She’s tried all the exercise fads. And then some.

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel demonstrates “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” in a delightfully introspective graphic memoir.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
An excerpt from "The Secret to Superhuman Strength" by Alison Bechdel.

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who wrote about her parents in two celebrated graphic memoirs – “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?” – turns the focus on herself and her lifelong obsession with exercise in the ironically titled “The Secret to Superhuman Strength.” Just don’t mistake it for a self-help book filled with platitudes and exhortations. Bechdel, neither a cheerleader nor a boot-camp sergeant, is never shallow.

In panels busy with expressive drawings, text, and commentary, Bechdel excavates her deepest thoughts and feelings. This latest memoir is a testimony to her determination to transcend her anxieties and find her way in life by dint of physical exertion and spiritual epiphanies. In the process, she channels her challenges into art.  

As in the previous memoirs, Bechdel seeks further illumination in the lives and work of literary touchstones – including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. These intellectual underpinnings contribute to a stimulating mental and emotional workout that will keep readers on their toes, too.

Bechdel returns to the larger format of her collected comic strips, “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For,” to create her first book in full color. With the help of her partner, artist Holly Rae Taylor, Bechdel has wielded shades of blues, reds, pinks, yellows, and greens to capture the frenetic hustle and bustle of her elaborate, Herculean exercise routines and ever-looming deadlines. In contrast, monochrome tones of gray signal moments of calm and Zen, while gorgeous color-washed skies express nature’s ability to dazzle.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
"The Secret to Superhuman Strength" by Alison Bechdel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pp.

Among its many attractions, “Superhuman Strength” provides a fascinating record of passing fitness fads as Bechdel tracks her workouts decade by decade across her 60 years. Her regimens change partly in response to enticing new crazes and technical equipment, and partly in response to her changing body.  

She recalls her early attraction to mountains, and family ski trips in Pennsylvania, where she overcame her fear of falling with the realization that “not thinking was a performance enhancer.” In her second decade, she amped up her already considerable energy with running. She writes, “I could not control the hideous metamorphosis of adolescence. But I could control how far I ran, and running promised its own transformation. I was becoming focused. Disciplined!” She adds, “Running was a way of recovering myself after the social stress of school, and also a way of losing myself.” 

After college, Bechdel branched out into other athletic pursuits. She moved to rural Vermont and took up cross-country skiing, which, unlike downhill, didn’t require lift tickets. Over the years, more or less sequentially, she has immersed herself in karate, meditation, yoga, rollerblading, biking, spinning, free weights, and what she humorously dubs “The Semi-Sadistic 7-Minute Workout – 12 exercises, and you’re done for.” She also periodically returns to running until her knees protest. Whatever the activity, she drives herself to a point of blissful self-empowerment. 

Bechdel is not someone who makes things easy on herself. About bicycling, she writes, “If I had to choose between only riding downhill or only riding uphill for the rest of my life – an existential question that I pondered often – I would take the uphill.” It’s a statement that pretty much sums up her approach to life. Again, feeling in control is the point. She explains, “It was harder, but it was a measured dose of pain: I was in control. Careening downhill, who knew what the next moment would bring?” 

“Superhuman Strength” is filled with amusing self-portraits of torturous exercise classes and contorted postures that gently satirize the ridiculous lengths Bechdel has gone to in pursuit of self-improvement. This book – nine years after her last – was meant to be “a light, fun memoir about my athletic life that I could bang out quickly,” she says. She wanted to write about “pleasant things.” 

But while Bechdel is adept at wry humor, lightness isn’t exactly her thing. Nor is simplicity. Like her previous memoirs, “Superhuman Strength” shifts between seemingly disparate subjects – her dating history, 19th century transcendentalists, the evolution of specialized athletic equipment – with remarkable agility.    

A recurrent theme is the arduous grind involved in churning out her work over the years even when she felt stuck, which took a toll on her well-being and her personal life. 

Has it been worth the stress? The meteoric success following “Fun Home” – including a Tony Awarding-winning musical and MacArthur genius grant, among other honors – was wonderful, but also “almost too much.” With work her primary commitment, relationships suffered. And after her mother’s death, mortality loomed larger.

Ironically, writing about wanting to lose herself, whether in her work or exercise, required a deeper immersion in herself; probing her psyche led to greater self-consciousness. The sense we get is that relentless self-searching became a slog that made workouts feel relatively easy.  

But what she’s pulled off is quite a feat. “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” is a strenuous, dogged, occasionally exhausting but exhilarating marathon of a memoir in which Bechdel comes to grasp that “The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend.”

In addition to the Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR and The Wall Street Journal.

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