“I was born in 1960, which is pretty much when, as a culture, we started exercising.” Cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel talks with Zibby about her latest book and the ways in which exercising has both reflected and shaped the stages of her life, from adopting new routines based on cultural trends to analyzing how exercise intersects with mortality. She touches on her family trauma and how that impacted her illustrations.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alison. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alison Bechdel: Thank you, Zibby. I’m very excited to be here.

Zibby: Your book has both a weight loss-ish piece and of course, a read books piece. Either way, delighted to have you in my podcast universe to talk about your fantastic new graphic novel.

Alison: Thank you. I just wrote this book called The Secret to Superhuman Strength which is sort of a memoir about my own life as an exercise enthusiast, as someone who has pursued fitness in many different ways over the course of my life. There’s not a weight loss component to it, though. I’m very careful in this book not to — I exercise for many reasons, but the desire to lose weight is not one of them. I find that whole idea a little problematic. What I would love is to unlink exercise from the idea of losing weight because I want exercise to be pleasurable and a positive, fun experience for people. If you go into it with this sort of punitive idea that you’re doing it in order to lose weight, I think it just is going to take all the joy out of it, for one thing. Also, I’m not an exercise physiologist by any means, but I don’t think exercise is really a great way, at least on its own, to lose weight. When you exercise, you get hungrier. You eat more. Your body becomes more muscular, and therefore heavier. I would just like to disconnect weight loss from exercise.

Zibby: I’ll disconnect with you. I believe that too. To be honest, today I’ve been on a workout kick for the first time since, really, COVID started. I’ve done eight days in a row. It’s completely changed my mental sanity and outlook, but the scale has not — I finally was like, this is ridiculous. That’s not why I do it. I would’ve eaten all this junk anyway. Now I’m just working out in addition. It’s a totally different thing and so key to mental health. Your book was much more both a cultural commentary and a personal journey in pictures, essentially. You go from watching Jack LaLanne on TV and getting your first TV back in the John FK assassination days all the way through newer-ish — you repelling up on a rock-climbing wall and all sorts of different ways that you’ve found your way through the world in your body, which I found super interesting, including your horrific grief and loss along the way and everything else. Tell me a little bit about how you decided to do this book, especially on the heels of such accomplished, amazing books before it.

Alison: I wrote these memoirs about my family, about these heavy, deep family stories that I was trying to exorcise from myself, exorcise with an O, not an E. I wanted to do something that was lighter and more fun. I thought, you know, I’ve always loved fitness, exercise, riding my bike, running, skiing. Why don’t I write a book about that? Exercise is a fun topic. I started work on this book. It actually turned out to be almost as grueling as these intimate family memoirs were just because I was really looking at my whole life. This was a memoir about the course of my life. I just turned sixty. At the time I was finishing the book, I turned sixty. The book is divided into six chapters, one for each decade of my life. I was born in 1960, which is pretty much when, as a culture, we started exercising. People didn’t really go to gyms before that or think about their cardiovascular fitness. That’s all pretty modern. I was interested in the way my own life overlaid that cultural history. I was doing all the things when everyone else was doing them. I started downhill skiing as a little kid. My parents took me and my brothers alpine skiing. As a teenager in the seventies, I took up jogging when everyone was starting to run. It was just this thing in the air. In the eighties, I did martial arts. I joined a women’s martial arts school. Later, I did yoga.

I moved to Vermont in the nineties to the country after living in the city for ten years and started doing all these outdoor things that everyone here does. They ride their bikes and climb mountains and run up mountains. I took up all those sports. My house is filled with all kinds of gear and crap. I wanted to write about what it is that I get from all of these things. What is it that I get from all of these things? I want to say it’s more of a metaphysical thing than a physical thing, but I also get a very physical benefit from all this physical activity because it grounds me in my body. I’m someone who’s very cerebral, very caught up in my thinking mind all the time, so exercise has been a huge counterbalance to that just really bringing me back to earth, quite literally. There’s this really wonderful feeling that I can get sometimes when I’m working out, which is that feeling when you’re no longer trapped inside of your individual body, but you just start to merge out with the rest of the world. You’re not thinking about yourself. Sometimes on a very long run, it’ll be like I don’t exist as a self anymore. I am just the act of running. There’s something so blissful about that, about getting out of my own limited, small self to this bigger connected experience. That’s what motivates me to keep doing all this stuff, the promise of getting that feeling again.

Zibby: Wow. You included a lot of this soul introspection in the book also as you overlaid it with the working out. You referenced how you had grown up with your family’s funeral home business and how death was never too far away from the beginning. It was funny because as I researched you, I was saying out loud to my husband who was sitting at the next desk, I was like, “Wow, her dad was an army veteran. Her dad, this. Oh, my god, then her dad died. Oh, my gosh, this is how he died. They worked at a funeral home. I can’t believe it.” Then as I was reading your book after and pausing on the dark pages — I love how you just took all the color out of the time where you explain what happened to your dad, which I wonder if you would be willing to talk about, but how your sense of life’s fleetingness has been there forever. Tell me a little more about that.

