The Secret to Superhuman Strength. by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York. 2021. 240pp. $24.oo
Alison Bechdel is on a mission, perhaps the greatest of all, in her latest book which explores the connection between mind and body. Ostensibly, this is a book focusing on fitness but Bechdel, in her distinctive way, has taken things much further. In earnest, but also with a touch of irony, Bechdel is in search of the big prize, a light out of the existential abyss. Well, perhaps Tennessee Williams had his finger right on it when he said, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” Ah, there’s the rub indeed and the perfect jumping off point for Bechdel’s collection of visual essays which unfold into a highly engaging narrative, a new dazzling exploration of an artist and a life.
When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out was launched in 1983, it was cutting-edge counter-culture in a bite-sized format. Today, gender issues are much better understood and accepted. What remains most provocative for some might be another aspect to Bechdel’s work, the fact it carries a brainy tone. Americans, in general, have not favored the intellectual. We’ve had smart American heroes but it’s never an easy and obvious thing. That said, the overall quality of a work tends to have the final say. We look forward to Bechdel in the same way we might look forward to any number of articulate writers–sometimes despite, or because, of the cerebral challenges they set up for themselves. Yes, Bechdel tends to overthink things–she’s defiant about it; she revels in it. And, nowadays, there’s no end of material to scrutinize. Bechdel gets it. She even wonders, at one point, just how privileged is it to bring into the world “another book about fitness by a white lady.” Just keep in mind this isn’t just a book about fitness.
Bechdel’s mind likes to take the more esoteric route. When most people are asked to think about fitness, they might start thinking about their favorite workout. Bechdel sees her passion for fitness as inextricably linked to her compulsive need for self-improvement which she attaches to the progressive spirit going back to The Romantics and The Transcendentalists. I happen to enjoy the sort of Byzantine multi-layered narratives that Rachel Maddow is famous for. Well, you’re in luck because that’s what you’re getting here: a book that truly explores the interconnections between mind and body. To be honest, sometimes things are bereft of rigorous intellectual inquiry. When you gotta go, you gotta go. The body has a way of pulling rank, of having a mind of its own!
As with all of Bechdel’s work, this book will charm the reader with its particular pace and rhythm. Bechdel is unapologetically nerdy. And, truth be told, she’s not exactly in the minority. I know I just said that we Americans collectively are anti-intellectual. But, again speaking in general, we are collectively more inclined to be couch potatoes than jocks. And maybe, among all those coach potatoes, there’s something akin to a more thoughtful sensibility. Maybe not totally bookish, but no doubt more nerd than not which is a good thing. It’s safe to say that we have a reliable mass of readers that keeps growing and evolving. With that in mind, I think this book definitely has a vibe with great mass appeal. For more dedicated readers, I’m also sure it is safe to say we can all agree that Bechdel’s book advances the comics medium. In this case, Bechdel provides beautiful passage after passage of extended thought. This speaks to the hard-won lessons learned from doing a comic strip for decades. You learn to pare down text to fit tight spaces. And, when you find you have more space, you come to it with a more nimble and elegant sense of organizing words and pictures. When Bechdel ruminates, she knows how to do it to fullest effect.
I think Bechdel’s esoteric approach is simply divine. This is such an authentic voice. Basically, think of this book as an extension of Bechdel’s graphic novel format storytelling, with a interconnection to her previous books, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? If you enjoy a book that truly takes a deep dive into exploring human nature, this book will definitely satisfy you. The comics medium is a never-ending unlimited platform for any type of storytelling. You can slice it and dice it, constrict it or expand it. What you want to be careful about is knowing how to juggle those words and pictures so that your story shines and Bechdel is one of our great masters in comics without a doubt.
Review: THE COMPLETELY UNFABULOUS SOCIAL LIFE OF ETHAN GREEN
Eric Orner is one of the pioneers in LGBT comics. “The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green,” published by Northwest Press, is a great way to not only further establish him in the canon of LGBT comics, but simply to showcase the work of an excellent cartoonist.
All of us cartoonists can learn from Eric Orner. Just when you get that first wave of resistance, that’s when you push back a little harder. Orner had tales to tell, just like Howard Cruse before him and Alison Bechdel right alongside him, and they could not wait.
Orner’s comic strip ran in that fuzzy, chaotic, and bubbling time (1989-2005), before the internet and digital and then well into it. Orner grew as a person and as an artist. Collected here are some 300 of his groundbreaking comic strips. Well before Ellen DeGeneres was ready to come out, and perhaps a mainstream audience was ready to accept her, there was this comic strip. And casting the longest shadow, the less understood epidemic of AIDS, which Orner would address with both grace and thoughtful humor. Bit by bit, Orner was there to chronicle, in retrospect, a most confused and dangerous time–and it wasn’t that long ago and it’s still unfolding before us.
By 1997, the Ethan Green comic strip appeared in every large city and most mid-sized cities in the United States, as well as running in Canada and overseas. As Orner states in one of the section introductions, “Given that I wasn’t watering down the content, the fact that this very gay comic strip seemed to be building a readership among straight folks was a source of pride.”
Still, controversy could easily arise when least expected. It was also in 1997 that Baltimore’s alt-weekly, City Paper, had to fend off a church group that took great offense over a mild sex scene in the comic strip, something akin to soap opera content. Maybe they were just waiting for the very next depiction of two men making love anywhere to set them off.
Just as a comic strip unfraid to grow, Ethan Green stands out. As anyone who does a webcomic today can attest, there is an unrelenting grind that a cartoonist can succumb to. But, even in the earliest years, Orner was willing to push his artistic and literary limits. Right from the start, he aspired to reach greater heights of insight and downright zaniness. In one strip, circa 1990, he has The Hat Sisters attempt to save lives through time travel. For every vulnerable penis they find, they sheath it with a condom. Everything in the strip is in balance and it speaks volumes.
Towards the end of Ethan Green’s run, in 2005, a couple of young independent filmmakers from Hollywood adapted the comic strip into a movie. It premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival and enjoyed a 19-city theatrical release in 2006.
Ultimately, Eric Orner’s comic strip enjoyed a great run. And now it is collected in this deluxe edition and off to begin a whole new life with old fans and new readers.
“The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green” is a 228-page trade paperback, black & white and in color, priced at $24.99, and available now. For more details, visit our friends at Northwest Press right here.
Filed under Alison Bechdel, Comic Strips, Comics, Eric Orner, Gay, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Howard Cruse, LGBT, Northwest Press
Tagged as Alison Bechdel, comic strip, Comic Strips, Editorial Cartoons, Entertainment, Eric Orner, Ethan Green, Gay Studies, graphic novels, Humor, LGBT, Media, Newspapers, Northwest Press, Pop Culture, Satire, Social Commentary