In her quietly astonishing new book, Alison Bechdel sets out to discover why she has devoted so many hours of her life – “very possibly as many as are actually recommended” – to exercise. On the surface of it, this sounds straightforward. She has been mad about muscles ever since she was a child and first saw Charles Atlas; running used to be the best way she knew of managing stress; as a younger woman, she was as susceptible to fads as she was to sportswear brands. But while The Secret to Superhuman Strength takes a keen interest in karate and spin classes, in Nordic skiing and road cycling, and manages to be slyly funny about all of them, its true subject is self-improvement in the biggest sense of that word... In the space available to me here, I cannot hope to capture all that this extraordinarily generous and roomy book contains, nor the deftness with which she loosely knots her themes together. Suffice to say that while her subjects – nature, love, work, sexuality – are huge, The Secret to Superhuman Strength never feels heavy. If it were a barbell, you’d be able to lift it with one hand.
Gloria Steinem described Fun Home as being “sort of like a comic book by Virginia Woolf”, and while that might be a stretch, you can see what she’s getting at; Bechdel’s work is elegant and literary in a way that people don’t expect from graphic books. If you haven’t read anything by her yet, it’s a good time to catch up.