Intimacies in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: The Case of Joan

Posted by Janine Utell on 17 Oct, 2011

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is often cited as an example of the particularly "literary" nature and potential of graphic narrative, for two reasons. First, it is itself hyperliterary and intertextual, drawing on and alluding to James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, as well as classic writers of lesbian and feminist literature like Colette, Kate Millett, and Radclyffe Hall. Second, it is not only a finely done memoir; it is, as Monica Pearl (2008) points out, a rare example of a coming-out narrative in "autography," to use Gillian Whitlock's term (2006).

The connection between the lesbian daughter and the closeted father Bruce (who probably committed suicide by getting himself hit by a Sunbeam bread truck) is the core of the book, with mother and two brothers serving as relatively minor characters. Yet for all the attention paid to the specifically queer nature of Bechdel's story and its radical intervention into graphic narrative (Pearl, 2008; Watson, 2008), as well as its standing as a memoir of coming out, readers have honed in--for the most part and rightfully so--on the relationship between Alison and her father (note: I'm following the convention of referring to Bechdel as the author and Alison as the character/narrator). On the other hand, the woman who initiates Alison into a romantic and erotic relationship, who also helps to re-integrate Alison into her own family after coming out, remains an underexamined minor character: Joan, the light-haired bespectacled college girlfriend.

The first time we see Joan, she appears in one of four panels in Chapter 2, "A Happy Death," depicting the immediate aftermath of the phone call to Alison informing her of the accident involving her father. Joan's face is obscured by Alison's head as she holds her, and is then revealed in the next, larger panel which depicts a scene slightly forward in time: Alison's arrival home for the funeral, Joan in tow to help. The narrative attached to the panel which shows Joan comforting Alison explains, "As I told my girlfriend what had happened, I cried quite genuinely for about two minutes" (Bechdel, 2006: 46). "Girlfriend" is used in its first instance here, leaving no doubt about the relationship and signifying an erotic life outside the family. A text box is superimposed over the image of the two women holding each other in grief: "That was all" (Bechdel, 2006: 46). The ambiguity of the text points to the intimacy of the relationship. It means that was all the crying Alison did over her father's death, but it also means that in that moment, Joan was all in all to Alison: she was all that was required.

An extended sequence with Joan next appears in Chapter 3, "That Old Catastrophe," which comes from the poem "Sunday Morning" by Wallace Stevens. "That Old Catastrophe" focuses on Alison's coming out, her mother Helen's initial negative reaction, flashbacks to the first years of the Bechdels' marriage, and the revelation by Helen to Alison of Bruce's homosexuality.  The "old catastrophe" is the daughter playing out the tragedy of the father, in Helen's mind: a disastrous overturning then unravelling. In order to illustrate the ways Joan makes visible the catastrophe, and then resolves it through her role as a conduit of both erotic and family intimacy, I have chosen the two panels that frame the episode in which Helen offers one of Bruce's books to Joan after he has died. In gratitude for Joan's help, Helen invites her to choose a book from Bruce's library; the younger woman selects a collection of poems by Wallace Stevens, then Helen reads the first section of "Sunday Morning" aloud.

The two pages immediately preceding the two I am focusing on show Alison and Joan naked and entwined in bed. They are reading, in addition to Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly, The World of Pooh and James and the Giant Peach. Shared reading forms a bond between them, especially the sexually and ideologically inflected reading practices where "in the harsh light of my dawning feminism, everything looked different" (Bechdel, 2006: 80-81). Robyn Warhol has highlighted the importance of embodiment for Bechdel, as depictions of the body stand in for what might be unnarratable (Warhol, 2011: 10): here, lesbian desire before it is incorporated into the narrative of the family. Images of legs and feet, drawn with graceful lines, are especially important in this series of panels.  Maud Ellmann made the point in her recent keynote for the annual Modernist Studies Association conference that feet often signify debasement or the lower elements of the body in modernist literature and art; here it would seem to be quite the opposite, as feet are objects of beauty, signifying intimacy and private encounter.

In the first panel of the sequence I'm focusing on, the image of legs and feet is repeated: Alison is sitting at her father's desk in his library with her feet propped up and crossed at the ankles.

Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 82)

Her casual pose is at odds with the overdecorated study, and her body stakes a claim, one she could not have had while her father was alive. The image of her legs recalls a few moments prior: we have just seen the author-narrator naked in bed with her lover, and the prominence and sensuousness of the legs draws us back into that intimate moment, as well as Alison's newly-found power. Joan and Alison's erotic intimacy is thus made visible in the family home.

Now, however, Alison's mother is present in their intimate space, altering it. The library becomes a site for women's intimacy, and Helen's gesturing towards Joan shifts the valance away from the erotic and toward the familial. In fact, it is Alison who is tucked away in the corner of the panel, in the lower left-hand corner, her face only slightly visible in profile. Her legs, joined with Joan's earlier, now create a line up from the corner towards Joan and Helen; the toes point slightly at Helen, making a bridge in the gap between the two other women. Joan and Helen look at each other, and are gazed upon by Alison, all three brought together. The "stuff" of the room--the cockatoo painting (a visual gesture towards Stevens' poem), the lamp on the right-hand side of the panel subsumed by Alison's narrative text box the same way Helen's will begins to subsume "that old catastrophe" of Bruce's plot--serves to heighten the sense of enclosure, encircling the women.

Just as reading together brought Joan and Alison closer, so does poetry here facilitate the intimacy generated by bringing Joan into the family. Yet Bechdel only gives the first stanza of "Sunday Morning." The second includes the line: "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?". Perhaps the answer is implicit in the second panel under consideration:  Helen is now free to give her bounty elsewhere.

Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 83)

Alison-narrator's comment on the panel highlights the "juxtaposition of catastrophe with a plush domestic interior": Helen's face is resigned and determined as she leaves the overstuffed study. Joan and Alison-character are framed by the doorway, separated from Helen as she heads off-stage; they look slightly cartoonish next to the older woman. The women's eyes no longer meet, the younger women now watching as the older departs; they themselves seem separate from each other. Helen's catastrophe is foregrounded, as her face is foregrounded in the panel, and the girls' erotic relationship, and any family difficulty it might have caused, is relegated to background.

However, Joan is part of the room Helen is leaving, and she has been brought into the Bechdels' world. Helen gives her bounty not to the dead, but to Joan in the form of the book, a gift that prompts Joan to write her own poem about the experience. It is the crafting of a text that can be part of the mosaic of Fun Home, a filling in of another piece through words and careful reading, that permits Joan a share in the intimacies of the family and its members.



NOTE: Thank you to my colleagues at the 2011 Project Narrative Summer Institute for introducing me to Fun Home, and for good ideas about minor characters; and thank you to Daniel Robinson for technical assistance.



Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin)

Pearl, M.  (2008) "Graphic Language: Redrawing the Family (Romance) in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home," Prose Studies 30, 3 (London, Taylor & Francis, 286-304)

Warhol, R. (2011) "The Space Between: A Narrative Approach to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home," College Literature 38, 3 (Pennsylvania, West Chester University, 1-20)

Watson, J.  (2008)  "Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home," Biography 31, 3 (Honolulu, University of Hawai'i, 27-58)

Whitlock, G.  (2006).  "Autographics: The Seeing 'I' of the Comics", Modern Fiction Studies 52,4 (West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue University, 965-979)



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