Author: Alison Bechdel (color collaborator Holly Rae Taylor)
Publish Date: May 2021
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-0544387652
Author website: https://dykestowatchoutfor.com/
Guest Review by Edward Dorey
Writers working in the field of graphic medicine often look at how comics portray sick people. For example, in the book Graphic Medicine Manifesto (Penn State University Press, 2015), MK Czerwiec, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly Myers, and Scott T. Smith review many portrayals of illnesses, such as schizophrenia, congenital arthritis, cancer, and lupus, in different graphic novels. Through these analyses, Ian Williams’s goal of having those working in the field examine “the intersection of the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare” has partially been fulfilled (qtd. in Czerwiec et al., 2015, p. 1).
Yet one subject that many associated with graphic medicine often overlook is the healthy person. Healthcare is “the activity or business of providing medical services” (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.), and one kind of “medical service” is the commonly dispensed advice to “exercise” given by doctors to otherwise unimpaired patients. Thus, one way to examine “the intersection” between comics and healthcare is to look at the relationship that mostly healthy people have with working out.
Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength (TStSS) is one example of a graphic memoir about being able-bodied and exercise-obsessed. In part, it is about the workout trends of the decades, recounting Bechdel’s associations with the jogging boom of the seventies, the karate fad of the eighties, and the growth in the popularity of mountain biking in the nineties. (The author also looks at other fashionable physical activities in different decades.)
However, TStSS is more than a mere history of exercise; it is also an analysis of how working out erodes one’s sense of self. For example, when talking about her exploits with the jogging boom, Bechdel writes that she felt a oneness with the world that she otherwise never experienced. Bechdel says that, while running in a big loop around her house, she perceived that “[t]he boundary of [her] very self seemed to dissolve as [she] merged with the humid evening air” (p. 70). Throughout the book, Bechdel includes short scenes of and commentary on the transcendent walking of the Romantics and Transcendentalists and the Zen-inducing hiking of the Beat writer Jack Kerouac, encouraging a reader to compare these writers’ experiences with their ego deaths to hers. For example, toward the middle of the book, Bechdel takes away focus on her own story to explore the loss of self that the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller underwent when she “almost ran outside into the ‘free air’ …” after church (p. 97). During this “almost run,” Bechdel draws Fuller conceptualizing that “there is no self!…It’s only because I think self real that I suffer” (p. 97). TStSS shows that Bechdel’s experience of ego loss with exercise is something that artists and creatives have had for centuries.
Yet this book is not an isolated celebration of exercise. Although TStSS never does so explicitly, Bechdel’s memoir criticizes a different kind of hyper-active specimen: the superhero, a figure that, though important to the comics world, those working with graphic medicine also often avoid analyzing. Through her use of color, her commentary on the childishness of comic book advertisements, and her failed attempt to become a karate master, Bechdel shows that the ultimate examples of the physically fit in comic books and popular culture are not only unrealistic but also propagandize a grossly defensive ideology. However, the author complicates her criticisms by showing that an alternative view to the purpose of exercise—to remove the ego and become one with everything—is an imperfect alternative to getting fit in order to be physically imposing.
Alison Bechdel’s novel places itself in conversation with superhero comics through its use of color. TStSS is the only graphic narrative of Bechdel’s that she—with her wife Holly Rae Taylor—has drawn with a well-rounded color palette. Her first memoir Fun Home is in black, white, and dark blue, and her second autobiographical work Are You My Mother? is in black, white, and red. However, TStSS includes blues, reds, grays, and, for Bechdel’s first time, greens and yellows! Bechdel notes that her piece is “so much about nature and life and exuberance that it really needed to be full color” (Boston.com, 2021, 25:15). I agree with Bechdel that her chromatic art allows a reader to see the serenity of nature, one theme of the novel. However, through its use of a full palette, Bechdel’s comic crosses over into the world of superheroes, for, in the United States, this genre was often one of the few kinds of comics with the monetary backing to have color throughout much of the late twentieth century (McCloud, 1994, p. 188). Moreover, in an interview, Bechdel exhibits an Avengers comic to help illustrate how Holly Rae Taylor’s coloring process for TStSS involved placing different chromatic layers on top of one another to produce a final hue (Comix Experience, 2021, 1:19:37). Furthermore, the fact that two people labored on TStSS makes the work more like a superhero comic: usually multiple people handle superhero comics to have a higher rate of output; e.g., Batman #n will have a colorist, an illustrator, a writer, etc., all of whom are likely different persons. The work that went into TStSS’s palette resembles the effort put into coloring superhero comics.
