BECHDELS BOOK Alison Bechdel’s latest book charts her decades as a fitness fanatic and the various pursuits she has taken up over the years. With many readers confined to home work-outs in the lockdown, perhaps they could take a cue from the comics legend and pick up a new pastime once restrictions allow. Four scenes from her latest book show such activities, should you need inspiration...



Bechdel’s wry scampering over the past 60 years of fitness trends—the memoir is struc- tured by decades—neatly, as she was born in 1960—and at one point we see Bechdel scut- tling up a rope above a gym full of people on treadmills, jazzercising, in spin class. “It’s a world gone mad,” her comics alter ego tells us. “Pacifists paying for boot camp! Feminists learning to pole dance! Geeks flipping tractor tires! And the trends keep coming…” Bechdel’s fitness damascene moment is revealed in The Secret… when she sees Jack LaLanne on TV. LaLanne was the one of the US’ first celebrit fitness gurus, and to describe him to a British audience, I would say he was a cross between Mr Motivator and Liberace: insanely fit, telegenic and, with revealing velour jumpsuits and slippered feet, more than a bit camp. “Oh, he was mesmeris- ing, wasn’t he?” Bechdel says of LaLanne. “As a litle kid, I just was so fascinated with him, especially his big, muscular arms. And that’s where the title comes from, my child- hood fixation with him and all the muscle- man ads on the back of my comic books.” Bechdel was not one for team sports, but throughout The Secret… she plunges deeply into vigorous exercise: downhill skiing, calis- thenics, karate, hiking, she’s an early adopter runner. But the book is less about athletics and more about how she uses it to try to find herself; a sort of very sweat A Portrait of the Artist. There are enjoyable asides about other authors using the physical to expand the mind, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s long treks, or Jack Kerouac’s mountain ascents.


Bechdel says: “I didn’t think I would write about Kerouac that much, as he is such a fraught character, a bit of a car crash of a life, and a lot of his books really only appeal to 14-year-old white boys. But maybe it’s the 14-year-old white boy in me. I mean, he’s very annoying, self-centred and privileged. And his whole idea of spontaneous writing and whatever came out was great—I’m very contemptuous of that. Or maybe jealous... I would love to have that much faith in my own creativit that whatever I wrote or drew off the cuff was genius. But his immense self-destructiveness interested me because another strand in the book is looking at my own tendencies toward self-sabotage, and how I didn’t end up like Kerouac.”

NEW YORK, NEW START Bechdel first started drawing comics profes- sionally shortly aſter she moved to New York fresh out of Oberlin College in the early 1980s, with the fortnightly Dykes to Watch Out For. The comic strip became hugely popular, and is an American touchstone as one of the first ongoing representations of the real-life lesbian experience in popular culture. (And yes, the famous Bechdel Test—a set of criteria about gender bias in films, TV and books—first appeared in the


strip.) Bechdel wrote the strip for 25 years, wrapping it up in 2008. One of the recurring themes in The Secret… is deadline stresses, which Bechdel categorically does not like. But does she miss the strip? She laughs:

“Well, I don’t miss constant deadlines, but I do miss the sense of accomplishment that I had of finishing a strip and sending it off every couple weeks. And I did miss it in the past four years of Trump. I missed being able to comment, as the strip was always a way for me to make sense of what was happening in the world. But I think it might have killed me if I had to do it through four years of the Trump administration’s shitshow.”


Fun Home’s massive success was spun off, almost improbably given the book’s diffi- cult undercurrents, into a successful Tony- winning Broadway musical. Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company has picked up the film rights, with the actor set to star as Bechdel’s father. A few years ago, Bechdel was given a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the $625,000 annual prize awarded to top artists. Is she now mainstream? She says: “When Fun Home got turned into a musical, I hadn’t quite grasped what musicals really meant and how mainstream of a medium they are. The story has reached a much broader audience than any of my work ever had. That makes me happy, and I’m glad for it. But I’m still in the adjustment phase. My identit was formed as an outsider. So it’s very strange to suddenly find yourself an insider.”

Does that represent a broader acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in general? “I don’t know... queerness [aſter Trump] feels much more imperilled. It’s also true that, in general, atitudes have shiſted. But then I realise my privilege, that I have the luxury of living in my own litle universe. With the strip, being queer used to be my job—but when I look back it was really about trying to make room for myself in the world. Thirt years ago, I probably couldn’t have writen a book about my exercise fetish because my queerness would have been seen first. And that maybe is the biggest thing the LGBTQ+ movement has done over the past few decades: made it so queer people can just be ‘normal.’”

The Secret to Superhuman Strength (9780224101905, £16.99) will be published by Jonathan Cape on 6th May

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