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Alison Bechdel discussion in Andersonville tonight

Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel talks comics, Jane Austen and the Bechdel Test

(Photo submitted by Elena…)
May 16, 2012|By Julia Borcherts, for RedEye

Alison Bechdel
Go: 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark St.
Tickets: Book purchase required ($22); companion ticket $7; 773-769-9299; womenandchildrenfirst.com

If you picked up an LGBT paper anytime from 1983 to 2008, chances are you've seen Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip. The influential serial about queer life was syndicated in 50 papers across the country for 25 years and introduced pop culture to the "Bechdel Test," designed to determine gender bias in films. In order for the movie to pass, it must feature at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

In 2006, Bechdel published her first graphic novel, "Fun Home," about the life and death of her father, a closeted gay man who operated a family-owned funeral home, and it became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new graphic novel, "Are You My Mother?" -- which chronicles the close-yet-distant relationship between Bechdel and her gifted mom -- was released May 1.

And what does her mother think of the book? You can ask Bechdel Wednesday night, when Women & Children First Bookstore hosts her at the Swedish American Museum for a multimedia reading and interactive discussion. We called Bechdel -- who's in Chicago through early June co-teaching a class at the University of Chicago this semester -- to catch up.

In the early '80s, cartoons and comic strips weren't the widely respected art form that they are today. So what made you decide to use them to tell your stories?

The fact that cartoons were not a high art form was why I chose cartoons in my youth. I felt really inhibited as an artist. I didn't feel like I could be a literary writer or a fine artist and comics for me was a way to express myself creatively without being judged. [Laughs.] It's kind of ironic to me that over the course of my career, comics have been let in to the respectable literary world -- and now comics are judged. I wouldn't have the nerve to become a cartoonist now if I weren't already.

Your stories contain a lot of literary references. Which writers do you feel influence your storytelling style?

Jane Austen, off the top of my head. I have always been a big Jane Austen freak but in my early 20s, I was just constantly reading one of those books or another. I haven't really styled myself after any writer; I've never thought of myself as a writer. I just thought she was very funny in that dry way. And very socially perceptive -- I guess that's interesting, too.

Which artists influenced your visual storytelling style?

There are a lot of different things that went into the hopper -- Mad Magazine, Edward Gorey, Herge's Tintin series, R. Crumb. Those are probably my big comics-drawing influences.

What are some of the movies you like that pass the Bechdel test?

The truth is, I don't really apply that test. [Laughs.] If I did, I would see very, very few movies. And probably a lot of my favorite movies actually wouldn't pass it.

Such as?

I don't know, like "Groundhog Day." [Laughs.] But there's that HBO series, "Girls," which I really, really love and that certainly passes with flying colors.

Which historical figure would you like to see on a reality show?

[Poet] May Sarton [laughs]. I think she had a pretty wild love life, especially in her youth. I'd love to hear more about it.

And your next book?

I wouldn't say I'm actively working on it. I have an idea for what I would like to do but I'm not really started on it yet. I just want to keep writing about my family, basically.

Julia Borcherts is a RedEye Special Contributor

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