Therefore, TStSS’s use of grays at certain “eureka” moments of Bechdel’s allows the book to criticize the hyper-physically active superhero as being spiritually hollow. In contrast to the rest of the book, Bechdel will often include splash pages covered in gray and black. Bechdel places these pages during experiences of transcendent ego death in which Bechdel is usually exercising or walking in nature. For example, while portraying herself cross-country skiing on a lake, Bechdel includes a gray splash page of her younger self looking down at fish under the ice. Bechdel’s concurrent narration states, “If you can manage to see past everyday reality, where subject and object hold sway… /…to the view where it’s all one thing, unified and absolute, there’s nothing to relate to. / ‘Self’ and ‘other’ might very well be illusions” (pp. 120-121). By using this non-superheroic gray color scheme during numinous moments, Bechdel shows that, though colorful superheroes may physically transcend most people, they lack the ability to transport either him or herself or the reader to a higher state of oneness with the world. Bechdel stumbles upon a similar idea to one of McCloud’s in Understanding Comics. Understanding Comics (1994, pp. 188-189) argues that color “objectifies” graphic narratives; color may look beautiful but makes readers view the world of a comic as less metaphorical or relatable. Graphic narratives in black and white and gray allow the reader to be closer to the drawn world itself and, therefore, enable a viewer to experience a kind of ego death.
Bechdel references superheroes by reflecting on her experience with Charles Atlas’s “hero of the beach” ads, which often appeared at the back of comics. Early in the memoir, Bechdel talks about her youthful interest “with the bodybuilding ads in [her] comic books / [She] wanted muscles like that / to be bigger and stronger than everyone else” (p. 27). Simultaneously with this opined desire, Bechdel draws the Charles Atlas “hero of the beach” ads in which a skinny boy bulks himself up after being bullied at the beach by a big man; the boy later pummels the bully and becomes a “real man” in the eyes of women (deathstar461, 2017). Although Bechdel shows herself reading these ads in the non-superhero comic Richie Rich, and, in an interview, Bechdel reveals that she did not peruse many superhero graphic narratives growing up (Boston.com, 2021, 9:50), scholars like Richard Landon (2007) argue that Charles Atlas ads reflected and would go on to influence changes in superhero comics. The bullied young man’s transformation into hulking stud is like “Superman shedding his alter-ego Clark Kent…[in the transformation from] Wimp to Warrior” (p. 200). The “hero of the beach” ad, which was drawn in a cartoon-strip style, has the structure of a simple superhero story itself: villain beats hero yet hero then finds a way to trump villain and does so. The acclaimed comic writer Grant Morrison would create their own “hero of the beach” style superhero in the form of Flex Mentallo, a figure representing the imaginative value of superhero stories of the fifties and sixties to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Landon, 2007, pp. 201-202). Even if the author does not do it explicitly, Bechdel’s reference to these ads and her youthful desire to be physically imposing puts her comic book in conversation with the superhero genre.
Bechdel’s work criticizes the superheroic Charles Atlas promotions as representing a childish power fantasy. Bechdel notes that these ads made her want to “be bigger and stronger than everyone else” and made her feel as if she were a “textbook weakling” due to her “protruding ribs” (p. 27). When she orders a book from one of her comic book advertisements that promises “the secret to superhuman strength,” she discovers that the text is, in fact, a dull technical manual about jiu-jitsu beyond the comprehension of her child-self (p. 49). The narrating author then notes that her felicity as a young person did not come from beating up bullies or being stronger than either adults or other kids; rather, her happiness came from the unthinking flow states that she experienced while drawing and skiing. Bechdel says, “If only I had known I already had it [the secret to superhuman strength]! This blissful absorption in my own creativity [was one example]” (p. 50). To the adult Bechdel, the superhero reflects that childish desire not for creative fulfillment or ego death through art or physical activity, but for blunt physical might, the kind that the formerly skinny boy has while punching the bully in the “hero of the beach” ads.
Later in the book, Bechdel again fuels her puerile want to be physically powerful compared to others via karate practice, and she suffers consequences for her desire. In her twenties, Bechdel joins a women’s karate club. There, through her consistent practice of the sport’s movements with others, she feels an ego death that gives her similar joy to the kind that she experienced when drawing and skiing as a kid. Bechdel observes, “Perhaps that was the real appeal of karate, the experience of union as we moved and breathed in sync, in a collective trance” (p. 107). She notes that the physical strength that she felt from the art made her “imagin[e] how [she] might respond” to an attack (p. 104). She states that she likes her defensive prowess at first but realizes that feeling constantly prepared for an aggressor “grew wearing” (p. 104). When a man gropes her on the subway, Bechdel responds to the harasser with a punch “just as if [she] were in class” and, thus, stops “short of full impact with his solar plexus” (p. 109). This relatively low-impact blow does not knock out the molester, and he reacts to Bechdel’s hit with a fist to her face. Later, she cries from “shock, pain, [and] disillusionment” yet also states that her attack was “a kind of relief. With [her] armor in disarray, [she] was undefended, open. / Free” (p. 110). Bechdel gives up karate, yet her exercising continues. Instead of becoming a great combatant like Batman or Iron Fist or Shang-Chi, Bechdel learns that the “goal” of exercise for her is not to defeat others (not that martial arts training will help with that much in the real world anyway) but to feel one’s ego wilt away through physical exhaustion.