Alison: My dad was a funeral director. I grew up completely taking death for granted. It was just something that we saw all the time. We didn’t live in the funeral home, but my grandmother did. She just lived right up the street. My brothers and I, we had chores at the funeral home. We would set the chairs out or help my dad arrange the flowers. We would see, very routinely, these dead bodies, mostly very old, tiny, shriveled people who’d had long, full lives, but occasionally, younger people. I feel like it was a gift to have this exposure to death. I know that many of my friends had never seen a dead body. They just thought it was so wild that I saw this all the time. They’d always ask, what’s it like? Is it scary to be in the house? I would say, no, it’s really not. It’s just kind of cool. I felt special because I had this access to death that most people didn’t have. I feel like it kind of established in me a certain preoccupation with my own mortality. I knew that this was going to happen to me too. Of course, as children, we can’t really see that far into the future. It’s very abstract. You might know you’re going to die, but you don’t really believe it. It’s something that as we go along through life, it becomes more visible to us with time. I still don’t really believe it. I’m always trying to really work on my acceptance of my own mortality, but there’s something in us that we resist it on so many levels. One of the things I was looking at in this book is the fact that I am aging. My body is starting to lose strength, lose flexibility. All the things that I worked out to increase, that’s all going away even as I continue to work out. Quite sobering.

Zibby: You have that picture of — I’m sort of drawing with my finger — of going up the cliff. Then you have this downward slope which ended just with a little tombstone. I was like, this is so depressing. It’s like, why get out of bed in the morning?

Alison: I know, exactly. I drew a little image of myself biking up a mountain. It’s overlaid with my different times. Twenty years ago, my favorite bike ride, I was doing it at sixteen miles an hour. Now it’s twelve miles an hour. I still feel like I’m working as hard as I can, but I’m becoming an old person. How do we live with that knowledge? I don’t know. I didn’t really arrive at an answer to that.

Zibby: I think it’s a very important question. My dad’s joke is always, well, it’s better than the alternative. Whenever we talk about aging, it’s like, got this, this, and the other thing, but could be worse.

Alison: For me in my case, it’s not really death so much that I’m afraid of. It’s getting weak. It’s getting dependent on other people. It’s not being able to care for myself. The title of my book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, comes from an ad in a comic book for a little booklet that I sent away for when I was a kid. I always loved those, the Charles Atlas ads that were in the back of every child’s comic book, the big bully on the beach who kicks sand on the little, weak guy, and so the little, weak guy goes and builds himself up until the next time the guy kicks sand on him. He can clock that guy. I found that an extremely compelling narrative as a child because I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be in control of my life. I think the reason those ads are in comic books, even though tiny children are not going to become bodybuilders, it appeals to that sense children have of just being so small and powerless. I certainly felt small and powerless as a child. I wanted to be big and strong. I wanted to be in charge. Over the course of my life, that idea of strength remained very compelling, but it became more a fantasy about self-sufficiency more than just brute physical strength. I didn’t want to need other people. I wanted to be my own everything. That’s another thing I explore in this book, is the fact I’m not self-sufficient. None of us are. We’re all going to get weak. At various points in our life, we’re going to need help. I’m just trying to work on my acceptance of that.

Zibby: It’s possible we won’t. This is one of those things. I feel like if you were my daughter and she was worrying about this, I would say, well, you don’t know that for sure. You don’t know that it’s definitely going to go that way. Who knows what tomorrow’s going to bring? I would probably say to her, enjoy the strength you have today. Tomorrow could be the last day, and you will die as strong as you ever were. I think there’s a balance of — not to say you shouldn’t be thinking about this. I think about these things too.

Alison: No, I like this. This is great.

Zibby: I feel like that’s what I would probably say to her. You don’t know. My mother is seventy-three or something. She runs five miles a day and has this amazing golf handicap. She’s in far better shape than I am. I wouldn’t say she was weak. Not to say that by the time she’s ninety-five she won’t be. Nothing is a sure thing, not even the decline. Maybe it won’t be as precipitous.

Alison: Oh, yeah, I think that’s true. That’s certainly part of my fantasy as I lift weights and go on my runs. I also am increasing aware of how fragile we are. I fall all the time. Not that I’m unusually clumsy, but I’m just realizing I often fall when I’m running. Not often, but I’ll occasionally hit the deck, or doing any number of activities. When you fall and you’re old and your bones are brittle, that’s really a problem. I’ve just been thinking about that. It’s not so much that we can’t do stuff, but that we can’t recover the way that we can when we’re younger and more supple. I’m sorry to be such a downer. Let’s not think about brittle bones.

Zibby: No, no, no, this is part of life. Death is top of mind for me on a daily basis. I’m not one of these people who doesn’t think about it. I feel like anybody who’s had loss in their life, it’s not an abstract. It’s very much something you know.

Alison: Yeah, especially now when so many people…

Zibby: There are a zillion illustrations that accompanied this book. How did you go about the text versus the illustration and the whole process of it? How long did it take? Tell me, how was it creating this?

