Comic Relief

Alison Bechdel seeks absolution in a new graphic memoir

Daniel Shea for TIME

It's complicated. The best-selling author, at the University if Chicago for a residential fellowship, draws a picture of her mother.

As a child, Alison Bechdel was fascinated by the cartoons of Charles Addams. Not by their humor or even their macabre subject matter so much as their formal properties. "Even before I could read, I knew that there were words that went with the pictures," she says. "And even after I did learn to read, they didn't make any sense. I didn't understand them. There was this constant weird disjunction between the words and the pictures — and I found it really powerful and magical." She was an unusual child.

Now Bechdel is a cartoonist herself, and she hasn't gotten any...