The art of words and pictures

<strong>Fun Home: a family tragicomic</strong>

Alison Bechdel <em>Jonathan Cape, 232pp, £12.99</em

The memoir is now a staple of every self-respecting publishing list, though only rarely are these offerings up to much. The other day, however, I read a really good one. Fun Home is by an American writer, Alison Bechdel, and it tells the story of a childhood: of a girl who grows up in an inward-looking Pennsylvanian town called Beech Creek (population: 800), in a vast Victorian house with which her father - a distant and pernickety funeral director - appears to be deeply in love. The house features "astral lamps and girandoles and Hepplewhite suite chairs", which are not terribly common in places like Beech Creek. Alison can't understand it - or not at first. Then, slowly, she comes to see that restoring the house provides her father with a kind of release. For he is not just a lover of fine furniture; her father is also, secretly, a lover of boys.

Fun Home is fantastic: minutely observed and keenly nuanced. But it is also special for another reason. Bechdel is a graphic artist, and she has put down the story of her relationship with her father - who eventually throws himself under a truck - in strip form. Of course, memoirs have been done in this way before, notably Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, about growing up in post-revolutionary Iran. But in Fun Home, Bechdel appears to have moved into new territory. Her book, it seems to me, is genuinely genre-busting because, while her drawings are just as accomplished as those of a great graphic artist such as Robert Crumb, she has made her words count as much as her pictures. "Very few cartoonists can also write," said Sean Wilsey, in a rave review of Bechdel's book in the New York Times. "But Fun Home quietly succeeds in telling a story . . . through words that are equally revealing and well chosen." Or as Dan Franklin, Bechdel's publisher at Cape, puts it: "I think it is a breakthrough [for graphic storytelling]. The words are as good as the pictures, which is not always the case."

Fun Home is one of several graphic novels (for this, confusingly, is how the book is being marketed, even though it is a work of non-fiction) that are busy helping lay to rest the form's tired old image. Graphic novels always used to be thought of as geeky: written by geeks, read by geeks. The geeks in question had lank hair and fetid bedrooms, and probably liked listening to thrash. There were, I admit, always those who were willing to make the case for the graphic novel's greatness, but no one really listened. Yeah, right, I always used to think when my brother extolled its virtues. But we're still talking about comics, aren't we? Then things started to change. In the past few years, the graphic novel has crept out of the adolescent shadows and started to become not just more respectable (the biggest publisher of graphic novels in the UK is Cape, better known as the home of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan), but fashionable. Fans include Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby.

Why? How did this happen? After all, there have been brief bursts of enthusiasm before. In the mid-1980s, when Art Spiegelman's Maus was published to huge acclaim (Maus tells the story of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, a Polish Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice, and the Nazis as cats), a lot of fans thought this was it: graphic novels would now take their rightful place beside Amis and Austen on the shelves at Waterstone's. But it was a false dawn. Then, in 2001, the Guardian First Book Award was given, controversially, to Chris Ware for Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth, a tale of urban loneliness. This was significant: the award was proof - or evidence, at least - that a graphic novel could provide many, if not all, of the same things as a conventional novel. Who knows if this spurred others on, but thereafter more textured and complex graphic novels began appearing - and people like me (a non-geek, I think) started reading them.

Over the past year, I have devoured every graphic novel that has come my way. This has been deeply enjoyable. If there is a better book about the experience of living as a woman in an Islamic state than Persepolis, I have yet to find it (Persepolis also tells the casual reader everything he or she needs to know about the rise of modern Iran - and in just 153 pages). I also loved Black Hole by Charles Burns, a dystopian thriller set in 1970s Seattle, where the city's teenagers are stalked by a sexually transmitted plague. But Bechdel has surpassed them all. It is her voice that grabs: her wry detachment. It turns out that she is gay, too, and in Fun Home she sets her absent girliness against her father's missing butchness, a contrast that works especially well in the strip form. In one drawing, she is wearing a pinafore over a striped T-shirt. "Who cares if the necklines don't match?" she is saying, arms spread wide. "Yellow turtleneck. Now," says the bubble emerging from her father's mouth.

Nick Hornby is one of Bechdel's admirers. "I like it that you can have a satisfying literary experience in a couple of hours," he says. "And Fun Home is as satisfying a literary experience as you're likely to have this year. It's not possible, I think, for a graphic novel to be as patiently and complicatedly internal as the best fiction, but then, that's not possible for cinema, either. But the best graphic novels are punchy, immediately emotional, capable of sudden, surprising tonal shifts, and more likely to make you laugh than a lot of literary novels." Hornby isn't surprised that graphic novels are becoming more sophisticated, only that it took so long. "Many of us grew up reading comics - they taught me to read - so it's not surprising that a whole generation of people would want to use the form for more serious and ambitious writing and drawing."

But are they selling? Because it is only when they sell that they will really enter the mainstream. According to Dan Franklin, they do, even if Waterstone's et al are not entirely seduced just yet. For Franklin, the commercial light bulb first came on over his head in 1998, when Raymond Briggs's Ethel and Ernest landed on his desk. Briggs had always been published by a children's division, but when he delivered this book, about his parents' marriage, it was clear that it was actually for adults. "So I did it," says Franklin. "And it sold 120,000 copies, which rather focused my mind." In 2000, Franklin acquired Daniel Clowes's Ghost World, a graphic novel that became a film starring Thora Birch. "Two slutty girls who hang out in diners, and one of them's called Enid Coleslaw. I thought: this is my kind of book! Suddenly, it all made sense." He believes that graphic novels can make better commercial sense for a publisher than some overhyped first novel, because they can often be picked up for a relative song, and even the least popular of them will go on to sell at least 5,000 copies (this is a lot more than some first novels). Persepolis sold more than 10,000 copies in hardback, and 50 times that in the US.

But there are those who are yet to be convinced. "Some people don't know how to read them," Franklin says. "They get a headache." To counteract this problem, several books have come out offering advice - such as Graphic Novels: stories to change your life by Paul Gravett, who organises Comica, an annual celebration of the form at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He tries to dispel people's fears one by one. Hate the babble of speech balloons? Tune in to one at a time. Dislike the drawing? You just haven't read the right books. He points out that Satrapi, whose new novel, Chicken With Plums, is published next month (around the same time as the film of Persepolis wraps), did not come to comics until she was 25. "It's like opera," she has said. "You have to go a couple of times to appreciate it." Whether it's an acquired taste or not, Gravett remains convinced - and I agree with him - that this could be a kind of golden age for the graphic novel. He likes to quote Harvey Pekar, the author of American Splendor, who said: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." Or at least, very nearly anything.

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