Alison Bechdel had forerunners. Roberta Gregory drew wordy, forthright, firm-lined feminist cartoon strips in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Howard Cruse, the editor of Gay Comix (in which Bechdel published), shared her treatment of the frame as a busy party to which all sorts of interesting misfits were invited. By the mid-’70s, even “Doonesbury” had introduced a gay character.
But for many readers of comics, “Dykes to Watch Out For” was something new. Here was a strip with a cast of lesbian and bisexual characters interacting in a manner that felt as casual and familiar as a soap opera. Lesbians, it seemed to say, were just like everybody else — except for the ways they weren’t.
Although it could be wryly funny, “Dykes” didn’t rely on punchlines or hard-sell its jokes. It was frank about the sex lives of its principals, but it was rarely racy. Other strip cartoonists experimented with the form; Bechdel (mostly) respected the rules and limits of realism. Dykes ran in alternative weeklies, but it always reminded me more of Lynn Johnston’s resolutely mainstream “For Better or for Worse” — another ironic slice-of-life strip that told a semi-autobiographical story in crowded, bustling panels — than the trippy, splashy, experimental stuff that was then printed in The Village Voice.
“Dykes to Watch Out For” — which premiered in 1983, took a breather in the late ’00s and has made occasional appearances since — is an anchor of “Self Confessed! The Intimately Inappropriate Comics of Alison Bechdel.” The show, which features more than 150 pieces, opened at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick on Sept. 1, and will run until Dec. 30. The curators treat the newspaper strips as they would a series of paintings or prints — they’re hung on the walls in a single straight horizontal line and given room to resonate.
We’ve seen this done to the work of other strip cartoonists. When it is, something important often gets lost: The sense of multiplicity, connectedness and confusion that comes from encountering a strip on a page crowded with other comics, print pieces, horoscopes, cryptograms, personal ads and all the rest of the detritus of modern culture. But because Bechdel’s work is linear and self-contained, and focused on her personal experience, the layout is appropriate. Attending this show feels just like walking through a book.
Books, as “Self Confessed!” makes clear, drive this artist’s life. There are the books that Mo, the protagonist of “Dykes,” sells at the feminist bookshop where she works. There are the books of theory and philosophy that are frequently referenced in the strips. Then there are the two landmark books Bechdel created in 2006 and 2012. “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy,” a surprise bestseller that engendered a Broadway musical, and “Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama” are graphic memoirs, and they play by all the rules of the memoir form, including fascination with the emotional reverberations of a difficult upbringing. Bechdel’s queer and closeted father and her equally repressed mother are afflicted by conventionality, their social roles in a small Central Pennsylvania town, and their own insecurities.
Bechdel’s escape from all this is only partially successful. The residue of these relationships is apparent in the pages of the books, which retain raw emotional power even when pulled out of context and hung on the wall. The panels from the graphic memoirs don’t speak to the viewer as plainly as the “Dykes” reprints do — how could they? — but they’re an expression of the same tortured, restless, profoundly ambivalent worldview.
The book pages are less utilitarian in design than those from “Dykes.” They take more creative chances, too. But they quiver with the same obsessive impulse to chronicle the author’s personal history, and in so doing, unravel some of the mysteries of identity that haunt her. Many of the “Dykes” strips wrangle with the role and responsibilities of the author in language that wouldn’t be out of place in a critical theory class. Bechdel dissects self-representation even as she represents herself, and worries that, by normalizing queer people in her strips and subjecting them to the quotidian, she’s stripped lesbianism of its transgressive anti-establishment power. To make “Fun Home,” Bechdel took hundreds of photographs of herself dressed as her parents and used these as her drafting models. Her turn on the psychiatrist’s couch in “Are You My Mother?” feels redundant: She’d been analyzing herself, in public, for years.
Art as therapy — a way of coping with trauma — is nothing new. But the meticulousness of Bechdel’s autobiographical writing, which is amplified by the layout of “Self Confessed!,” broke ground for an entire generation of slice-of-life cartoonists who share her sense of narrative pace, and maybe her sense of humor, too. The work of three other graphic memoirists are shown in the final gallery, but there are many other prominent writers whose debts to Bechdel are crashingly apparent; Lucy Knisley and Ariel Schrag, to give two of many examples. Lesbian awakening is no infrequent subject in modern comics, and Bechdel deserves much credit for altering audience expectations and opening minds.
More broadly, her diaristic approach helped convince cartoonists that it was permissible to turn inward. This is part of a larger trend that cuts across all media: The artist mesmerized before her reflection. As I walked through “Self Confessed!,” the show I kept thinking about had nothing to do with comics at all — I kept flashing back to the On Kawara exhibition hosted in the Guggenheim rotunda in 2015. Kawara painted the date, obsessively, every day, and his thick logs of where he’d been (“I Went”) and who he’d visited (“I Saw”) were presented alongside his canvases. He’d succeeded in making the dynamics of relentless self-examination part of the art. Bechdel has done something similar.
Perhaps because all of the personal archaeology is present in the strips and books, there’s not too much supplementary material in the show. A Bechdel completist may have seen most of the strips and pages already, albeit in very different contexts. A few process sketches are included, as are copies of her early books. One wall features some very large drawings that look like her small drawings blown up, and suggest only that scale isn’t important to what she does. There’s a video screen that plays an excerpt from the musical version of “Fun Home,” a model of the stage set, and supplementary comics exploring Bechdel’s reaction to a representation of her life based on a representation of her life based on photographic representations of memories of her life, and … yes, that’s quite a winding staircase.
If this is farther into Alison Bechdel’s psyche than you want to go, the final section of the show offers some relief. Bechdel chronicles her relocation to Vermont in a series of recent strips that make all the best elements of her work manifest: its honesty, its storytelling clarity and analytical intelligence, its embrace of detail and awareness of the passage of time, and its uneasy but fruitful union between images and text. One terrific strip — a highlight of the show — is a map of the state, complete with travel recommendations. This is autobiography, too, of a sort, but it’s got a wide scope, and it makes great use of Bechdel’s impulse to cover all corners of her personal experience. It’s a reminder that, while she’s been with us for a long time, there are still many miles to go in her journey. She’ll surely keep sending us dispatches.
“Self Confessed! The Intimately Inappropriate Comics of Alison Bechdel” runs through Dec. 30 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The museum has no admission charge. Visit zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
Bechdel will speak at Rutgers’ Kirkpatrick Chapel, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.