I got started in the ’80s doing Dykes to Watch Out For, it was a completely pre-digital universe. I was working in these very simple black-and-white line art drawings that I would take to the copy shop and mail in envelopes with stamps to newspapers across the country. Everything was so physical, so much about different kinds of paper. (I’m getting nostalgic about it.) There was something simple and pure about it. But I got very excited about technology as soon as it came along. I loved being able to manipulate stuff in Photoshop. I’ve never gotten into drawing on the screen. I don’t like that. I’d rather draw on actual paper. But I now write in Adobe Illustrator. I’m writing on the computer in a drawing program, and I use a lot of technology, which makes my work simpler in some ways and much more complex in others.
On the last page of the new book, in the acknowledgements, you mentioned some exercises that [your partner] Holly Rae Taylor came up with to jumpstart creativity. Are there any of those that you can share for any listeners who may need some help when they’re not really getting inspired?
Actually, June, one of these is your doing. Holly and I started keeping a joint bullet journal, which is something you introduced me to. We just did it to keep track of our life. Every Sunday, we’d sit down and plan out our week together. Gradually, she started telling me things to draw for that week. At first, I was very resistant to this, and I didn’t like her ideas, and I didn’t like being forced to draw when I didn’t feel like drawing. But I always found that I would end up making a drawing that I never would have thought of on my own, and that was actually fun. So we started keeping this diary of weekly drawings that I would do.
It happened at a point when I was really not drawing. I was writing this book but not engaged in the drawing. I was getting really rusty at drawing and more and more anxious that I wasn’t going to be able to draw when I really had to. So it was a way to get my hand moving and to get back in the flow of drawing. That was really helpful.