5 Things To Know About Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, Winner Of A MacArthur “Genius” Grant

There are plenty of people in the world who get nice things that they don’t (IMHO) deserve. So it’s especially nice when someone completely and utterly deserving is recognized for their greatness. I felt all the warm and fuzzies this morning when I heard on the news that the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel is a 2014 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” one of the world’s most prestigious prizes. Bechdel draws the popular LGBTQ comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For and is the author/illustrator of the memoirs Are You My Mother? and Fun Home, the latter of which is one of the most esteemed books in the graphic novel genre (and a favorite of mine).

As a winner of the “Genius Grant,” which is awarded to between 20 and 40 individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work,” Bechdel will receive upwards of $625,000 paid out over five years. The intention is for winners to use the prize money to continue doing their good work. Past winners have included people like “The Wire” creator David Simon, authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adihie, Junot Diaz and Edwidge Dandicat, and critic Susan Sontag.

After the jump, here are five things to know about Alison Bechdel, her cartoons and her important mark on pop culture!

1. Alison Bechdel grew up in Pennsylvania, attended Simon’s Rock of Bard and then Oberlin College. She came out as a lesbian at 19. These days, Bechdel lives in Vermont and works as a professor at large at University of Vermont.

2. As she explains on her web site, Bechdel originally began the comic by drawing doodles in letters to one of her friends in 1983; she ended up drawing the strip for 25 years. Often referred to as a “lesbian soap opera,” Dykes followed a cast of lesbians and their friends throughout their real life adventures in an unnamed American city, covering everything from friendships and sex to careers and children. Bechdel self-syndicated the strip in over 50 feminist and alternative newspapers and has published book collections of the strips. She was able to quit her day job and do the comics full time in 1990.

3. Both of her graphic novel memoirs have been hugely popular. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic explored her relationship with her late father, an English teacher, director of the town funeral home, and a closeted bisexual man. He dies while Alison is in college, possibly from a suicide. When several colleges included Fun Home on their new student orientation reading list, conservative politicians in the state became so apoplectic that they moved to cut funding from the school’s budgets. Fun Home was also turned into a Broadway show opening in April, which the cast performed down in South Carolina following the summer reading fracas.

4. Bechdel’s other graphic novel memoir, Are You My Mother?, explored her relationship with her mother, who was married to the author’s closeted gay father. While Fun Home was more narrative driven, Mother is weightier, with sub-plots about psychology and classic literature.

5. If you aren’t familiar with Dykes or any of her books, then surely you’ve heard of the “Bechdel test”? The Bechdel Test is a reference to a 1985 comic in which a character says she will only watch a movie that features to women who talk to each other about something other than a man. It can also be applied to TV shows. The point was to illustrate how Hollywood so often relegates women to the roles of “girlfriend” or “fairy godmother,” without really developing or defining the character as a person. The vlogger Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency does a good job explaining The Bechdel Test here:

Congratulations, Alison!

[Dykes To Watch Out For]
[Broadway: Fun Home]

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[Image of Bechdel by Elena Seibert]