In the introduction to The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel issues herself a swift, succinct diagnosis. Amid nonstop movement from panel to panel — she kicks, guzzles water, and shifts from a downward dog on an orange yoga mat to doing rapid bicep curls — she declares, “I’m not good at sports. I’m not a jock. I’m the vigorous type.”
The Secret to Superhuman Strength
Alison Bechdel (Writer, Art), Holly Rae Taylor (Colors)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
May 4, 2021
For Bechdel, “vigor” does not refer solely to physical strength or power. After this declaration, she continues to vault through panels without pause, gearing up for a hike before taking a walk along a fallen tree that covers a stream, like a balance beam. It’s here, as she prepares to carefully cross the water, that Bechdel reveals the obsession she wishes to explore in The Secret to Superhuman Strength: “the feeling of the mind and body becoming one.” This feeling is tied to a loss of ego, a dissolution of self – when mind and body are one, self and nature and self and others are also one. As Bechdel quips at the end of the intro, “Is that so much to ask?”
This question is, of course, a joke – obviously it’s a lot to ask! As she has in past memoirs, Bechdel engages with various literary figures, including Jack Kerouac and transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller, who also spent their lives chasing this specific kind of experience, or state of being. It is an intense, lifelong pursuit, and I am tempted to ask if it’s even worth attempting. Simultaneously, however, it feels like a deeply human pursuit – one that is relatable even to a reader like me, who has largely forgotten all the reading on transcendentalism I did in English class. Haven’t we all experienced this, even a little bit? Those moments when your mind suddenly quiets and the world feels enormous, endless – like the distance between you and me isn’t such a big deal after all, but it’s also everything.
Regardless of the activity Bechdel engages with – skiing, karate, even drawing – these moments of mind and body becoming one occur, and at times she chases after them like an addict chasing a high. It’s not always healthy, despite the health benefits of exercise. Bechdel ignores red flags and possible health issues, like an unusual and overactive heart rate, sleeping problems, migraines, and long-lasting knee pain. Sometimes, her obsession with exercise feels like an unhealthy escape from her personal life. However, these moments of oneness and openness are beautiful and feel valuable, even when they occur under fraught circumstances.
Bechdel documents these moments in which mind, body, nature, and community unify with explosive full-page, two-page and even three-page spreads. These beautiful scenes drive the book just as much as its actual chapter structure, providing beats during which Bechdel comes to powerful conclusions or experiences moments of growth. Unlike her past work, this comic is also in full color, which enhances these gorgeous spreads. Bechdel worked with her wife, Holly Rae Taylor, to complete the book’s colors, and in an interview with Vulture she makes a fascinating comment about their collaboration: “I was living out this theme of the book: I wasn’t a self-sufficient artist.”
The first of these explosive illustrations appears in the introduction, with a two-page spread depicting several fitness crazes. Each style of exercise takes up its own panel, but the panels don’t end when they hit the edges of the page – there is no final boundary, no gutter. Instead, the color bleeds off the sides of the pages, creating a feeling of unending expansiveness.
Here, in its first use, this tactic seems to simply communicate visually what Bechdel also explains in her word bubbles – fitness crazes began to explode on the scene when she was a young girl, and their prevalence changed her life. However, the eruption of movement that we see – people walking on treadmills, biking, doing yoga, lifting weights – alludes to how this tactic will, later, capture moments in which exercise creates oneness, inner transformation and peace for Bechdel.
While reading the comic I was a bit obsessed with these powerful, all-consuming moments, and used my notes to keep track of them. The second instance occurs at the end of the introduction, when Bechdel hangs upside down on silks and declares that she’s taking us with her on her quest to “get out of my head and transcend my ego, to realize that there’s no subject and no object, to let go of the illusion that I’m separate from you, or all the other crap in the universe!”
Then, the third appears in Bechdel’s first decade of life, as she plays in the woods as a child. For Bechdel, the woods were “to get lost in,” and provided support and joy, especially during difficult times. Later, a two-page gutterless spread connects two distinct moments: a “human be-in” that occurred during the sixties, and her mother feeling totally mesmerized by Janis Joplin at a concert, eyes wide, mouth open in awe. More of these spreads show Bechdel or the authors whose lives she also follows being in community or with others while skiing, biking, hiking, or attending the Michigan Women’s festival, a place where Bechdel’s anxiety and the pressure of living under the gaze of patriarchy lifted, leaving a sense of bliss and oneness in its place.
