I’ve been a bit disheartened to see that this release wasn’t as buzzy as it should have been, considering it’s the first new graphic novel from Alison Bechdel (DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, FUN HOME) in almost a decade, but so it goes. Hopefully it’ll gain some traction, but I do fear that the subject material was ill-suited for a pre-post-pandemic time.
As you might expect, it’s another fantastic memoir from Bechdel, and visually far more vibrant than anything else she’s done so far. I balked a bit when I heard that, since I’ve always found her stark line work and muted use of colors to play towards the tone of her material, but Holly Rae Taylor’s minimalist watercolors never trample over Bechdel’s pens and, most certainly, emphasize the physical exertion Bechdel’s put herself through over the course of her life.
To summarize: THE SECRET TO SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH is about Bechdel’s lifelong obsessions, first and foremost exercise, but also work, writers, and her attempts to find a proper, healthy balance, one of which I think practically anyone can empathize with. (Personally, there were more than a few passages of her self-reflection that reminded me of the ways I’d try to exhaust myself pre-pandemic.)
Some of the material will naturally be familiar with you if you’ve read her prior memoirs, but very little of it feels like a retread. While the tale of her experience, and her examination of writers’ lives such as Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, and Dorothy Wordsworth make for compelling reading, what really drew me into this piece was how perfectly paced and managed it is. It’s a brilliant showcase that demonstrates how she’s evolved from someone who thought of herself as a ‘just a cartoonist’ to someone who not only knows how to write and visually tell a story, but also to do so in deeply multifaceted way. Her use of visual elements, be it with animals or simple background objects practically demands a re-read, but she also knows exactly when to throw in a callback to forty pages before in way that is leading, but not obvious, and twists it into more than just a callback.
I can’t neglect her sumi-e-esque splash pages, all of which are glorious and deviate from her traditional style, but are never superfluously thrown in to break up any ‘potential monotony’ of telling a paneled story.
It’s a tremendous accomplishment, one that I look forward to revisiting.
An aside: I received the book as part of a Chicago Humanities Festival incentive: pay X $$ and you get the book (via Chicago’s fantastic Seminary Co-op bookstores), plus access to a live virtual interview between her and artist (and friend) Nicole Eisenman. It was the most delightful piece of pandemic virtual media promotion I’ve seen. I could have listened to them talk for hours, and you can hear the same conversation via the link below:
One last thing, which might be a bit of a brag, but: Bechdel not only signed my pre-order copy, but also drew herself as a chickadee. If you read it, keep an eye out for chickadees.