The Secret to Superhuman Strength: Alison Bechdel in Conversation with Roz Chast

Under the aegis of the 92Y

It’s a testament to the rare perspicacity of the market that “cartoonist” Roz Chast (“Host”) has not only been awarded lifetime recognition from The Cartoonists Alliance, but also elected to The American Philosophical Society. Chast attended The Rhode Island School of Design, the only time in her life, she says, during which she didn’t draw cartoons, and “reverting to type” (she notes) went on to become a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker. She’s written or illustrated more than a dozen books, each tackling a subject many of us face, summarizing issues and emotion in single captions or dark, droll images.

Alison Bechdel, who was turned down by several art schools, rose to public awareness with her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For which first appeared as a single 1983 cartoon in feminist paper WomaNews, expanded to multi-panel strips and then a book. Its success eventually allowed her to quit her day job. Bechdel’s place in popular culture was cemented with the very personal memoir Fun Home, adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical and planned for a film. She then co-taught “Lines of Transmission: Comics & Autobiography” at The University of Chicago. The book Are You My Mother?, which focuses on her relationship with her mother, followed. She’s a MacArthur Fellow and Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont.

Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength is, at face value, a book about the author’s obsession with widely varied forms of exercise. Chast begins the conversation by stating unequivocally that she “hates it with devotion and passion. I don’t like anything that reminds me I have a body. Also, I come from a long line of people who believe the only reason to get out of breath is if the Cossacks are chasing them. We’re born with a certain amount of breath and using it up…”

Apparently after the host agreed to talk she sent her cartoon peer a photo of a purchased exercise bike. When confronted by the fact, she replies, “I feel that if I don’t move around even more terrible things will happen.” Bechdel has prepared a slide show of cartoons from the new book depicting her interest in physical activity. It started, she recalls, with childhood fascination of body building. In fact, the title is that of something she sent for as an adolescent. (It didn’t work.) The pursuit was also one for self-sufficiency.

Having returned to running after a hiatus, Bechdel refers to “runners focus,” a kind of trance-like state which is the same as getting caught up in a creative project. She writes about authors who got inspiration from nature, the romantic era, the transcendental movement and Jack Kerouac. “I look at my own sporadic attempts to meditate, but they’re nothing like the Psilocybin (a hallucinogen made from mushrooms) experience in my youth which made me feel a part of everything. I get that feeling of flow during exercise.” Chast relates the experience to that of her own few LSD trips.

Bechdel spends considerable time on Google Image Search, but calls it a “free range” kind of approach. And Chast? No. “When drawings get realistic, they’re often not funny…” Beshdel apparently doesn’t read much, but when she does, prefers biographies, learning about people’s lives. She delved into Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller for the book, but “I didn’t understand them and became more interested in their lives than the writing. Unlike you who’s known who you were since you were five and believe it’s all pointless,” she says to the host, “I still think there’s meaning out there if we can unearth the narrative.” Chast doesn’t dispute her assumption. “Wow, that’s optimistic!” she responds.

“As you might have noticed,” Bechdel notes, “most pages of the book are in color with just a few black and white done with a brush. I hate color. My partner Holly colored the book. I love how fresh it looks.” Chast, on the other hand, loves color. She uses watercolor “which can get muddy, but I kind of don’t care. When I was little, I was drawn to bright colors, but there were some in Crayola’s 64 box I couldn’t believe anyone would turn into a crayon. Salmon Pink!? Cadet Blue was like take a nice color and fuck it up. Why would you have gray?!”

“As an adult, though,” she continues,”I need the mud alongside the bright. Then, I didn’t like bitter taste, now I do.” “Maybe as we get closer to death, darkness is easier,” Bechtel muses. She compliments Chast’s last book Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?! as being a superb piece of writing, not only on aging parents, but mortality.

The cartoonists agree that interplay between the verbal and visual is paramount. Chast points out that some time ago The New Yorker had staff that drew cartoons and others who would caption them. Neither professional approves of the magazine’s caption contests. “My husband says every voice sounds the same,” the host remarks. “Distinct voices are rare,” Bechtel adds. “I think you showed up at The New Yorker when I was in college. You were kind, funny and never aggressive. I thought what’s happening here?!”

Bechdel lives in the country, Chast just outside of New York, yet considers the city home. “Do you feel you appreciate nature more if you know what you’re looking at?” she asks. “I see tree, tree, tree, rock, rock, rock. The city is more specific.” Going into the woods with anyone knowledgeable is equal to that, comes the response. Bechdel describes some of what one can see with a tutored eye. She theorizes people are more comfortable in areas like those where they grew up. (Her childhood was spent in central Pennsylvania.) The women talk about pandemic communication, seeing people in two dimensions. “It’ll be very different when I can see the back of your head,” Chast quips.

The floor is opened to questions for Bechdel.

Who are your artistic ancestors, who inspired you?”
“Charles Adams, all the comics I read as a kid, Mad Magazine – I had a subscription at nine. I rarely go to museums and almost never to galleries.” Chast says it’s what she most misses about not being in the city.

“What kind of exercise are you doing now and do you mix it up?”
“I walk, hike, climb and run. Running got me through the Trump years.” “Thank God that’s over,” Chast interjects. “Yeah for now,” Bechdel responds. “I also ski, cross country and downhill. I’m very attracted to anything with equipment.” “When my kids were kids,” the host comments, “I told them the main thing I hate about hiking is carrying a pack on your back. Why can’t it just be on rollers?”

“Would you consider doing a 21st Century version of Dykes to Watch Out For?”
“I’m working on something now that might turn into an animated television series. I wouldn’t animate it, just write it… Has your artwork been animated, Roz?” Chast apparently did a pilot for ABC Family that went nowhere. She’s grateful, retrospectively remembering its inadequacies. Things would be different now.

Chast tells Bechdel that her work speaks to women of all ages. “I wrote this comic strip with two women that said I can only see a movie with women if they’re not just talking about men,” she responds. “The cartoon represented female characters as human individuals, not just male foils. I’m really glad young women relate.”

“What’s your next big project?”
“The animation is one of them and I want to start another book.”

The conversation is one of mutual admiration. Though the women have made very different life choices, they possess the talent of dry, witty, economic communication. Both use their work to observe society and themselves. Genuine curiosity about one another creates palpable warmth.

Photos Courtesy of 92Y
Opening: Alison Bechdel, left. Roz Chast, right.

About Alix Cohen (1105 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.