A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

We can all agree that Fun Home is full of substance, super dense, packed with literary references, and concentrated into the compact form of a graphic novel. There is a depth and complexity to it that I can’t quite place; it’s as if there are aftershocks to reading this work. I can’t help but wonder if it would be same if Fun Home were written as a novel – solely with words. What would that be like? Would it add to or detract from what Bechdel is trying to communicate? In a broader sense, how does the medium affect what we take away from the art – if at all?

Taken from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, 1993

Compared to other comic artists, Bechdel’s drawings and layouts are rather clean and straightforward; there isn’t too much playing around with the placement of panels or “bleeds” – panels that run off the edges of the page to illustrate the effect of a silent and unresolved panel. At its “fanciest”, Bechdel incorporates handwritten letters, maps, and photos to add to her story. We know this steering away from usual comic art techniques is by choice because in an interview, Bechdel stated that, “It’s very important for me that people be able to read the images in the same kind of gradually unfolding way as they’re reading the text… I want pictures that you have to read, that you have to decode, that take time, that you can get lost in.” (Emmert, 2007) She forms a strong connection between the reading of words and the interpretation of images, treating her pictures as paragraphs that readers need to dig through before they unearth the messages. As much as I agree with the fact that the pictures of Fun Home, in combination with the text, did require more time to “decode”, I would argue that pictures lend a more direct line of communication that bypasses intellectual processing. Images elicit gut reactions and strong emotional charge whereas words tend to be colder or less relatable because they require more mental processing for meaning to emerge. Images appeal to the visual senses directly and intuition is enough to bring meaning even to the most abstract illustrations. That being said, the words in Fun Home are no less important than the pictures because they offer a rich supplement to Bechdel’s story, evoking the emotions associated with entire novels such as Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Anna Karenina, or the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

P00211Try squeezing more meaning into that bottom left panel. Fun Home, 2007

Perhaps herein lies the greatest power of the graphic novel: the capacity to deliver messages through the interplay or the intimate relationship between words and images. With images, the cartoonist is able to elicit emotional responses from the reader and with words, he/she is able to convey more intricate ideas or entire treasure-troves of meaning through allusions, metaphors, and other literary devices. If Fun Home were rewritten to be a novel, a large portion of the emotional impact from the images, maps, scenery, handwritten letters, and photos would be lost. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Aside from Bechdel’s impressive command of images and words to paint us a story, there remains the issue of queerness that permeates the novel on more than one level. There is the fact that both Bechdel and her father are queer, but if we broaden our definition of the word to encompass the idea of being “the other” or “unusual, out of alignment”, we can also see that the family dynamics and the idea of the tragicomic could be seen as queer. The word “queer” is related to the German quer, meaning “across, at right angles, diagonally or transverse” (thank-you Wikipedia and WordReference.com) and “queer” originally emerged in English to mean “strange or unusual”, meshing nicely with our previous discussions on being “against the grain”. If we remove for a second the sexualities of Bechdel and her father to focus on the family dynamics, we can see that the relationships between Bechdel, her father, and her mother may seem unusual to the audience. The father is engrossed in his own historical restorations and decorating the interior of their home, the mother in her thesis paper and acting, Bechdel in her own creative pursuits and journal writing. But what is normal if this seems queer? Could “normal” be defined as an imaginary and ever-changing concept based on what the majority of people are doing at a certain time? As Kristin from the blog everyoneisgay.com humorously points out, “If in the year 2011, two hundred million people are eating breaded chicken while watching American Idol, then that’s ‘normal.’  If in the year 2056, three hundred million people are eating rutabaga salads while practicing their macarena-salsa fusion dance mix…then that is normal.” In short, Bechdel’s depiction of her family straddles the blurry line between normal and queer that is hard to pin down – as if existing in two states at once as in wave-particle duality – because “normal”, much like gender, is a social construct and, to quote Dr. House from the eponymous TV show, overrated.

P00140

How does the tragicomic factor play into the queerness of this work? Much like how we perceive the family dynamics in Fun Home to be queer even with sexuality put side, the strange duality and complementarity of the tragic and the comic that weaves through the graphic novel is also “against the grain”. It puts the reader in an unusual and at times uncomfortable state in which they are not sure whether to laugh or cry because something that is devastatingly poignant is being illustrated in a humorous light. Bechdel “queers” her autobiography in ways that go beyond addressing sexuality by introducing aspects in the graphic novel that are “against the grain” in that they are not one or the other – they are ideas that are completely out of the ball park, or better yet in between ball parks. She brings to light the queerness of the grey areas that exist as part of the human condition. Personally, I find the connection between the comic and the tragic to be fascinating and oftentimes the complementarity is surreal. One example that takes the form of a movie is Submarine, a film that follows the development of a teenage heterosexual relationship amidst the parents’ divorce. The subject itself is hugely heterosexual, but the treatment of this back and forth between tragic and comic, normal and not normal, realism and surrealism scream-whispers queer. And this brings us back full circle to the inevitable and daunting question, “What makes a queer text/movie/artwork?”. Read our final exercises to find out?

– HSK

Appendix

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1 Comment

Filed under Week 9: Cherrie Moraga and Alison Bechdel

One response to “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

  1. I really agree! What struck me most about “Fun Home” was the instinctual, immediate emotional response that I had when “reading” (I’m not sure if “looking” or another active adjective would be more appropriate here) a panel, or noticing a visual or emotional connection in the narrative, that I very rarely experience when reading a prose-based novel. The instinctual emotional response that I experienced when reading “Fun Home” closely mirrored the reaction I sometimes experience during theatrical productions and/or movies, which leads me to really agree with your assertion that the visual nature of graphic novels have a greater capacity to communicate and elicit emotion than traditional prose. – LGT

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