Cartoonist Alison Bechdel wins MacArthur genius award

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“I have to admit, this is something I’ve fantasized about,” Bechdel said in a telephone interview Monday. “I’m kind of in a state of shock, actually.”

The foundation announced 21 new fellows today. MacArthur does not accept applications for the award and says the several hundred nominations it receives each year are kept confidential. A selection committee reviews the nominations against the standard of “exceptional creativity,” and 20 to 30 fellows are announced each year.

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Bechdel found out in late August; since then, at her artist’s residency in Italy, she has had to keep the news under wraps. She began to wonder if she had imagined the phone call.

The MacArthur Foundation praises Bechdel’s work: “With storytelling that is striking for its conceptual depth and complexity in structure as well as for the deft use of allusion and reference, Bechdel is changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.”

MacArthur Fellows can use the award to “exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society,” according to the program’s website.

The fellowship comes with no formal expectations, according to the MacArthur Foundation; it is based on a person’s creative potential, not just past achievements. Bechdel, 54, can use the money in whatever way she sees fit.

Bechdel is known for her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” that was syndicated for 25 years and presented life in the lesbian community, as well as graphic memoirs “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” and “Are You My Mother?”

She started making cartoons in college, and she was 25 years old when she decided to pursue the hobby as a career. Five years later, she was able to make a living just from comics.

“It was this really clear moment of commitment, I remember, when I made the decision to quit my full time job,” Bechdel said. “It was almost like getting married or something.”

Vermont has been her home since 1991.

“Vermont is absolutely a crucial part of my creative life,” said Bechdel, who is also a James Marsh professor-at-large at the University of Vermont. “I have a kind of peace there.”

Even before the announcement of the MacArthur fellowship, Bechdel said her career had been going well.

“Fun Home,” a memoir published in 2006 about her childhood in rural Pennsylvania and relationship with her father, met critical success and has become an off-Broadway musical that’s expected to transition to Broadway next April.

And she received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012.

The MacArthur award “means I will have a kind of security that I have not had,” Bechdel said.

Bechdel’s name is also associated with an idea in film criticism called the “Bechdel Test.” Inspired by one of her comic strips from 1985, the test is as follows: Movies that make the grade have two female characters who speak to each another about something other than a man. (BechdelTest.com, a website devoted to the idea, says 60 of 130 movies released this year failed the Bechdel Test.)

Bechdel said she plans to use some of the MacArthur fellowship money to pay for retirement and get out of debt.

She also wants to buy a large-format scanner, which she said would allow her to draw larger images. Recently, she has taken to drawing life-sized figures using paper on a wall.

And she’s working on another memoir — “I don’t have any plans to stop talking about myself, don’t worry,” she quipped.

As for the word “genius,” so often thrown around with these awards? Bechdel says it’s “unnerving.” She still can’t quite believe that she qualifies.

“I’ve been doing a lot of sort of readjustment of my self-concept over these last couple of weeks, trying to think of myself as a person who would get a MacArthur,” Bechdel said.

She hopes the grant will allow her more creative freedom.

“It’s this indication that people support my work and want to encourage my work,” Bechdel said, “which is the greatest gift imaginable.”

Vermont is home to three other MacArthur fellows. Prior to Bechdel, the most recent Vermonter to join the ranks was David Macaulay, who was honored in 2006.

Contact April Burbank at (802) 660-1863 or aburbank@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AprilBurbank