“My bookish exterior perhaps belies it,” write Alison Bechdel in The Secret to Superhuman Strength, “but I’m a bit of an exercise freak.” That is, it turns out, an understatement, as the celebrated cartoonist’s newest graphic novel—her first since 2012’s Are You My Mother?—makes very clear. From the sixties television fitness of Jack LaLanne to the HIIT workouts and spin classes of the 2010s, and all the yoga, karate, skiing, and cycling that could possibly fill the intervening fifty years, Bechdel recounts the enduring appeal of getting in shape.
But throughout the book she continuously questions where her motivations come from, and whether the search for strength and self-sufficiency were ever the worthwhile goals she thought they were. Told with the cartoonist’s exceptional introspective candor and perfectly pitched sense of comedy, The Secret to Superhuman Strength tackles the thorny tangle that is our relationships to our bodies, each other, and the world around us.
Alyssa Favreau: In this new book you chronicle six full decades of the fitness phases you went through. Was one that was the most fun to revisit and write about?
Alison Bechdel: Oh, definitely. My days doing karate at a feminist martial arts school when I was in my twenties. That was really the most serious athletic endeavor I ever pursued, but it was very transformative and amazing and fun, and fun to revisit for those reasons.
You mention in the book that you initially set out to write a more light-hearted book about fitness. That’s not exactly what happened. Was there a point where you realized that that shift was happening?
This book just took a long time. All my books seem to, but this one took even longer than my other memoirs. Partly because life happened. I started working on this book pretty soon after I finished Are You My Mother?, a memoir about my mom. But as soon as I really sat down to think about this book, my mom started dying. That was a big thing to go through. My life got kind of turned over to that for a while and it was just hard [and] very sad to lose my mother. I had grief to deal with, but also at the same time my life had gotten very busy. All of a sudden my profile had gotten higher and I was traveling a lot more and being in public a lot more. The musical based on Fun Home had come out and my life got slightly derailed by that stuff for a couple of years. It was very hard to make time to sit down and do the kind of deep, contemplative thinking that this book required. It worked out in the end, because as it happened the way I ended up structuring the book, with each chapter being a full decade of my life, I really needed to live through my fifties in order to finish the book. So that kind of worked out.
How do you feel now, having put out a new memoir? Does it feel like a continuation of your other work?
It does in a way; I keep trying to articulate how exactly. I’ll try, we’ll see how I do today. I feel like I’m always to some extent writing about myself. Writing autobiographically, that’s what you’re doing. But I hope that I’ve also been writing not so much about my particular self, but about the self, especially in my book about my mom. It was very much about my experiences in therapy and really thinking deeply about how our selves get formed in the earliest days with our mothers. That was some pretty deep navel gazing, but with this new book, I feel like it does continue that trajectory because now I’m writing about trying to kind of let go of myself, trying to transcend myself or to kill my ego. It does feel like a through line.
You’ve also mentioned that it took you many years to feel able to tell the story of Fun Home as well. Was there something similar happening here time wise? Was now the time to tell this story?
That’s a good question. Certainly the experience of aging was part of the impulse to write this book. I have exercised all my life. It’s always been a really fun thing that I’ve done. And it sort of gave me the illusion that I was staving off death somehow. If I could just stay fit enough, I wouldn’t die. But it was becoming increasingly clear that that was not going to happen, that even though I was still working out, I was starting to lose strength and get stiff and get inexplicably slower. So it was that experience of starting to age that really made me want to write this story.
I’m curious about how you negotiate what parts of your life to revisit. Did you feel like you were building on what your readers already know about you from Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
I wanted to be very careful not to make those things necessary. I want you to be able to just read this book without knowing that stuff. But at the same time, if you do know that stuff, I wanted to make sure you could tell where it fit into the story. So I do talk about all of my work. I talk about writing Dykes to Watch Out For, starting in my twenties and through my forties. I talk about taking on this challenge of wanting to write the story of Fun Home and finally getting up the nerve to do it. So that stuff is all in there but I tried to make it not required.
This might be a bit of a chicken and egg question, but do you tend to write books to learn more about a particular subject or does the learning come first?
