Graphic memoir 'The Secret to Superhuman Strength' tackles 50 years of fitness fads

Celebrated cartoonist Alison Bechdel aims a pen at her own life of trying every exercise craze since the 1960s.

Cartoonist's workouts took her to places usually found through religion, psychotherapy, or magic mushrooms

Name any exercise craze since 1960: Cult cartoonist Alison Bechdel has poured hours and dollars into it. (author photo by Elena Seibert)

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

By Alison Bechdel

This'll be a snap, I thought. A comic book about sports. Except it's not a comic, it's a graphic memoir. And it's about physical exercise, more than sports. Alison Bechdel's workouts take her to places we usually find through religion, psychotherapy, or magic mushrooms.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength explores losing your self, as the Buddha recommended. Exercising your body can push your self, with all its worries and pride and inconvenient coding, out of the way.

Bechdel is a MacArthur genius cartoonist. She looks at her lifelong habit of exercising with manic intensity, and sees funky parallels with the 18th century transcendentalist movement, with William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge, with Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, and Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Adrienne Rich and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (I hadn't heard of him either) and also several gurus, yogis, and zen masters.

No wonder The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and countless other publications love Alison Bechdel. Her book reads like a comic, but works like a weekend zen retreat.

(Excerpt courtesy Alison Bechdel)

Born in 1960, with a sporty bent, oodles of anxiety, and an eye for the sexist structures of her time, Bechdel's first passion is skiing. She's nervous, but she loves it, until the day she ploughs into a tree. Her gusto for downhill is dashed. Bechdel pivots to Nordic skiing. She never shakes the fear of injury, but she's a product of the tv age, and she soaks up Jack Lalanne's sprightly exercise shows. She sweats along at home in the safety of her own company.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength also turns out to be the title of a badly photocopied jiujitsu manual which she mail orders from the back of a comic book. It flummoxes the youngster, but a life pattern is established, in which Bechdel finds a fitness discipline, and then pours herself into it. A Russian exercise program dominates her teen years. She gets stronger, but mostly she likes how the activity calms her brain.

Later in the 1970s, she gets into jogging, just as that trend is taking off. She outdoes herself for distance during one run, and it's a transcendent moment for her. Bechdel goes off to college, and overcomes her fear of being attracted to women. Around this time, her dad has an affair with a man who gardens for them, but he can't make peace with himself and he ends his own life.

Coping through exercise

Alison keeps exercising hard, and also wondering how she is able to cope so well with her dad's suicide. She has another transcendent moment, a psilocybin-induced dreamy day in the park. Her sense of self disappears for the first time. Decades later, she is still trying to recapture that mental state, though her preferred drug is always exercise.

She becomes a karate fiend. Wanting to please sensei, she pushes herself even harder than normal. A week after Bechdel gets her black belt, a guy grabs her bum on the subway. She delivers a solar plexus strike that stops precisely one millimeter short of his chest, just like in the dojo. He responds by socking her in the head. She cries in shame and that's the beginning of the end of karate.

When the 80s roll around, she doubles down on the Jane Fonda workout, then Soloflex, barre, aerobics...if there's a video and equipment to buy, she's in. She's goes on a yoga jag, and compares the old shared mats and grungy outfits, to the acquisitive yoga lifestyle of today. "We're a nation of giant toddlers, dragging our blankets and bottles everywhere we go".

As she takes us through her history with exercise fads, she folds in time-travelling interludes about the thinkers and literary figures mentioned earlier. It sounds odd, but it works.

Bechdel goes bonkers for biking, moves to a cabin in Vermont and cross country skis and bikes every hill she can. Going through her 30s in the 1990s, she notices that Powerbars are suddenly everywhere, reminding her of those Space Food sticks our moms fed us in the Apollo years.

'Insanity' workouts and failed relationships

She gets into body weight workouts. She begins to suspect that maybe she isn't coping so well with her dad's suicide. She starts drinking. A bout of insomnia leads to a prescription for 10 sleeping pills. It takes 15 years to kick the sedatives.

Spin classes roll into hours of stationary biking. All her relationships are falling apart, usually because her work comes first.  Like much of America, she has a boom and bust passion for inline skating. Then snowshoeing. Vermont's steep hills are perfect for a jump into alpine touring gear.

'Insanity' workouts grip her. Remember those? In her 50s, she gets a Fitbit. And a treadmill. Then she starts jogging again. She marries, and for honeymoon, the couple decide to climb the other Matterhorn, (not the Swiss one) the High Sierras peak that Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder hiked in The Dharma Bums. Whenever her story takes these tangents, Bechdel injects zingers and reality checks.  She is her own best heckler.  Whatever the opposite of preachy is, Alison Bechdel has it mastered.

Is there a moral to the story? Her recipe for less anxious living is still evolving, but the 'Secret'  includes therapy, no pills or booze, lots of love and patience, and regular doses of running. It's all quite a lot funnier, and more thought provoking than it sounds. If only you can relax enough to lose yourself in a comic.

Hardcover $35.00 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 234 pages


David Giddens produces and writes and edits for CBC Sports. POV writing and podcast are his main areas of attention.

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