By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
You’re probably familiar with “Fun Home” from the Broadway Musical that took the world by storm last year. But the musical’s origins—the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”—is just as critically acclaimed. A New York Times best-seller and a National Critics Circle Award, Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical comic has become an unconventional, controversial, and unexpected classic.
One of the first thoughts I had while reading through the graphic novel for the last time was “How do they make this into a musical?” With no exposure to the musical, the thought of turning this into a song and dance affair left me baffled (allegedly, Bechdel was as well when original pitched the premise). “Fun Home” is centered around the funeral of Bechdel’s father who, shortly after Alison came out as a lesbian, was hit by a truck while crossing the road. Before he met his end, he revealed that he was a closeted homosexual who had been having affairs for years, and Alison expects that the ‘accidental’ truck incident wasn’t an accident. The book details moments of her childhood, dealing with her father’s obsessive restoration efforts as well as his work at a mortician, as well as her time in college, coming to terms with her sexuality.
If that sounds heavy, yes. Yes it is. But one of the comic’s strongest suits is being able to tackle that kind of massive, decade-spanning drama with a seemingly impossible blend of objectiveness and personal weight. Jumping between eras and moments, at times the narrator feels like an omniscient, emotionless watcher, noting the various moments of her life from a distance. But at other times, she tries to make sense of where her dad and she stood and if who they were crossed paths. The juggling huge revelations like recounting the letter she sent to her parents while coming out to the simples of her father and her playing piano together, “Fun Home” captures the most dramatic and intimate moments with equal weight.
I have since listened to the musical and I believe that this is one of the stage version’s strongest suits. The musical uses the framing device of Bechdel writing the comic, trying to make sense of her life, and while not finding many definitive answers, finding a broad, rich picture.
And the term ‘picture’ is quite literal, as Bechdel recreated family photos and poses to help draw much of the artwork. Seeing the photos next to the drawings is almost ghostly at times, but creates incredible results: each frame is striking, simple, and brilliantly lived-in. The choice details become much more vivid thanks to the minimalist design. The panels find a perfect blend between photographs and memories, everything posed perfectly and the most important details remembered. The best example of this in the Musical is the song “Keys,” recreating a defining moment from the comic where Bechdel is in awe of a women in particularly masculine clothes by focusing on the large key ring she had on her belt. Such a tiny detail is a testament to both the precise, vivid imagery of Bechdel and the inspired work of the musical team.
That sense of detail applies to the events as well. Covering three different eras, Bechdel takes the time to fill the pages with little moments and details. Things like diary entries, televisions playing in the background, literary allusions are all fit into the narrative perfectly, giving the world a richness and realness few comics have (It also provided me with the great quote “George Washington didn’t have a Watergate. Think about it).
Perhaps “Fun Home’s” biggest achievement is realizing it’s medium’s fullest potential, both on stage and in print. The graphic novel effortless glides from picture to narration, balancing the two perfectly to capture the story at every moment. And the stage show embraces the more stage-friendly drama of the source material, making its song choices more meaningful.
On both sides, “Fun Home” feels real. In trying to create a visual representation of her life, Bechdel makes something utterly human. The revelations, the dysfunction, the quiet moments of respect and happiness, the strange little incidental moments. While she will no doubt have countless more success, Fun Home may always be Bechdel’s iconic work, not only for being the most personal, but, despite it being such an unorthodox family story, the most universal.