Alison Bechdel’s very labor-intensive cartooning process

The celebrated graphic memoirist photographs herself striking every pose depicted in every panel of her work?!

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Duke Ellington’s hungry ear.


Alison Bechdel (b. 1960)

Reading a review of the celebrated cartoonist’s new book last week, I ran across the following sentence, in a parenthetical:

Bechdel has often described her artistic process—taking photographs that she copies and recopies—as laborious; the stories themselves proceed in careful iterative squares.

A notably laborious artistic process? Naturally, I had to know more!

A quick search yielded the below video, from 2006—Bechdel in her studio, demonstrating the photography-based method mentioned above. Laborious it is. For each physical pose she wants to depict in her panels, Bechdel gets up from her desk and strikes that pose for a tripod-mounted digital camera on a timer; the resulting photo becomes the basis for her drawing. All artists pour themselves into their work, but this is a whole new level.

At the end of the video, however, Bechdel argues that this process is not as laborious and obsessive-compulsive as it may sound. “When you think about it, doing all this posing and the digital photographs, it’s really quite quick and convenient,” she says. In the pre-digital past, Bechdel would flip through catalogs or artist reference books to find the poses she wanted. Later, she used Polaroids. By comparison, digital cameras can produce the image she needs in just a few seconds.

(Even so, it still sounds pretty labor-intensive to me. In a 2012 interview, Bechdel estimated that she took 4,000 photos of herself for her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?)

Here’s another Bechdel process video, this one from 2011 and only 48 seconds long but just as revealing. In it, Bechdel is painstakingly inking the text for a new book. In the background, a TV or radio reporter is describing the situation on the ground in Syria, as protestors and government forces clash in the lead-up to the country’s civil war. “This is horrifying,” Bechdel says as she works. “The world is, like, exploding and I’m drawing tiny typographic letters. Why?” After a pause, she mutters to herself: “I should get a job.”

What creative person hasn’t had this exact thought? The world is exploding and we’re at our desks devoting hours and hours to creating imaginary worlds for audiences that may or may not ever materialize. And yet—how grateful I am that my favorite writers and artists and musicians didn’t listen to that voice!

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THE FANTASY OF WORKING ALL THE TIME

This interview between Bechdel and June Thomas for Slate’s Working podcast is a delight. Below are three of the Bechdel quotes that jumped out at me, but the whole thing is worth a listen.

I do have some compulsion to work at full pitch. I don’t quite know why. I think maybe in some prior existence I was a Sherpa, perhaps. I just like being in that full exertion mode. Whether it’s creative or physical or something else.

Part of the fantasy of working all the time, whenever I felt like it, was that time was infinite. I had all the time in the world and I didn’t have to adhere to schedules or the hours of the Post Office, I was just free running in my own world.

It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to take Sunday mornings off. And then I moved on to all day Sunday. And then I moved on to weekends. Like, that was really hard for me to figure out. It’s because my work is so much about my life, it’s so interwoven with my life and I’ve made it that way. But I also very much have used it to keep my partners at bay, to keep everything at bay, you know, and just be left alone in my little burrow. Which is not good.

Also, this may go without saying, but Bechdel’s new book—The Secret to Superhuman Strengthsounds really good! It’s about her lifelong obsession with exercise (and exercise fads), physical exertion as a route to spiritual transcendence, and how this is all tied up with her creative process. Can’t wait to pick up a copy (just as soon as I’m done with a move looming in early June; until then, I’m banned from buying any more books.🤦🏻‍♂️ )


SELF-PROMO CORNER

Belatedly, I wanted to share an interview I did the other week with Sara Campbell for her Tiny Revolutions newsletter. Sara writes about “becoming who you are” in a relatable, insightful, and unpretentious way, so it was a pleasure to talk to her about creative-process stuff, and about my increasingly suspicious attitude toward productivity culture. Read it here—or just subscribe to Sara’s newsletter, it’s wonderful.

While I’m plugging my own interviews: Earlier this year, Michael Bungay Stanier approached me with an irresistible and impossible pitch: Pick the best two pages from your favorite book to read out loud and discuss on his new podcast. I said yes . . . and then spent a solid week agonizing over what book to choose and which pages to read. Ultimately, I settled on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—not because it’s my favorite necessarily, but because it seemed like the perfect novel for the weird, sequestered, alternative-reality version of life we’ve all been living this past year. I can never listen to my own interviews, but you’re welcome to give it a listen here.


TWEETS I LIKED LAST WEEK

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