Writers & Company

Alison Bechdel tackles the world of fitness in her new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength

The American author and cartoonist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her creative process and her lifelong love affair with exercise.
Alison Bechdel is an award-winning American cartoonist. (Elena Seibert)

As a kid, cartoonist Alison Bechdel was obsessed with the bodybuilding ads at the back of her comic books. Her lifelong pursuit of fitness — along with inner transformation — is the theme of her new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, which explores the connection between exercise and creativity. It's been described by the Guardian as "quietly astonishing." 

In 2006, after years producing the alternative comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel found a new audience — and widespread critical acclaim — with her first graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Focusing on her small-town Pennsylvania upbringing and her complicated father, it became a hit Broadway musical. Her second bestselling memoir — Are You My Mother? — cemented her reputation as one of the most gifted cartoonists at work today.

Bechdel spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Vermont.

Life lessons from Charles Atlas

"I was obsessed, as a little kid, with those bodybuilding ads in my comic books. Mostly they were for the Charles Atlas program. It's very iconic: the big bully on the beach who kicks sand on the skinny little guy. There were other sorts of things, like weight gainer drinks and weird devices, that you could get. 

"I was quite interested in them, but I felt too afraid to send away for them. Well, I was too little! I didn't have enough authority until I was about nine or 10. That's when I finally decided I was going to mail away for something in the back of my comic book that promised me the secret to superhuman strength. It was for the price of one dollar, which seemed like a pretty good bargain. 

I was obsessed, as a little kid, with those bodybuilding ads in my comic books.

"It was not, as you can imagine, the secret to superhuman strength. When it arrived, it was this crazy martial arts manual that I could not make any sense out of. It was one of those sad entries to adulthood — when you realize everyone's trying to con you."

Of muscles and manly men

"The reason those bodybuilding ads are in children's comic books is because it appeals to a universal yearning for tiny children to have power over their own bodies and lives. Because they don't, really. 

"There was some sort of gender thing going on with me, too, which I don't quite fully understand. Obviously Charles Atlas was a man, and the language of these ads was all about manly men. 

"I didn't quite put it together that I was never going to grow up to look like Charles Atlas. As a little kid, you don't make that differentiation. But in some way, I felt disempowered. I have a sort of disturbance of the self, which makes me want to do things like write endlessly about my own life. I keep trying to sort it out. 

I have a sort of disturbance of the self, which makes me want to do things like write endlessly about my own life. I keep trying to sort it out.

"As a child, the answer to that problem seemed to be physical strength and power. It's become much more complicated as I've gotten older — I see that it's not nearly that simple."

Creative activities

"I've been interested in my own creative process since I was quite small — since I first realized that something magical happened when I got lost in my own drawing for hours on end. It was such a great feeling, that feeling of losing yourself.

"I gradually came to associate it with the feeling I would get doing physical activities — like learning to ski as a small child or playing with a tennis ball. I used to play a lot with a tennis ball on my own, and kept challenging myself to do tricks with it. 

"In those activities, too, I would reach this state of being free of my usual worried, anxious brain."

An interior page from the 2006 graphic novel Fun Home by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My father as F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The secret in my family was that my father was having affairs with other men over the course of my parents' marriage. I never knew about that. I didn't know until I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was in college. 

"It took a lot of energy from my mother — to be constantly worried that someone was going to find out, or that my father was going to get in trouble. And it took a lot of my father's energy and attention."

"When I started writing my memoir about my father, I realized that I hardly knew him anymore. At the point when I began the book, it had been almost 20 years since his death. One way that I tried to get back in touch with him was to read the authors that he loved. So I read some F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The secret in my family was that my father was having affairs with other men over the course of my parents' marriage.

"Fitzgerald was one of his favourite writers. He was this slightly sociopathic character — very charming, very dashing in the world, very vulnerable and fragile on the inside.

"I say in Fun Home that it was almost like he and my mother were inverted versions of Scott and Zelda, that my mother was Scott and my father was Zelda, the more unstable part."

Catherine Wreford as Alison Bechdel in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Tom Hendry Warehouse's 2019 production of Fun Home. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

The power of words and pictures

"A young child, we had a Charles Addams book in the house. Before I even knew how to read, I loved looking at that book, because the images were so compelling. 

"I had this idea that once I learned to read, they would be revealed to me — I would suddenly understand what was going on. But then I did learn to read, and they still didn't make any sense to me. They're inexplicable. I didn't understand the jokes, the humour to it went over the head of a six-year-old.

I like that feeling of having to bridge the gap. I try to do that in my own work —  to leave a space for the reader to make their own connection.

"But that dissonance, that disjunction between what you were seeing and what the words said, remained very powerful for me. It was a very fruitful space; it drew me in and it made me want to engage with this image.  

"I like that feeling of having to bridge the gap. I try to do that in my own work —  to leave a space for the reader to make their own connection."

Alison Bechdel's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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