Lesbian Graphic Novels: Fun Home and 12 Days

March 8th, 2007

I read both of these graphic novels this week and, as soon as I put down the second of the two, I knew that I absolutely had to review them together as a compare/contrast. So, I’m shaking out my old Comparative Literature Major for today’s review. It’s a bit dusty, let’s see how I do.

Both Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel and 12 Days, by June Kim are stories written by lesbians about lesbians that are not lesbian narratives, really, at all. Both stories are more properly seen as narratives of grief, of relationships and of missed opportunities for communication and closeness.

Alison Bechdel subtitled Fun Home a “Family Tragicomic” which suits it very well. It is indeed a graphic rendering of a family locked in tragedy, caught in moments from her life – and more importantly, from the life and death of her father. Alison tells her story through snatches of literature, photography, art, even her own diary from her childhood, in a series of repeated, but not repetitive looks at the relationships in her family and the relationship she had with her father, in particular.

12 Days is a story of a woman’s attempt to get over her grief for an ex-lover who has died. This process is complicated – and assisted – by the presence of her lover’s cousin, who brings her some of her her ex’s ashes, and stays around to escape his own issues with his family. Through Jackie and Nick’s reflections, we come to know a little bit, but not too much, about Noah, her life and her death.

Both books are executed exceptionally well. In Alison’s case, the limited use of color allows us to see the world almost as told through faded photos, while June’s black and white setting broken up only by the occasional use of gray, sets the whole thing off sharply, to good effect. In both cases, the art compliments the story exceedingly well. I’m almost tempted to say something tedious like, “one can’t imagine it being done any different” but you know really, one really can’t. ;-) Like Alison’s detailed art, her dialogue is rich, textured and flavored with quotes from many sources. June’s dialogue, like her art, is stark and limited.

Both of these stories center around a death. In both cases, the death itself is seen from several different angles through the course of non-linear narratives, and in both cases there is a surprising lack of anything like passion in the telling. Alison discusses *why* this is, the curious lack of affection and emotional connection in her family. In fact, the why of the lack of passion takes up a whole section within the book. In June’s case, I could *see* the emotion Jackie was feeling, but I found it hard to feel it myself. At the end of the book, I learned (because I really do read *everything* in a book, like the credits, the forewords, the introductions and, in this case, the dedications) that this was not June’s own story, but a story told to her by someone else. In her rendering of this story, it *feels* like it is someone else’s, someone over there. Not us. Them. Where Alison engaged me in her lack of passion, June failed to do so.

Fun Home is a book that is, from beginning to end, unremittingly intelligent. It is cloaked and festooned with references to literature and art and makes no allowances for those who have not read and/or seen – or at least heard of – these things. She compares her father to Oscar Wilde, to Proust, to Leopold Bloom and herself to Collette and Sylvia Beach and Stephen Daedalus. I cannot express how much this kind of intellectual burden makes me love a story. The hooks into myth, into early 20th century homosexual history and the art and literature it spawned practically gives me bookgasm. If Alison had asked, she couldn’t have found a better way to engage me in her story. I wonder how many people it put right off. ^_^

For 12 Days the hook is more heuristic, with the background told later, as an afterword. Jackie, deprived of her lover by miscommunication, by family pressure, by fate, perhaps, has decided to drink Noah’s ashes and thus “become a living urn” in order to put this behind her. We learn a lot about the circumstances of Noah and Jackie getting together, some of their life together, and much about Noah’s leaving to get married and her subsequent death – but we never really get to know either Noah, or Jackie, all that well. The only one we really manage to touch (and, I’m betting, the one character really created out of whole cloth by June) is Nick, the odd man out, the psychopomp for Jackie’s journey. Because I have not had an experience of my own to tie into Jackie’s feelings and give them depth, they simply lacked depth for me.

I didn’t not *enjoy* either book. But that is totally beside the point. They are both excellent and well worth reading. I feel enriched by having read them, an important benchmark for me and any literature.

To sum up:

June’s 12 Days was incredibly good, but I did not like it.

Alison’s Fun Home was incredibly good, and it simply doesn’t matter whether I liked it, or not.

Overall Ratings:

Fun Home – 10

12 Days – 9

I guess I can admit it now, I really don’t like Dykes to Watch Out For. Every single character failed my “would I have them over for lunch?” test, but Alison Bechdel and June Kim are welcome anytime.

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7 Responses

  1. Lee Kottner says:

    Oh man, I loved Fun Home. I couldn’t put it down. It was very much my definition of a good read: well-constructed story, engaging characters, grinding edges, even some pathos thrown in. Alison Bechdel is an excellent story teller, IMHO, even if one doesn’t like her characters (and there have been weeks, when I just wanted to bitch slap Mo, in DTWOF). But the fact that that invoke that strong a reaction, that you wouldn’t have lunch with them (I second that opinion), means they’re at least plausible. And most of all, I like her drawing style.

  2. Not true – they fail my test because I find them utterly boring. I have no reaction either way, really, except to say I don’t care for it. Certainly no strong reaction.

    They may be real, but they are exactly the kind of people which keep me avoiding the lesbian community at all costs. :-)

  3. Jude says:

    Fun Home was fabulous. And you’re right — it’s not a book to like, per se, but it’s excellent. I tore through it in an evening, and the wife went through it the next day. Apparently, a lot of people are agreeing with you; Bechdel has been going on book tours and getting nominated for a bunch of awards (and receiving some of them).

  4. Senbei says:

    Fun Home struck me as being fearlessly derivative. Although thoroughly enjoyable (her neurosis and brazen sexual self-exposure were enough to incite much nervous laughter), as a biography the events seem so detached as to be somehow contrived. It is as if Bechdel is being psycho-analyzed by a psychologist. She then cuts out the various sessions, throws them on a table, mixes them up and then tapes them back together as a biography. Where is the innocent recollections? How can someone have such a vivid memory of sights, sounds, smells, textures of events that took places decades beforehand and convey them so accurately while maintaining such impervious disassociation? Bechdel should be commended for her incredible skill at simultaneously conveying both cynicism and a complete lack of misanthropy. But… she certainly instills misanthropy… as well as destroys any desire one might ever have had toward procreation.

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