Alison: I’m a cartoonist. That’s how I tell stories, is with words and pictures together. Although, if you watched me working, if you watched my process, I do kind of write first. I need to have an idea of where I’m going with a book or a story before I can start doing the drawings because drawing is a lot of work. I think many cartoonists probably draw and write more simultaneously than I do. I’m sort of a wordy cartoonist. I like to have my text set. For a long time, I was just looking at my own life. I’m a memoirist. I’m writing about myself. That’s really what I do. I keep a lot of records of my life. I have all kinds of journals and datebooks and photo albums. I was just trying to get a handle on the arc of my own life and when certain transformational moments for me happened in my life.

You mentioned, in the book, some of the cartoons are in color, but some pages in the book are in black and white. There are certain moments when I felt like some real change was happening in my life. Those, I did in black and white. I took the color out, but also . They’re not just black and white, but they’re done with a brush, like an Asian sumi-e style of drawing instead of ink lines like the rest of the book. For me, those moments are times when I feel like I could see through life, see through the busy, everyday life that we live in to this more mystical aspect of existence where everything, it’s just not as clear-cut. Things do blend into one another. Things are connected. There’s no sharp delineation the way we see a table or a computer screen and another person on it in our everyday life. It’s really all just a lot of space and quantum particles. It’s all one kind of material on a certain level. Sorry to get all mystical there. That’s part of that feeling I was talking about when you’re exercising and getting outside of your own self like that, that other register of reality that I find useful to think about.

Zibby: How did you even get on this path? How did you make this a career?

Alison: I do exactly what I have been doing since I was three. I was very lucky to have parents who encouraged me to draw and encouraged me to write. I just kept doing that. I started doing comics for free in my early twenties after getting out of college. I worked at a feminist newspaper and started doing these silly little cartoons about lesbians because I was just coming out as a lesbian at that time. I called these cartoons Dikes to Watch Out For. I just started putting them in the paper. It was in the early 1980s when there just weren’t a lot of images of queer people out in the world. People were excited about those. It became my mission. I just kept doing that and for many years, drew this comic strip which I was able to start making my living off of when I turned thirty. I did it for twenty-five years and then started doing these longer-form works, these autobiographical memoirs about my family. Now that’s what I do.

Zibby: One of them, you ended up winning a bazillion Tonys. The play, Fun Home, won all sorts of awards.

Alison: That was very strange. My memoir Fun Home, which is a story about my dad — it’s a story about when I came out to my family in college. I learned that my dad also was gay, or at least bisexual, and had been having affairs with other men over the course of my parents’ marriage. That was just mind-blowing. In that same period of my life very soon after finding out about him, he died in an accident. He was hit by a truck. My mom and I were pretty sure that was intentional, that he had killed himself. The memoir was a book I wrote twenty years after that happened. I didn’t feel able to do it at the time or even for those two decades. It took me a long time to get my mind around that. I felt increasingly like I needed to tell that story. It involved these family secrets that I needed to talk about. I felt like I couldn’t fully, properly grieve my father because no one knew the whole story. I felt like I needed to tell that whole story in order to access my own grief and be liberated from it to move on. Fortunately, it did have that effect, writing this story. Then bizarrely, this weird graphic novel about my father’s suicide, that turned into a Broadway musical. That was pretty crazy. It was a very wonderful experience and a really amazing play.

Zibby: Gosh, I wish I had seen it. We need a revival. Although, I read that it’s going to be a movie with Jake Gyllenhaal. Is that true, or no?

Alison: Yeah, isn’t that crazy? Jake Gyllenhaal will be my dad.

Zibby: So what are you working on now?

Alison: I’m mostly working on publicizing this book and just getting my life in order. I finished the book at the end of the last year. Drawing a book is a hugely physically intense process. I couldn’t do anything else, so I’m also just trying to catch up with my life, all the things that got put on hold while I was single-mindedly drawing the book.

Zibby: What advice would you have both for aspiring graphic novelists, cartoonists, and even on the workout front? Let’s start with aspiring yous out there.

Alison: My advice would be maybe the same for both of those things, for people who want to pursue some creative thing that they enjoy or people who want to work out. I know this is very trite, but follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell directed us to do. Do the thing that makes you happy, that gives you pleasure. Doing something for some other external reason like because you want to look different or because you want someone’s approval or if you want fame — focus on your own internal experience of what feeds you and makes you happy. Then you can’t lose because at least you’ll be happy whatever happens. That’s my advice.

Zibby: That’s true. Excellent advice. I’m sorry about your loss. Thank you for sharing it. Thank you for sharing about your book. I feel like the act of you sharing it was an act of superhuman strength, so there’s that.

Alison: Thank you, Zibby. Thanks. It was really fun to talk with you. Thanks for all your amazing podcasts. You are indefatigable. It’s incredible, all the stuff that you’re doing.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m trying. I love it, so it’s hard to stop. Thank you so much. It was really great to meet you. Thanks for sharing and having this very intense conversation for a Monday morning.

Alison: Likewise. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Alison: Bye.



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