Yeah, it’s very much a chicken and the egg. I never know which is leading. With all my books, I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go in. I feel like there’s no real point in writing a book if you know how it’s going to end or where it’s going to take you. So they’ve all been adventures in self-exploration and I always end up turning to other texts as guides. It’s not even like I have a plan to do that, it just sort of happens. With Fun Home I was reading these authors my father loved and getting caught up in their work and their lives. In the book about my mom, that was learning all about how psychoanalysis works and getting especially obsessed with the analyst Donald Winnicott and his crazy ideas about what happened in our earliest days, with the mother and the baby. In this book, it ended up being these Transcendentalist and Romantic writers who I really wasn’t that interested in. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, that just seemed like a snooze fest to me. And Emerson. I’ve never been particularly interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson, but that’s where the research started to take me. And I found myself getting actually excited about all of them.
That’s interesting to hear, because from a reader’s perspective, your books do feel very exploratory, like you’re being led on a journey.
I’m glad that comes through. I feel like it’s a tightrope act, I’m going out here and I better come up with a book before I get to the other side or else I’m going to drop off into the abyss.
While you were working on this book, did you think at all about how your style of visual storytelling lends itself to this particular topic?
I was worried about how this was going to work, because how many pictures can I draw of myself running or skiing? I thought it might be a problem. But once I actually began illustrating the book, that wasn’t how it worked out. What was really fun was interweaving these other writers’ stories into mine. All of a sudden we go from 1990 to 1790 and we’re back into a whole other time period. So that certainly livened things up a bit.
I found myself making the connection between the theme of wanting more, the search for more strength, more endurance, more pushing of limits, and also how very rich your illustration style tends to be. You’ve got a lot of background details, a lot of jokes, and a lot of text.
I’m a very word-heavy cartoonist.
It’s not a bad thing. I love it.
Oh good. Most of the book is in color with this sharp black line art. But then there are these periods when there’s no color and it’s brushwork instead of a pen. It’s very jarring when there are these scenes where there is no color. I tried to copy sumi-e drawing that’s just watered down ink. And I would use that at the end of each chapter and at a few other points where I felt like something sort of transformational was happening. As a way to get out of that every day kind of drawing with very sharp line art where everything’s separate and distinct to a more diffuse way of being in the world.
That’s so fascinating, the mental state as change in art style.
Especially because brush drawing is hard for me. It’s really challenging. I love the clarity and precision of an ink line, and you can’t control a brush. Here we go back to the theme of control. I very intentionally pushed myself to do that, also because you can’t really revise or correct brushwork. Either you do it right or you don’t.
That terrifies me.
It was terrifying.
You make these really beautiful connections between lives of the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, and the Beats, writing that you were interested in “the way their individual ideas are part of a larger, evolving understanding of the relationship between humans and the universe.” How did those big questions ended up in your fitness book?
At a certain point I realized that I was actually kind of writing my own version of books by these authors. In a way, I was rewriting Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, where he climbed this mountain in the Sierras with Gary Snyder. In a way I was writing this crazy book Coleridge wrote in his middle age where he was bringing together autobiographical stuff with literary stuff, just this weird hodgepodge of things. I felt like I was writing Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, just in the way I’m keeping minute track of what I’m doing throughout the course of my life.
Another strand of the book is just how being outside, being in the woods, hiking, having access to nature has always been really life saving for me. And I feel awkward writing about that stuff. Anything insightful anyone has ever had to say about nature had been said many, many times over. So I was nervous about trying to write about that. It was helpful to rely on these other people and their experiences of nature. It just sounds so trite, the way nature makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s what all these writers in one way or another were very aware of. I was very drawn to that, even though I don’t explicitly say that much in my book. The drawings of the outdoors, the drawings of the mountains and the experiences the different people had in the mountains, that all hopefully evokes that feeling without my necessarily stating it all explicitly.
I think it only sounds trite because it’s so fundamentally true.
Yeah, it’s obvious. Why should we have to say it?
It’s interesting to see how this book functions as this kind of braided essay, but in graphic novel form.
Oh, I like that. I found myself referring to the various strands of it. I really like that braided idea. There’s definitely a lot of different levels that I’m trying to weave, to let go of it here, but bring it back a little later, but I don’t want to wait too long to bring it back or you’ll forget what was happening. So it was very much an act of braiding.
I often think of fitness as something preparatory, as ensuring that your body will exist in a certain way in the future. And in this book, you spend some time discussing your difficulty with being in the moment and connecting with others. Can you talk a little bit more about fitness as avoidance strategy?
Especially in my late twenties/early thirties, when I was doing yoga, I went through a phase of deciding I was going to be celibate, that relationships were just too much trouble, and I would just do yoga and draw my cartoons and be by myself. That definitely was a kind of avoidance strategy. It didn’t last too long, but it’s very appealing. Your life can be very simple if you don’t have a relationship that you’re trying to make work.
