Alison Bechdel Works Out Her Issues
New York magazine|May 10 - 23, 2021
In her latest book, the graphic memoirist examines her relationship to exercise and, in turn, herself.
By E. Alex Jung

By the time Alison Bechdel sat down in earnest to draw her third book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, she had stopped going to therapy and was drinking less. She felt—dare she say it?—happy. The cartoonist, whose comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” was a serial fixture in queer newspapers from 1983 to 2008, is best known for her graphic memoirs Fun Home (2006), which became a hit Broadway musical (it’s now being adapted into a film featuring Jake Gyllenhaal), and Are You, My Mother? (2012). While both of these books are deeply personal excavations into her family history, Superhuman Strength examines her relationship to the world through her body and exercise. Her partner, Holly Rae Taylor, did the coloring work, which meant Bechdel needed to relinquish some measure of control—a theme throughout her work and her life. “I was very trained to be completely stuck in my head,” she says from her studio in Vermont. “Queerness brought me into my body; therapy brought me into my feelings. With this book, I’ve tried to come back out into the world.”

Why did you want to write a book about working out?

I couldn’t think of anything else to write about that I felt some degree of passion about in a similar way. It’s this blissful, conflict-free part of my life where I am doing something fun. It occurred to me, Why not take that blissful, conflict-free thing, turn it into a cerebral project, and ruin it for yourself? So that’s what I did.

It’s too hard to think about your shit when you’re lifting something heavy.

Yeah, it is. You’re substituting one kind of pure difficulty for another.

In Superhuman Strength, you talk about the desire to feel as if you’re “in the flow” in terms of the creative process, similar to the state you achieve while working out. Have you been able to access that?

To get in that state creatively is very elusive. With athletic things, there are hacks for me to get to that place. And if I can get there in one way, maybe it will help me stick there creatively. The book is really about this thing that exercise enables me to get to.

You also mention admiring the bodybuilder Charles Atlas as a kid and wanting to emulate his muscularity. Did you ever have an aesthetic desire with regard to exercise?

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