Addicted to sports, Alison Bechdel puts her body to the test to find inner peace

THE BD BOX – With The Secret of Superhuman Strength, the American designer delivers a fascinating autobiography articulated around physical exercise and the mental state that results from it. A work of enthusiastic introspection which summons as much Eastern philosophies as Jack Kerouac.

As a child, Alison Bechdel was passionate about bodybuilders and quite naturally decided to go in search of “physical invincibility”. She then discovers an advertisement promising “the secret of superhuman strength” for the modest sum of a dollar. Neither one nor two, she commands what will turn out to be “a poorly printed booklet of martial arts lessons, ridiculously incomprehensible to a child.” A mirage, then, but whatever, the machine is launched… It is through physical exercise that Alison Bechdel will unlock the secrets of the universe (…) and of her own psyche.

Released on August 31 at Denoël Graphic, The Secret of Superhuman Strength is the author’s third graphic novel. His two previous ones, the masterpiece Fun Home (2006) and its “sequel” Are you my mom? (2013), focused on analyzing his relationship with his father and then his mother. “After those two books about my overbearing parents, I had some freedom in the third… Writing it allowed me to escape them,” says Alison Bechdel to Figaro, in videoconference. This time it’s about exploring “his own existence”, from the 1960s to today, punctuated by regular sports practice, crucial for his mental balance.

When I think of myself, it’s mostly about discomfort. Being able to transcend this limit is a source of immense joy

Alison Bechdel

“When I get enough physical exercise, my mind relaxes and goes into what is technically, I guess, the same kind of state that meditation brings, explains the American artist, who already experienced this state of flux (or flow) when she spent hours drawing. For me, the really wonderful part of this feeling is the way I forget myself. I come out of my little individual and limited self (laughs). When I think of myself, it’s mostly about discomfort. Being able to transcend this limit is a source of immense joy. I think I exercise to manage my anxiety.”

This need to detach herself from her ego led her to take an interest in Buddhism, the romantic English poets, Margaret Fuller and Jack Kerouac (among others), who integrated harmoniously into her witty and witty autobiographical narrative. humor. “My yearning for transcendence was, in some ways, an attempt to avoid the strain of relating to others,” writes the one who still sees herself today as “a somewhat asocial introvert”.

It is no coincidence that, for more than thirty years, Alison Bechdel has lived in Vermont, in the countryside, after having spent her twenties in the cultural ferment in New York and Minneapolis. “I love nature, I love being able to walk out my door and into the woods, ski…I would hate to have to take my car for a bike ride!” In addition to skiing and cycling, Alison Bechdel, soon to be 62 “lifts weights”, practices running and also a little yoga. When she struggles to move forward in her creative process, getting some fresh air and exercising also gives her “the assurance of having new thoughts”.

Souvenir from Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a “utopian experience” feminist. Alison Bechdel / Denoël Graphic

With The Secret of Superhuman Strength, its faithful readers will be surprised to discover an album full of colors. “My partner Holly painted four layers of black ink on each page which we Photoshopped into layers of magenta, cyan and yellow. This is how comics were made before digital printing, details the designer. Why did I do this? I don’t know, it was crazy. A way to preserve a luminous and watery rendering.”

The comic box

A bike ride with Jack Kerouac

Go to slideshow (3)

The sequence above features Alison Bechdel and a friend named Linda, who introduces her to cycling.

The first page shows the tedious preparations for the trek and at the same time disseminates reflections around the definition of dharma. All without the slightest separation gutter. “It was a fun challenge to bring all of these activities together on one page,” remembers the designer, before confiding an anecdote: “When I was a child, I loved Richard Scarry’s books, do you know him? Wait I’ll show you (she goes to look Busy, Busy World, published in 1965, editor’s note). He was drawing these kind of big panoramic scenes, for example this city, with all these little terms to explain things… It inspired me when I was drawing this page, I wanted people to be really on board .”

But what is dharma? “A rather vague spiritual concept that I don’t really understand: there are many definitions and each new one is broader than the previous one”, smiled Alison Bechdel. She takes the risk anyway: “Dharma, in Buddhism, is in some ways about good conduct, how to behave well in the world… but also about the laws of the universe.” She draws a parallel between this dharma and the discipline of cycling: “The way you have to pay attention to your bike, understand how the machinery works…in a way, it’s like life! You have to pay attention to detail, be considerate, present, invested in what you’re doing.”

I am a very literal designer. I don’t like when people draw metaphors, I find it very annoying (laughs)

Alison Bechdel

The second and third pages illustrate the cycling tour itself. In full effort, the author recounts having experienced a sort of epiphany: “What is my problem? Always do! Wrestle! Accomplish! Why do I feel constantly pursued? So stuck? On the edge of the abyss! Ready for disaster! I am a poor neurotic! You really are a poor neurotic! So what?!” The designer says to herself “frustrated” of not having, according to her, totally succeeded in transcribing this moment: “I worked a lot to reduce this experience to a few boxes, to encapsulate it, but I still feel that I haven’t really shown the discovery that it was for me, this revelation of saying ‘yes, I I’m at my wit’s end… but who cares?” It was a tremendous relief.” And why not try to tell it in a more metaphorical way? “I am a very literal designer. I don’t like when people draw metaphors, I find it very annoying (laugh). I like to show the real stuff!”

Through comics, Alison Bechdel likes to evoke how technological progress (clothing, equipment) has enabled the development of outdoor activities. This is the case, for example, with the box on the second page, which mentions in particular the reduction of the frame of the bicycles and the enlargement of the tires. “I could have written a whole chapter on the evolution of mountain biking… but I had to fit everything into this little text box!”, explains the author. Among its sources, the “tremendous” documentary film Klunkerz.

This question of equipment takes on a particular dimension when reading the Celestial tramps by Jack Kerouac, whom Alison Bechdel discovered during her famous hike (see lower boxes on the third page): “These guys were hiking in the mountains in the 50s, before we had Gor-Tex, ultralight backpacks… They were carrying heavy cotton sleeping bags up the mountain!” Although she didn’t like it at all On the road, manifesto of the “beat generation”, the author is passionate about The Celestial Tramps, in which Jack Kerouac lives “a wonderful spiritual experience” in the mountains and merges with its environment. “It really colored my whole adventure, I was living inside the book while I was pedaling my bike,” remembers the designer.

By juggling between pure narrative and intimate reflections, by integrating historical inserts and a secondary story based on Jack Kerouac’s novel, Alison Bechdel brilliantly recalls the singularity and narrative power of comics.

The Secret of Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel, translated by Lili Sztajn, Denoël Graphic, 240 pages, 26 euros.

Addicted to sports, Alison Bechdel puts her body to the test to find inner peace