"I very much like the constraint of cartooning," says Alison Bechdel.
Within the grids and tiny spaces for text that comprise a page of her latest book, Bechdel manages to shape a story that is emotionally rich and intellectually complex as it deepens what might otherwise seem a limited form of storytelling, the graphic novel. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel’s second graphic memoir, she explores the history of her relationship with her mother. And it’s a doozy.
Bechdel lets us into her life and her therapy sessions, in which she reads and examines the work of psychiatrists and pediatricians in pursuit of an understanding of her often cold and unforgiving mother, who abruptly stopped kissing her daughter goodnight at the age of 7. Bechdel’s father’s coming out and subsequent suicide was chronicled in her first memoir, Fun Home. The creation of that book is at the center of this one. In other words, it’s a bit of a hall of mirrors.
"I don’t want to write a memoir about writing a memoir about writing a memoir," Bechdel says, pondering the notion of what’s next.
Here, Bechdel takes Co.Create through the process of creating her latest visual masterwork.
"This is how I spend my life," the author says as she sits on a couch in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, waiting for a series of files to open on her Macbook Pro. "It’s pretty boring," she says, shrugging. "I mean, it’s so boring to sit and open the files."
And yet the result is anything but. Are You My Mother? is the product of six years of patient, or perhaps impatient, labor. Four years into writing the book, Bechdel had a draft that she completely threw out. "I had to start fresh because it wasn’t making any sense," she says.
Her process begins in Adobe Illustrator. "I write in Adobe on the computer," she says. "I’m sort of imagining how these pictures are going to be, or I do a little sketch on the computer and then I print that out and start sketching rough sketches."
Then she uses herself to bring it to life. "I pose for all the drawings," she explains, scrolling through photos on her laptop. "I use all of that information to refine sketches more and more. I do a final pencil sketch, ink that, scan it into Photoshop, color it in Photoshop, and then I do this shading with watered-down ink on a separate piece of paper and scan that into Photoshop, then I add the text."
And that’s pretty much the process, she says. "But there are so many more geeky layers of what has to happen after this that I can’t even tell you." She uses InDesign and Illustrator.
Bechdel estimates that she took about 4,000 photographs for this book, all of them in the house she shares with her partner in Vermont. "I have this great open living room. I will show you some of these. Hang on." She scrolls through a series of seemingly mundane photos. "I try to do a lot of different kinds of angles for the drawings in this book and so I’ll set the camera up in the loft and run downstairs before the timer goes off and do a pose."
She poses for pretty much every frame. "In one I’ll be my therapist and then I’ll run to the other chair and be me in therapy," says Bechdel, who doesn’t worry much about how exactly the picture is framed. "It’s mostly the pose I’m looking for." She pauses on a photo of herself, shot from a above; she’s crouching as if about to sit down. "This is what I do all day long. That’s me sitting down in a chair." Another shot. "I don’t know what that one’s about." And another. "Oh, I’m acting out a scene where my mother’s in a play—that’s me carrying flowers to her. I have all these props all over the place."
Sometimes she drags her girlfriend into the action. "That’s my girlfriend pretending to make spaghetti. I drag her, like, I asked her to pose with me for this toast." But usually it’s Bechdel posing as the skeleton for every character. "Mostly I’m alone and I’m doing this crazy reenactment. It’s crazy," she continues. "I mean, it’s kind of like in Being John Malkovich, when he goes through his own portal."
"The main thing that’s different [visually in this book] is the way I use color," Bechdel explains. "Both books are two-color printing processes—black and one colored ink. But this one is more complex because I use the color, the spot color and the ink wash overlaps it in different intensities. And so it makes a lot of different tones even though it’s just two colors."
In Fun Home, there was no spot color, just a gray layer that the publisher tinted green, creating a second color. "That was much simpler. This involved a whole other level of coloring in Photoshop. It was very laborious," Bechdel says of the process, for which she had assistance." I showed them what to color and then they would do it."
Bechdel’s picture-taking dates back at least to 1983, when she started writing and illustrating a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. The wry look at the lives of a group of urban lesbians ran in gay and lesbian newspapers across the country for 25 years. Bechdel modeled each character on Polaroids she took of herself. "I had to be very sparing," she recalls of the shots she’d take, which she still has, stored in shoeboxes, categorized by action: eating, reading, walking…. "I would only use the Polaroid when I had really complex poses that I needed to do."
Technology changed all of that. Digital photography gave her the ability to take countless shots, and to email the results. "I started doing Dykes in the 80’s, before there were any computers," she says. "I would draw it on paper with ink and copy it at the copy shop." Then she’d place each one in an envelope, stamp it and mail it to each newspaper individually.
"So I went through that whole technological evolution. I love technology but I try to only know as much as I need to to get by. It enables me to do really amazing stuff; it really helps my creative process." It hinders it too, though, she says. "Sometimes I feel like my writing process would maybe be better if were holding a pencil and drawing on paper. I spend a lot of time working on the computer—I’m always troubleshooting things and upgrading things. It’s a lot of work."
Readers of Bechdel’s work won’t be surprised to learn that she’s someone who’s hard on herself. "I really can’t write prose," she says, by way of explaining why she works in illustration. She wants to be able to say two or three things at once; at the end of every sentence, she explains, she can see four different places she wants to go but she doesn’t know how to achieve that in words. "I’m not a good enough writer to do that in prose. Some people can. But for me I need pictures. I need the juxtaposition of words and pictures so I can say a couple of things at once."
Bechdel does in fact say many things at once. Are You My Mother? manages to bring the past and present together. It’s almost like the way the public radio show Radio Lab has overlapping voices—Bechdel is expressing a way the brain works, which is hard to represent in straight-ahead prose. "I realized after monkeying around in all these little micro scenes for a long time that the way I was connecting my ideas was associative like you would do in a therapy session like. It’s not really narrative." It’s about connecting ideas and emotions.
That understanding led Bechdel to find the chronology of the book: "It was this period, in the process about writing Fun Home, the book about my dad, when I was telling my mother that I was going to be doing that, and showing her drafts and dealing with her reaction and it was very intense. And I was in therapy talking about all this stuff. And I was starting to read about psychoanalysis to find more about what was going on. And I had this series of really intense dreams that followed these various stages of interacting with my mom around writing this dad book."
So each chapter begins with a dream and they’re presented in chronological order. "And it outlines for me this kind of psychic confrontation with my mother, and my triumph. So, I realized that there is kind of simple story but intermingled with that is a very, very complex and involute story." Um, involute? Didn’t she just say she’s not good with words? Bechdel smiles. "Involute, that’s a new word I learned. It’s like this nautilus shell that curves in on itself."
Having done a memoir and, now, a memoir about writing a memoir, Bechdel has to decide how far she goes next. "I don’t know," she says, "I think that might really be pushing the whole memoir thing a little too far. It’s funny because this is what my life is. My life is writing about my life. So, if I’m writing about my life it’s going to be about writing about my life.
"But I joke with my girlfriend about this because I would have to get her to pose for me with some of these sex scenes with, like, 20-years-ago girlfriend, and she would say, 'Who are you going to have pose with you in a future book for me?' It’s a very weird activity."