The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength
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The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Alison Bechdel

All her life, Alison Bechdel has searched for an elusive secret.


The secret to superhuman strength.

She has looked for it in her favourite books, the lives of her heroes, celibacy, polyamory, activism, therapy, and most obsessively, in her lifelong passion for exercise. Skiing, running, karate, cycling, yoga, weight lifting - you name it, she’s tried it. “Oh, to be self-sufficient! Hard as a rock! An island!”

But as she gets older, her body isn’t getting any stronger. And in a changing, sometimes overwhelming world, are “cantaloupe-sized guns” all a person needs? Maybe the all-important secret is not where she expected to find it …

In this, her third graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel has written a deeply layered, personal story about selfhood, self-sabotage, mortality, addiction, bliss, wonder, and the concerns of a generation. This is an extraordinary, laugh-out-loud chronicle of the conundrums we all grapple with as we seek our true place in the world.

Review

Alison Bechdel must be the graphic novelist with the richest density of ideas-per-square- inch; no blurb could do justice to the wide-ranging subject matter of her new book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Taking as its starting point the author’s lifelong passion for exercise, it leaps immediately to the Romantic poets, the Transcendentalists and Kerouac, before demonstrating how these writers relate back to gender, consumerism, self-improvement, and metaphysics. Intrigued? So far I’ve only described the book’s first 17 pages.

Bechdel writes about her life with the same deep honesty and disarming humour as ever. She speaks frankly of the uses and challenges of exercise, of her struggles with relationships and mental health, and of her ongoing fascination with Buddhist teachings. Her aim in exercising so hard is to unite mind and body, and each activity she takes up serves as a new lens for examining some aspect of her life – skiing puts her in touch with her family history; karate reveals new self-confidence as well as new vulnerabilities; cycling frames both a break-up and the discovery of new love. The spectre of mortality hangs (albeit lightly) over the whole book, the thought of the inevitable ‘granite slab’ by turns dogging and informing her pursuit of self-reliance.

The art itself is a delight: from the dry self-deprecation in an eye roll shared directly with the reader, to the exuberant Where’s Wally detail of a crowd scene. Passages covering more revelatory or spiritual moments are rendered in sparse and beautiful brush lines inspired by Zen ink paintings. In one pivotal scene in the High Sierras, each boulder of the landscape is rendered in a subtly different sunset colour. This is Bechdel’s most colourful comic yet, painted in a gorgeous muted palette by her partner Holly Rae Taylor. If you’ve laughed and wept through her earlier memoirs you’ll relish revisiting Bechdel’s life from this new angle, which contextualises her previous books and delves into the emotional struggle of creating them. If you are yet to experience one of Bechdel’s enrapturing books, you’ll be richly rewarded for starting with this one.


Ele Jenkins is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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