Inventing the Self

“Fun Home” and Personal Myths

October 7th, 2013 by John Giunta · 2 Comments

I think Bechdel really illustrates (puns) Macadams’ idea of the personal myth in Fun Home, establishing the literal Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus as a recurring theme throughout both Alison’s life and as an inherent framework for this autobiographical “tragicomic”. What struck me was how, and at such a basic level, other well-known texts infiltrate and contaminate this story, particularly Gatsby and Ulysses, and even these correspond with the Icarus myth (“Stephen Dedalus”, the idea of ‘flying too close to the sun’). I completely buy the idea behind personal mythmaking, and how this process becomes blurred between fact and fiction and fiction again. The first fiction is the subjective personal history constructed retroactively by the self, and while this is crucial to setting up a personal continuity that allows for decision making and future growth, the second fiction – actual, creative, fictional stories that exist outside of the personal experience (like Gatsby or Icarus) – can hold just as much sway over a personal mythology.

McCloud’s Understanding Comics is amazingly insightful as a piece of philosophy, looking at the interaction between storytelling and media and audiences even outside of the comic genre. While I hadn’t originally thought of using the McCloud as a lens, it’s obviously very helpful in any graphic analysis. His concept of “closure” is one that is particularly demonstrated in Bechdel, on multiple levels. The reader is forced to perform closure throughout the graphic novel, mediating the text and images and the action Bechdel is framing, making logical jumps during the gutter inbetween panels. “Closure”, as related to reader identification, also takes place, as the simpler, cartoon style allows a relationship between Alison’s characters and the reader to develop quicker and easier than it would if the drawing style took on a more realistic or nuanced approach. A kind of “meta-closure” also exists within the world of the story, as the characters identify with other historical figures, fictional characters, or periods/groups/movements (Ex: Mr. Bechdel and Fitzgerald/Gatsby, Alison and Woolf/Orlando/The Gay Community at college).

McCloud builds a mythos around comic books (and indeed, there is the notion of the superhero mythos) related to identification and closure and built upon this approachability combined with iconography. Alison’s illustrated characters win our sympathy through our process of closure; we fill these simple drawings with our own voices and ideas and experiences. Fun Home capitalizes on the preconceived set of comic book iconography, purposely eschewing the more traditional genre pieces of superheroes, action and adventure, or sci fi by utilizing the genre to instead tell an auto-biographical story definitely grounded in reality. Once again, there is something meta happening in Bechdel, as her characters form strong opinions and impressions and, what I’d argue are components of personal myths, around real-world icons of movies, novels, and writers, within the story. (Interestingly, Gatsby and Stephen Dedalus and Orlando and other popular novelistic characters are often described as “iconic” – even though I believe McCloud is specifically referring to images as icons, texts can become icons just as easily, and serve the same roles of touch-stones for identity)

This got kind of rambly – as these informal blog posts inevitably do – but I wanna slip into my Disability Lens (as I inevitably will) before I sign off. I thought it was interesting, and certainly relevant to the idea of the self as being governed by the environment, interaction with objects, and other selves, in the way Bechdel frames her childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (as well as her attitude towards family, and, to some extent, her homosexuality) in relation to her father. The family can be conceived of as both an external and an internal force working on Alison’s sense of self; she is a separate individual and yet her experience, her existence, is completely modulated through the family she grows to adulthood in. Alison’s girlhood obsession with ritual and numbers can be seen as an attempt to enact control, due to or in spite of her distant yet controlling father – we can see an argument form for the inception of mental compulsion by outside forces. Similarly, her relationship with her father is again implicated (although I’d argue this is meant to be complicated  and critical) when Alison comes out to her parents. The visible portions of the letter her mother writes stigmatize her homosexuality and quantify it as being caused by Mr. Bechdel; taking into account the history of social perception of homosexuality, Mrs. Bechdel equates Alison’s lesbian-ness with her earlier OCD, and ascribes them both to the father. The figure of the abused daughter as stigmatized/disabled victim and the stereotypical butch image are both powerful archetypes and both seem to be at play in Fun Home, and now that I’ve come full-circle to image and icon and their role in personal myths, I’m wondering what everyone else thinks?

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Shona Mari Sapphire // Oct 8th 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Response to John Guinta:
    I really appreciate your “Disability Studies” lens for the introspection it engenders, no matter the author or work we are looking at! In this construct it seems you employ disability also as a form of identity formulation. In her depiction of her development of self I did not observe the archetypes you mention, (or at least not as necessarily belonging to her). While some of the details of her story are emotionally painful, the theme of self-discovery and emergence of personhood, connected to childhood survived through a form of family solidarity seemed to preside over misfortune.

    Bechdel’s conception of selfhood seems to follow an evolutionary trajectory which she depicts through a consistent presence of multiplicity in personhood. Her use of graphic images often conveys distinct senses of self present concomitantly, intersecting with varying degrees of intensity or conflict. Her inchoate sense of sexuality beginning while an obsessive compulsive disorder takes hold; assertions of self in her journals overridden by alternate self-doubt resembled in yet other forms of obsessive behavior through invented symbols used to redact or occlude thoughts and feelings she has recorded on the page (143). Her bewilderment over the story of her parent’s volatile relationship, questioning her father’s sexuality and bearing witness to her mother’s revelations about her father’s past transgressions while Bechdel herself is experimenting and forming further realizations about her own sexuality.

    By interjecting variant levels of understanding of identity, selfhood and consciousness at intermittent moments throughout the story; using historical fragments that weave together linking forms of self from childhood with manifestations from more mature states, Bechdel conveys the manner in which the self is always shifting and re-inventing. Taking McAdams thinking, the Imagoes which embody her personal myth take on varying levels of intensity throughout her life.

  • Alessandro Mitrotti // Oct 9th 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I agree that McCloud’s Understanding Comics is amazingly insightful. I found his
    analysis incredibly informative, especially the part on panel composition (chapter 6) and the relationship between words and
    pictures. The book’s graphic presentation is both novel and apt, and I now better understood how such an approach
    might be taken with our research projects.

    In my opinion, Fun Home is a wonderful combination of memoir and graphic illustrations. The pictures add humor and irony that might otherwise be lost were the book only prose. Comics but nature are reductive, simplified representations; each panel is essence of a moment, an action, or idea, much detail is left out, and yet when coupled with literary allusions, and well-crafted narrative prose, still communicate profound and essential truths….

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