Though TStSS argues that the “goal” of exercise goes beyond the childish yearning to be able to pummel opponents, the book’s repeated support of physical exertion as a transcendent activity is not one-dimensional. For example, during her years training for karate and before she gets punched in the subway, Bechdel implies that her first long-term partner Eloise is more politically engaged with leftist causes than the author herself partially because Bechdel is too wrapped up in working out. While Bechdel talks about the pain that she feels from sparring in karate, she says, “I was still a weakling” (p. 105). Bechdel then compares herself to courageous people, or the “political dykes [she] knew” (p. 105). One of these “political dykes” is Eloise, a war-tax resister and active protestor. Bechdel says that “defying unjust authority was a vital moral responsibility,” yet notes that, in contrast to Eloise, “civil disobedience was something [Bechdel] felt too chicken to do” (p. 105). While practicing karate, Bechdel learns to fight in a pseudo-manner, trying to spar using only “light contact” (p. 104). Comparatively, leftist political activists are the ones doing stronger fighting (metaphorically so). Bechdel says, “[The political dykes whom Bechdel knew] were constantly plotting acts of nonviolent resistance against the patriarchy” (p. 105). Though Bechdel sees “defying unjust authority” as important, she never goes as far in combating it as her partner. Bechdel may feel a “collective trance” while practicing a martial art, but she does not take much part in Eloise’s collective political causes. Thus, Bechdel indicates that, though obsessively exercising makes one feel as if he or she is part of a worthwhile aggregate, working out may be a distraction from valuable causes and groups.
Moreover, Bechdel demonstrates that pushing herself as both a creative person and exerciser damages her relationship with lovers. Toward the later part of the memoir, the author notes that she ruined a romance because, after long days of drawing and biking, Bechdel did not have time to spend with a partner. Though TStSS’s creator feels one with all things when exercising or getting into a flow state while drawing, one of Bechdel’s partners notes that Bechdel is “not there” for the partner (p. 179).
Bechdel complicates her ostensible recommendation to exercise by demonstrating that physical exertion for “health” distances her from not only political activism but also personal relationships. Though many news sources recommend that people be physically active (see The New York Times’s article “Lifelong Exercise Adds Up to Big Health Care Savings”), Bechdel indicates that many can take this advice to an extreme. The act of “preserving…health” through fitness, though a fine-enough proposal on its own, may take away from human connections if taken too far.
I recommend TStSS. As a criticism of the currently immensely popular superhero genre, it works well. Moreover, its skepticism regarding exercise as a panacea is refreshing.
Edward Dorey is a graduate of Boise State University. He majored in English with a literature emphasis and would like to remain abreast of the goings-on in comics.
Bechdel, A. (2021). The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Mariner Books.
Boston.com. (2021, May 27). Boston.com Book Club Discussion: ‘The Secret to Superhuman Strength’ with Author Alison Bechdel [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o06fBs8d9qU
Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). Healthcare. In Dictionary.Cambridge.org dictionary. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/healthcare
Comix Experience. (2021, July 21). ALISON BECHDEL for The Secret to Superhuman Strength — July 2021 Graphic Novel Club Selection [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBvLn-9FD2w
Czerwiec, M. K., Williams, I., Squier, S. M., Green, M. J., Myers, K. R., & Smith, S. T. (2015). Graphic Medicine Manifesto. The Pennsylvania State University Press.
deathstar461. (2017, August 9). Charlie Atlas: Hero of the Beach. Vintage Ads. https://vintage-ads.livejournal.com/7233655.html
Landon, R. (2007). A Half-Naked Muscleman in Trunks: Charles Atlas, Superheroes, and Comic Book Masculinity. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 18(2 (70)), 200–216. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24350986
McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding Comics (Reprint). Harper Perennial. (Original work published 1993)
Reynolds, G. (2021, June 16). Lifelong Exercise Adds Up to Big Health Care Savings. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/16/well/move/exercise-health-care-cost-savings.html