It’s been more than a year since Alison Bechdel and Hillary Chute publicly convened at 2012’s momentous Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference, an event personally significant to both Chute and Bechdel due in part to their collaborative efforts in originating the influential assemblage along with their own partnership in teaching a University of Chicago course titled “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.” Since then, Bechdel’s ARE YOU MY MOTHER? has gone on to amass an endless expanse of recognition, her previous book FUN HOME: A FAMILY TRAGICOMIC has been adapted into a musical, and her own name was compounded into its own definitive stamp to gauge the active presence of female characters in film—the Bechdel Test, having most recently been adopted as a movie rating system in Sweden. Accordingly, it was a celebrated occasion when Chute and Bechdel reconvened for an illuminating lecture at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. During their discussion, the pair touched on everything from chronicling the history and thought processes of the different forms of their work to divulging the current and future states of their individual and shared endeavors.
Chute initiated the night’s discussion by inquiring into Bechdel’s thoughts about her graphic memoir, FUN HOME’s, newest and unexpected re-imagination as a musical, which opened in October at the Public Theater in New York with enough praise from critics and theatergoers to extend the show’s run till December 29. Feasibly one of the first graphic novels, let alone comic work, to be refashioned as a staged musical, Bechdel surprisingly let the production team of writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori conceptualize their own original reworking of FUN HOME, Bechdul’s input stemming more in sharing her states of creative process for the graphic narrative, her personal wordblog, and elaborating on the struggle she faced in representation of her family. Bechdel expressed an appreciation in the musical’s ability to focus on minute, visual details and skillfully insert such moments in a way that established a theatrical analogy complementary to the memoir’s expansive and ornate narrative. The pair then debated if and how the musical is responsive to the comics form, commenting on the use of ‘CAPTION’ to capture a standstill juncture where the character Alison draws or writes in her journal, as well as how the play attempts to re-enact three stages of Alison’s life through performing her memories on stage. Although the inclusion of ‘CAPTION’ is arguably accurate, Chute commented on the need for a margin of flexibility in terms of adapting two very different mediums, and thus the play excels at bringing attention to the process of making comics as a defined plot point through a formally interesting approach. By not persisting as an identical mirror to the graphic novel, the musical is fully-realized as a piece of theater, incorporating little use of Bechdel’s drawings throughout the play, until a very pivotal moment where a drawing of Alison playing airplane with her father is projected at the very end—a touching and sentimental ending that links both works seamlessly.
Continuing the conversation on the many varied forms of Bechdel’s work, Chute brought up the New York Times Book Review of March 2009, in which Bechdel composed the first book review in comic book format. Bechdel admitted the struggle of formatting a comic review in the span of a single page for a number of reasons. The first being that by nature, comics like to sprawl and thusly becomes difficult to condense in a defined space, making the project even more laborious and spanning two weeks to complete. Chute likened the often unacknowledged, arduous process of creating comics to a phrase Scott McCloud coined in an interview, “secret labor in the aesthetic diaspora.” She affirmed that readers often are unaware of all the sketches and panels that get edited out, that creating comics is a diligent art of distillation and condensation. Bechdel also had to decipher how to pictorially imagine characters without a visual aid, and given that the review was on an intense, personal memoir that shared a story much like her own, Jane Vandenburgh’s “A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century,” Bechdel undertook a tricky experiment of representation that risked displeasing its author. Thankfully, Bechdel received a response of gratitude from Vandenburgh, yet went on to express that while the task was a fun venture, she’d pass on doing another review in comics form.
Bechdel then turned to questioning Chute, echoing a topic informed through their collaborative course at the University of Chicago, of whether or not comics incline to documentary. Chute shared her most current book project, where she analyzes the debates surrounding forms of documentary today, which recognize filmic, photographic, and digital means, but offer little concern with drawing and what it means to draw something. Chute wants to expound upon the overarching resistance to the drawn as being truth and accurate, seeing how writing is a system of communication in much the same way as drawing, yet people rarely take issue with prose journalism and nonfiction. Her newest book tackles the notion of the comic line as an index of the body, and therefore acts as a form of witness. Relating it back to Bechdel’s FUN HOME, Chute remarked how Bechdel is bearing witness to her father’s life by creating a story of his life and death. Chute also revealed the cover for her book, OUTSIDE THE BOX, aimed for release in the spring of 2014, a collection of interviews conducted with twelve accomplished artists. The never before seen cover features Ivan Brunetti’s drawings of each of the subjects, a bright mishmash of the cartoonists as miniature caricatures, a lively and cheerful cover quite different from GRAPHIC WOMEN.
Chute’s and Bechdel’s partnership is rooted in an acute, shared friendship as well as a respect for each of their specialized expertise. They both exhibit an insightful awareness of the work they engage in, and consequently their collaborative works are immersed in the intellectual discussion of the ways in which we understand the field of graphic narrative, from the perspective of both theorist and creator. Besides the Critical Inquiry conference and their autobiography course, the pair have also worked together in curating an art exhibit, “Fevered Archives: 30 Years of Comics From the Not-So-Mixed-Up Files of Alison Bechdel” (another testament to their friendship is the pun the title of the show takes on: mixing Derrida’s “Archive Fever” with “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”) which featured a collage of art projects, one in particular was a display of Bechdel’s handwriting alongside that of her mother and father, encapsulating the emotional intimacy so vibrant in her work and showcasing Bechdel’s unusual and labyrinthine mapping of artistic process. Chute finally unveiled their most recent cooperative project: the 2014 issue of Critical Inquiry ‘Comics & Media.’ Showcasing not only a rejected New Yorker cover by R. Crumb, the issue aims to present a unique revamping of the academic object, and marks the first time Chute undertakes creating an original artwork of her own. Inspired by Kate Beaton’s HARK A VAGRANT! Gorey covers, Bechdel and Chute worked together to birth “Bartheses: Barthesian Doubt Edition” (a hilarious conversion of classic Barthes works such as Mythologies and Image,Music,Text).
Altogether a high-spirited and articulate discussion, Bechdel and Chute continue to expand the field of graphic narrative, be it individually and collaboratively, taking grip on the multiplicities of innovation as the platform to establish the complex nature of comics and comic theory.