I’ve never been drawn, no pun intended, to graphic novels. I’m not sure why since as a child I created a comic strip titled Molly that I circulated throughout my family. (Have I ever apologized for this?) Plus, I spent hours reading Archie and Richie Rich comic books. But mistakenly, at a certain point, I felt I had outgrown comic books, including graphic books of all sorts.
This is no longer the case after devouring Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength.
Bechdel invites her readers on a journey, seemingly to review and understand her life’s obsession with physical fitness, but this trek is much bigger and deeper than that. Through the lens of her own questioning, we accompany Bechdel on a mountainous quest to find the answer to why she has always been drawn to various forms of physical exercise; what was she looking for and what did she eventually discover?
As Bechdel explains: “Well, I’m not just writing about fitness…I’m writing about how the pursuit of fitness has been a vehicle for me to something else”(15).
While tracing her myriad physical endeavors, Bechdel harkens back and includes historical figures who also engaged in various physical pursuits as a means to access answers to life’s loftier questions and musings.
Notable figures such as poets and writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and her grandnephew Buckminster, Jack Kerouac, and more contemporary Adrienne Rich. Early fitness guru Jack Lallane populates some of Bechdel’s earliest movement memories as well.
The way Bechdel entwines her yearnings with those who came before inspires and illuminates her search. We are very rarely the first and rarely alone in this experience called life.
Graphic novels provide a readily colorful and detailed immersion for readers, and in Bechdel’s case, humor and sidebar as well. Yes, the images are on the page before you, so there’s less left to the reader’s imagination, but this format adds momentum and specifics. I found myself studying the amusing drawings and feeling invited and welcomed into Bechdel’s world, each room, scene, and relationship, more than words alone might allow.
Although the particulars of her engagement in physical fitness and its trends are tied to her generation, the tail-end of the baby boomers, the bigger picture is across time and place. I did have to laugh along the way since I’m a tail-end baby boomer too and could relate so well to many of the fads involved in the never-ending evolution of the fitness world.
Bechdel explores where this initial attraction to exercise may have come from:
“My early childhood was a constant stream of remarks about “dumb blondes” and “women drivers” and “the weaker sex”…Not being blonde or of legal driving age, I was able to let those two roll off my back, but weak?…I became fascinated with the bodybuilding ads in my comic books. It didn’t really occur to me – despite the endlessly repeated word “man” – that these were male bodies”(27).
We witness Bechdel skiing, swimming, running, hiking, biking, practicing karate, and more. The book escorts us through her decades of life, from birth to the present. Yet, as mentioned, we do visit others’ experiences with the themes she’s tackling.
One theme is the courage, due in part to the bravery of those before, to own her sexuality and come out as a lesbian in 1980, at the age of 19. Bechdel’s father, who remained a closeted gay, took his life soon after that. Although never able to express and live his truth, Bruce Bechdel instilled in his daughter a strength she would tap.
Adrienne Rich came out as a lesbian in 1976. After leaving her husband in 1970, he too took his life, for reasons of his own.
Bechdel confronts the eventual need to process this traumatic event, something that no amount of physical activity will do for her.
Bechdel, alongside tracking her exercise regime throughout the years, traces her work and career, her creativity and productivity. She’s honest about her not-so-healthy approach to producing her comic strip and later her books, leading us on another quest: one for a healthy, sustainable practice, way of life, and ultimately, way of being.
The attainment of exhilaration and epiphany that often accompany pushing our physical selves is the road Bechdel leads us down. The connection to the deeper and expansive realms of consciousness, both personal and universal, is where the real juice is. Bechdel illustrates, again no pun intended, that rising above our resistance and moving beyond our perceived limitations will eventually reveal greater truths.
Ultimately, Bechdel is chasing the meaning of life and her place in it, our collective place in it. Does she divulge her answers to the big questions? Does she uncover the secret to superhuman strength? Yes, she does and no, I’m not going to tell you what this enlightenment entails. Read and view and you too shall be entertained and gifted!
Alison Bechdel is one others look to now for inspiration and illumination. Whether on her bicycle, skis or in her running shoes, she is an amazing trailblazer.
Alison Bechdel is a Nasty Woman cartoonist and writer.
© Maria Dintino 2024
Bechdel, Alison. The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.