The very last two-page spread is surprisingly devoid of color. At the end of the book, Bechdel and Taylor stand together in another stretch of woods – not the same one in which Bechdel played as a child, but certainly reminiscent of that space – and each tree, bird, and rock is rendered in greyscale. In an interview with Autostraddle, Bechdel explains her motivation behind this colorless moment: “I tried to copy sumi-e drawing that’s just watered down ink. And I would use that at the end of each chapter and at a few other points where I felt like something sort of transformational was happening. As a way to get out of that everyday kind of drawing with very sharp line art where everything’s separate and distinct to a more diffuse way of being in the world.”
The chapter breaks that Bechdel references here divide each decade of her life. These breaks are simple; they show Bechdel herself, at various ages, using an oversized brush to draw thick, grey lines across a pair of pages. At the end of the book, I was struck by the realization that these grey lines are similar to those of the large portraits Bechdel is shown drawing in the video made about her when she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. (In this video you can also see her working on pages for The Secret to Superhuman Strength!) What is a memoir if not a giant portrait of a person? And what can be more transformational than creating a memoir in which one analyzes oneself with a fine tooth comb?
— Alison Bechdel (@AlisonBechdel) April 21, 2021
I want to return, for a moment, to this question of, “is it worth it?” Honestly, I don’t think that’s a question worth asking or answering. Throughout the memoir, Bechdel captures several moments of just being – being among others, being among nature, being in a moment where your body is worn out and you’ve perfectly breached your limits. Each snapshot is unique to a specific time, place, and moment in Bechdel’s life, but her drive to access them again is deeply relatable. It might feel frightening to consider feeling so unified with something else that you lose your sense of self, but these are largely moments of bliss – with some exceptions.
In the 1980s – Bechdel’s 20s – she attended a karate school in New York long enough to earn a black belt. She describes the combination of attending the school and making comics as feeling like she was engaging in a profound project in which she fully experienced community. Her description of being in class and having “the experience of union as we moved and breathed in sync, in a collective trance,” felt very familiar to me – I have over a decade’s worth of martial arts classes under my belt. (And yes, it is a black belt.) Unfortunately, so is another feeling she describes – being “constantly braced for attack.”
A tricky thing about martial arts is that you are often in classes led and controlled by male martial artists who are less familiar with fear than the women and minorities who are drawn to the practice. Many instructors simply become instructors because they earned a black belt – not because they know how to teach, or how to address trauma or create safe, respectful learning environments. Studying a martial art is not guaranteed to alleviate the fear and anxiety we carry; in fact, the toxic masculinity one often encounters in such classes can exacerbate it.
In the section about karate, Bechdel uses one of her explosive, full-page illustrations to depict a horrible experience in which a man punched her in the face. When this happened, Bechdel was at a subway station with a friend, and this man groped her while passing her on the stairs. She yelled at him and attempted to hit him first – but stopped her own punch just at his sternum, out of habit. Enraged, he hit her back, without holding back. Upon first reading this, it was mind-boggling to me that this was a moment of enlightenment for Bechdel. I was reading one of my own, actual nightmares come to life – the arrival of the very moment that, supposedly, we have trained for, but in fact are completely unprepared for. However, this experience taught Bechdel that she didn’t truly want to be a fighter, and that being able to fight wasn’t some perfect, catchall thing that would save her from fear. This realization is part of the nightmare for me. I keep going back to martial arts, but I’m not sure it will ever be the solution I want it to be.
Even if it can’t provide a perfect sense of calm and safety, I understand why karate held such an important place in Bechdel’s life. In this section, she also recalls a special, rigorous winter training session. During that daily training camp, Bechdel describes moments of success as occurring “…when I was too wrung-out to think that I would find myself getting something right.” This, too, is a familiar feeling – when you’ve worked so much that you’re too exhausted to overthink, and your mind lets your body just work. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such an experience, but I immediately recognized what Bechdel was showing on the page – that feeling of shock and connection, both of foot or fist to a kicking target or bag, but also of mind and body working together, instead of your mind standing in your body’s path. Injury and pandemic have kept me from that experience for a long time now, and recognizing it in this comic made me want to feel it again.
This reading experience, this revelation and moment of connection between myself and Bechdel is the strength and joy behind The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Bechdel’s pursuit of the feeling of oneness of mind, body, and community is deeply human, and it’s impossible not to get lost in it, and find such a moment.