Throughout the book, you keep returning to the idea of what the secret to superhuman strength might be. And it’s so fascinating how that sort of self-optimization can be both so helpful and so destructive.
Yes. As a kid, my fantasy about superhuman strength was that I wouldn’t need anybody else, that I would be completely self-sufficient. That’s been a fantasy that has guided me through my life for a long time. And only recently have I begun to try and dismantle it and to realize that I really can’t exist in a silo, completely separate from other people. I need other people. That’s a part of my life that is hard for me, relationship. But I’m trying to make it work, trying to figure it out.
There’s also this very late-stage capitalist idea of optimization, of being the best version, the best worker, that I think comes through in how you talk about fitness and wellness as also industries.
I definitely fall prey to that fantasy too, of wanting to be perfect or at least better than I am. And that too is something, as I get older and slower, that I’m facing. That’s not a realistic model for anyone. Much better to accept your flawed self than to flog yourself into some imaginary state of perfection.
It was also particularly interesting to read the book during this ongoing quarantine, when fitness was such a focus for so many of us, whether we were doing it or not. Did your relationship to working out change during Covid?
It did. It’s funny because I actually completely stopped going to the gym. It’s been a year since I’ve lifted weights, and that’s something I’ve always done pretty religiously. So I feel really bad about that. I kept up my running, for most of the pandemic I did that. But here’s the weird thing about the pandemic for me: I was very much engaged in drawing this book. Finally I had finished writing it and my deadline was coming down the pike, and being in lockdown was actually a really weird blessing. I wouldn’t have gotten the book done in time if I hadn’t been forced to do nothing but work eighteen hours a day. So that was really good. But I have not gotten back on the weightlifting regimen.
And for this book, you worked with your partner, Holly Rae Taylor.
When I got to the end of the book, I found that collaboration a little surprising given that so much of the story is about control and self-sufficiency. What was that experience like?
I know. I mean that’s part of why I’m a cartoonist, because I can do everything myself. I control all aspects of the process. So it was a bit of a challenge, but in a way it was perfect because it exemplifies this struggle that the whole book is about. Being really with another person in a collaboration, in an active project together. It wasn’t my goal, when I started thinking about this book, that I would have Holly color it, but my deadline was coming. I didn’t have time to do it all myself, and she was available and it just worked out. And it was actually a wonderful experience. We had a few rough patches until we got the system down. But, you know, the nature of this work is so intense. Putting a graphic novel together is all consuming. If I’d been doing it on my own without her being involved, it would have been very lonely and weird for both of us trapped here in the house, to have me off in this other plane of existence. But as it was, we were both off in that other plane of existence and it was really great.
That’s so nice to hear! When I started thinking about what it would be like to collaborate in that way—not to get too English class about it—I thought of these two moments in the book, one where you meet Holly for the first time at a bike swap and she is ends up being this lingering presence for you. And then another where you’re biking uphill and you write that if you could choose to only bike uphill or downhill for the rest of your life, you’d pick uphill as a way of remaining in control.
Oh then there’s that scene where I’m on my first bike ride with Holly. There’s this weird thing where my jacket gets caught in my spokes and I almost wipe out. That’s such a funny connection because I did almost lose control and I feel like that whole accident happened because I was so distracted by Holly that I did this dumb thing of putting my jacket around my seat post even though you’re never supposed to do that. Holly has been a wonderful influence in my life and I always just feel a little off balance around her, even thirteen years later.
That sounds wonderful. On a different note, I was re-reading the introduction to Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, and you express a sort of dismay at being this entry point into lesbian culture and in a way—by virtue of chronicling what you saw and what you lived through—creating what lesbian culture means for some of us. Have your feelings changed on that point at all?
Now that there’s been such a huge blossoming of lesbian culture and there’s so much more stuff out there, I don’t feel that so much anymore. But it was always interesting to me when I would hear from younger women who said, “Oh, the first lesbians I ever met were your cartoon characters.” Suddenly I start thinking if they had been good role models or bad role models.
That’s too much pressure for a cartoon character.
I also watched a recent conversation you had with JEB and particularly loved how you discussed the double-edged sword of making lesbians visible. In the context of this new book and your career, do you have any further thoughts on that idea?
The thing about this book is it’s not a particularly queer book. I mean, yes, I’m in it leading my lesbian life with my female partners, but it’s not really about sexuality. My other books have had that as a focus, but this book is just about me leading my life and I happen to be a lesbian. That’s definitely something that couldn’t have happened not so long ago. Which is nice, it’s nice to be able to have another dimension to my experience.