The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

In her brand-new graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel examines her relationship to creativity, exercise, and philosophy. The Secret to Superhuman Strength covers Bechdel’s sixty years as a life-long fitness junkie, and even how Americans became obsessed with exercise fads. This is Bechdel’s first book to use full color drawings, and for that she thanks her wife, Holly Rae Taylor, who agreed near the end of Bechdel’s project to put in hundreds of hours of work, lest the project significantly miss the deadline.

I read Bechdel’s famous graphic memoir Fun Home six years ago, and while I found it deeply interesting, my memory is always colored by the fact that I had Bechdel’s book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. Though I entered The Secret to Superhuman Strength trepidatiously, I was relieved to see Bechdel’s vocabulary is more accessible in her newest book.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength first examines the way Americans were not obsessed with fitness when Bechdel was born in 1960. People were not concerned with exercise, and parents did not sign their children up for numerous sports:

As a result, Bechdel wonders if she is the product of her generation. Throughout this first section, the author cleverly uses two modes of storytelling: panels that demonstrate the fitness crazes that have taken over, such as “feminists pole dancing” and “pacifists signing up for boot camp.” Meanwhile, her current self cuts in to talk to readers. This is a tactic commonly used in graphic works, but Bechdel does it expertly, avoiding simple panels and instead making use of techniques that “teach” the reader’s eyes where to go next. I can only think of one or two spots in 233 pages where I accidentally moved my eyes to the wrong spot in this book full of visual movement.

Bechdel breaks her book into her six decades on Earth, which includes the covid-19 pandemic. While politics, wars, and culture aren’t the bulk of the graphic memoir, each reference to history — maybe a show on TV or a political debate — gives readers a sense of the large context. Because she prefers to live in the woods in Vermont, it could be easy for Bechdel, and thus readers, to lose sight of the outside world, but she always provides references for readers to shape their understanding of what’s going on and influencing her.

And it would be hard to read a graphic memoir that fails to acknowledge this author’s career. Bechdel describes the stress of pumping out her weekly comic, Dykes to Watch out For, while commencing work on the “dad book,” which would become the famous Fun Home, later turned into a Tony-winning musical. Then, her follow-up memoir Are You My Mother? Each project forces Bechdel to work more hours, which leads into some abuse of alcohol and prescription pills and the ruination of dating relationships. If you aren’t familiar with Bechdel’s work, you get a sense of when it was produced, how it affected the author, and the ways personal creative works can dominate the creator.

However, as she wades through the work of producing comics, Bechdel includes examples of famous creative thinkers who were also obsessed with their work and the nature of existence: Margaret Fuller, who was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was friends with William Wordsworth, etc. Ever a deep thinker, Bechdel looks at her relationship to understanding herself, her fear of dying, and the attempts to say rigorously fit to stave off death. And yet exercise brings Bechdel clarity that helps her creatively, challenging the cartoonist to reflect further and even wear herself out in ways that help her to avoid drinking. This isn’t a memoir about substance abuse, but it does creep in when Bechdel’s seems blocked, overworked, or frustrated.

Unexpectedly, The Secret to Superhuman Strength has a wry humor, such as a panel with a small box that notes a game of catch is lesbian foreplay, or how Star Trek uniforms predicted what would be comfortable athletic wear. And at the end of the memoir, in the midst of a pandemic, people who don’t believe science, and Trump in office, Bechdel tells her wife, “I gotta stay in shape. Just in case things go further south and I have to run messages for the resistance. Nobody will suspect a little old lady.”

An excellent, thoughtful memoir that avoids cliches and shallow conclusions about our relationships to our bodies and consciousness, and how that relationship with the self affects the people we care about.

12 comments

  1. I love reading your posts but an American, lesbian, graphic novel really leaves me with nothing I could sensibly add. Though I must say it sounds witty and intelligent.

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    • I was really interested in her fascination with movement and conquering physical activities with an obsessive nature. I mean, she doesn’t just try karate, she becomes a black belt. She doesn’t just take up running, she runs for hours straight. She also begins with Americans not moving at all, nor being concerned with exercise, until we were told by the TV to do it. That on its own was interesting to me. Alison Bechdel is wildly intelligent, so I always hope people give her books a chance. I know graphic memoirs sound something akin to comic books, but it’s more like using images allows her to focus on the idea instead of the descriptions of people and settings. Her graphic memoir Fun Home was a huge award winner and even turned into a Broadway musical, which I CANNOT picture (it was a serious book).

      Do you recall an exercise campaign of any kind in Australia that changed the way people thought about physical activity? Or is this a weird U.S. thing?

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  2. This sounds like an interesting read. I’m not super interested in reading about exercise but it sounds like there is more to this than just that. I hadn’t really ever thought about exercise being a new thing but I guess she’s right.

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    • I remember seeing old videos of Jack LaLanne making exercise and fitness seem so easy (he died at 98 still doing push ups and what not). The book is more about what Bechdel is seeking through movement; what it does for her mind, and how that connects her to previous creative people. Honestly, it’s a bit more complicated in than I’m capable of describing because I don’t have a lot of philosophical thinking in my background. Bechdel is one of those people who can connect things like crazy, seeing the strings that join disparate-looking moments and ideas.

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  3. This sounds excellent. We’ve just hit a new wave of running here during/after lockdown, which has been interesting to see. I am not very good with graphic novels but it sounds like an easy one to negotiate and engage with.

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    • I think Bechdel uses the images so that you can picture the ideas she’s communicating. I know not many readers like graphic books because it’s not just words, but I will say Bechdel is one of those “wordy” graphic artists. The images look like they’re there more so you can image the setting and people so that she can get to the more important stuff: ideas, relationships, philosophy. I should have thought of you right away when I read this one, Liz! It does sound like a good book for you.

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  4. This does sound interesting! I’ve never read anything by Bechdel, and I like graphic memoirs. I am wary through of reading exercise memoirs, because past experience of reading that type of thing has tended to make me feel even worse about how much I hate sports. Maybe her first memoir would be the place to start for me, despite the wordy vocabulary?

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    • She talks about writing both of her memoirs about her parents in this one, so on the one hand it helps to have that background, but on the other it is not necessary. I was worried that this book would make me feel bad, truth be told, but I got this book as part of the ticket price of seeing her on a Zoom event, and through that event I was reassured that The Secret to Superhuman Strength is more about her obsession with physical activity and her relationships to other people. It’s not a sports book or even really an exercise book. There’s also a healthy dose of philosophy that was interesting.

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