I’ve been a fan of Alison Bechdel since the early 1990s, when she was writing a weekly niche queer comic called Dykes to Watch Out For long before the Bechdel test and the phenomenal mainstream success of Fun Home, her graphic memoir that became a heart-wrenching musical.
“Fan” isn’t even the right kind of word, really — I feel a strange intimacy with Bechdel for someone I’ve seen read in person once but otherwise have no actual relationship with. I don’t have this kind of “parasocial” connection to too many public figures — but Bechdel is one of the few people whose life tracks feel so aligned with mine, who reflects my lived experience of self in ways I rarely see in public space.
When I spread out my treasured original paperbacks of Dykes to Watch Out For, the chronicles of a crew of queer and lefty folks in a tofu, granola, make-your-own-family world of the 1990s, I see my own queer history and yearning for visibility, community, acceptance in narrative form. These books were carefully hoarded from the time when queer/feminist bookstores were rare, semi-hidden affirming oases.
When I was in my first serious relationship with a woman, I saw my own coming out angst mediated through the relationship between Harriet and her family. In Bechdel’s sly capturing of the “look” of mid-90s queers, I saw a community where the haircuts, male-of-centre clothing and sharp eyeglasses of my tight little breakfast club were the norm. When the DTWOF gang ventured into the world of procreation, and of women’s bathhouses and polyamory, of genderqueer identities, it paralleled my world. When same sex marriage became a possibility, I grappled with the same paradoxes of mainstream acceptance and subsequent scrutiny on my relationships as Sydney proposing to Mo with “Will you do me the honor of paradoxically reinscribing and destabilizing hegemonic discourse with me?” DTWOF was the our pop cultural touchstone, a tracing of the evolution of queer culture as nothing else did. The comic faded out as queer culture became more mainstream, feminist bookstores disappeared and the treasured little pockets of carefully curated affirmation got woven into greater openness — but that imagined world was always a mirror realm where I both saw myself reflected back and could aspire to the confidence of a fleshed out community where queerness was taken for granted and people had language I hadn’t stumbled across yet.
In that fading, Bechdel also produced work that had more mainstream resonance in her graphic memoirs Fun Home (about her relationship with her father) and Are You my Mother (about her mom). Her success with these felt like my own sibling was being recognized in the ways I’d always hoped for — and her re-telling of her life in relation to identity, to family, to gender, to sexuality, to community, to wanting more for the world — opened up new spaces for me. So when I heard she had a new book, I ordered it without even looking at what it was about.
And lo and behold, The Secret to Superhuman Strength is about Alison’s relationship to her body, to movement, to fitness. It’s like I dreamed this book into being.
Like her earlier memoirs, this is a telling of Bechdel’s life, a literal trek through running and skiing as an adolescent, karate in her early 20s, hiking, yoga, cycling, more skiing — a bulging gear shed of four decades of changing culture AND Bechdel’s own grappling with her understanding of self as she experiences her body. Bechdel’s unique gift is her ability to depict a deeply familiar experience in “comic” image form while scraping four layers off the skin to reveal the sheer human emotion, existential questioning and revelation underneath– and then interpolating a philosophical inner dialogue with other voices. In Superhuman Strength, as she experiences and inhabits her body differently over her life, she — in true Bechdel form — also ponders romantic poets and transcendentalists like Wordsworth, Emerson, Coleridge and Margaret Fuller, Fuller’s descendent Buckminster Fuller, and Jack Kerouac.
On one hand, Superhuman Strength is an illustrated, accessible treatise of a lifelong ontological journey to understand the transcendence of movement, the eternal question of the interplay of body, mind and spirit. It’s a clever depiction of queer life in North America over the past 50 years, a where’s waldo of lesbian tropes and nostalgic recognition of moments where bare breasts at a womyn’s music festival were giddy and freeing, a reminder that the quest for a more progressive, interdependent, accountable world have been woven through our culture for a long, fatiguing amount of time. It’s a funny telling of how our culture has successively and obsessively grasped at different forms of exercise, movement and promises of spiritual enlightenment. And it’s one person’s gloriously, lovingly told life story, a fundamental grappling with meaning, with belonging, with presence, an unexpected, perfect additional melodic line in Bechdel’s life work.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who practically crowed picking up this book. Buy it from your local independent bookstore, like she did!