Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, known for her groundbreaking, richly layered depictions of queer life and family relationships, will receive the 2022 International Humanities Prize from Washington University in St. Louis.
Awarded by the university’s Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, the biennial prize honors the lifetime work of a noted scholar, writer or artist who has made a significant and sustained contribution to the world of arts and letters. Bechdel will receive the prize, which is accompanied by a $25,000 award, during a public ceremony Nov. 9 in the Clark-Fox Forum in WashU’s Hillman Hall.
“Alison Bechdel is one of the preeminent cartoonists of the 21st century,” said Rebecca Wanzo, professor and chair of women, gender and sexuality studies in Arts & Sciences. “Her work invites conversations about sexuality, trauma, medium and genre, women in the academy, place and childhood. How many creators effortlessly move between Ulysses and Donald Winnicott?”
Wanzo also noted that “Fun Home” — Bechdel’s celebrated 2006 memoir about her relationship with her closeted father, later adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical — “is a gateway for literary scholars to teach the medium and one of the key texts resulting in the ‘ninth art’ being taken seriously as an art form.
“Its instant status as a classic speaks to the number of fields it touches — art, queer studies, literary studies, theater and, of course, comics studies,” Wanzo added. “We are thrilled to welcome her to campus.”
About Alison Bechdel
Born and raised in central Pennsylvania, Bechdel earned an associate’s degree from Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 1979 and a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Oberlin College in 1981.
In 1983, Bechdel launched the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which she memorably described as “half op-ed column and half endless, serialized Victorian novel,” in the feminist newspaper WomaNews. Eventually syndicated to dozens of independent gay and lesbian publications, it ran continuously for 25 years.
Famously, in 1985, “Dykes to Watch Out For” introduced what has become known as the “Bechdel—Wallace Test” as a rough measure of female representation. Originally suggested by Bechdel’s friend and karate partner Liz Wallace, the test asks whether a film 1.) has at least two female characters who 2.) talk to one another about 3.) something other than a man. It has since been widely cited by film scholars and adapted to a range of other media.
“Fun Home,” subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” chronicles Bechdel’s youth in the small town of Beech Creek, where her father, Bruce, taught English and operated a funeral home. He also conducted numerous affairs with men, a fact Bechdel only learned after coming out herself. Filled with mythological and literary references — from Icarus to James Joyce and Rita Mae Brown — the book explores their fraught relationship with warmth and empathy, in a visual style marked by blue and gray washes.
In 2008, Bechdel placed “Dykes to Watch Out For” on hiatus to concentrate on a second memoir, “Are You My Mother?,” which was released in 2012. A companion to “Fun Home,” the book explores the author’s relationship with her mother, Helen — an amateur actor whose own creative ambitious were stymied, in part, by her unhappy marriage — while also contemplating the work of Virginia Woolf, Dr. Seuss and, especially, pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, among others. Bechdel’s most recent book is “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” (2021), which recounts her lifelong pursuit, if not quite apprehension, of physical exercise.
Bechdel’s numerous honors include a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship as well as Eisner, Inkpot, Lambda, Harvey and American Library Association awards. In 2015, the Broadway adaptation of “Fun Home,” featuring book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, won the Tony Award for Best Musical. In 2017, Bechdel was named cartoonist laureate of Vermont.