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Alison Bechdel thought she was writing a book about exercise. It became a metaphysical adventure.

Alison Bechdel and her new graphic memoir. (HMH Books & Media; Elena Seibert)
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Alison Bechdel once believed in striving for a “lone wolf” style of self-reliance. Now, when she walks in the woods of her northern Vermont home, a fair distance from neighbors or the nearest town, she feels especially tethered to the world.

“You can’t ask for a more vivid example of that than this pandemic,” the best-selling cartoonist says this week, upon the release of her new book about the relationship between mind and body. She notes that she is “half-vaxxed,” with her second immunization shot just hours away. The global spread of the coronavirus “demonstrates how vulnerable we all are — how completely connected we are to each other — with the intense contagion of this thing. It’s really kind of stunning.”

Speaking by phone from her home and studio outside Burlington, the 2014 MacArthur Fellow says she has had a safe and privileged place to weather the pandemic, at peace and staying on “an even keel.” Last year, she had her graphic novel to focus on, and her wife, Holly Rae Taylor, a painter and colorist, to help her make her book’s deadline last December — a shared project that was “very absorbing and distracting from the craziness outside.”

Now, as an immunized author, she is starting to make professional and personal travel plans: There’s family in Pennsylvania to see, and possible trips to New York and Florida. “Life is starting to resume full force in a way I have very mixed feelings about.”

Yet Bechdel’s new work illustrates the degree to which she has spent her life in motion — getting into “almost every new fitness fad to come down the pike,” she writes, as well as activities with long histories. Karate to Pilates. Hiking to biking. And scaling mountains, perhaps “to better plumb my own depths.”

The Secret to Superhuman Strength” is her first new graphic novel in nearly a decade, after her twin memoirs about her parents: the 2006 smash “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” which was adapted into a Tony-winning musical, and the 2012 follow-up “Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.”

Bechdel didn’t set out to write and draw another labor-intensive work, but the creative intellectual who has a penchant for solo endurance sports found herself wrestling with weighty themes — pressing on to examine what happens when the physical meets the metaphysical.

“I really did have an intention to write a short, fun, light book about my exercise life. It just immediately became complicated by other thoughts — by mortality,” says Bechdel, who launched her long-running comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” nearly four decades ago. “I was getting older and I was noticing that I couldn’t do the same things I used to be able to do — at least not as well or as quickly.”

Bechdel turned 60 while completing “Superhuman Strength,” which is structured into six chapters — each focusing on the sports and relationships and influential ideas that dominated a different decade of her life. “The book took a long time in part because of the way I set it up,” she says, noting with a laugh: “I couldn’t finish the last decade until I’d actually lived through it. Thank God I lived through it.”

The book explores Bechdel’s many motivations for living a life of aerobic pain and gain. Growing up in a family that got into skiing, she was struck early on by images of muscled men who promised physical results, from Jack LaLanne flexing in a onesie on TV to the cartoon ads of leopard-print-Speedo bodybuilder Charles Atlas urging skinny kids to become the “hero of the beach.” “Oh, to be self-sufficient! Hard as a rock! An island!” Bechdel’s avatar says in the book, admitting that she’s come “to accept the unavoidable fact of my ultimate dependence” despite still gauging her “self-worth, to a disturbing degree, by my physical strength.”

Her commitment to fitness, though, becomes about questing for transformation and transcendence — from her college years, when she comes out amid a supportive lesbian community and endures her closeted father’s sudden death, which she comes to believe was a suicide, to the dawn of middle age, when she begins documenting changes in her body.

“When I hit the 40-year mark — that was an intense transition — I started to really get it: Self-sufficiency is impossible. So I’ve been working on that,” says Bechdel, who also notes how menopause is “such a great window into the whole aging process because you age very rapidly in a short period of time — it gives you a sense of what you’ve been doing your whole life long.”

As “Superhuman Strength” became a heavier lift as a creative journey, Bechdel — who had earlier discovered yoga and Zen beliefs — was drawn to the climbing adventures of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder as described in the novel “The Dharma Bums.” Soon she was reading about the mental and physical lives of 19th century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller (“That woman needs a Netflix series!” Bechdel says).

“I just kept getting pulled onto this metaphysical path,” she says, toward “the Transcendentalists, who I’d always been curious about but not understood. So that was a fun kind of rabbit hole to go down, and that led me to the British Romantics,” such as William Wordsworth, sister Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Soon she was not only tracking connections between these British and American writers but also “seeing parallels between them and my own life. They were making their way into my work.”

As Bechdel’s avatar shifts while pursuing fitness, she examines what she might be running from, and what she might be trying to transcend. And as the action moves to modern day, she challenges her own views. “One trend of the book is about the self and the other — the tension that we feel with others — and my belief, at least the belief I’m trying to talk myself into it, is that people really are profoundly interconnected,” Bechdel says. “If I really believe that, that means I’m profoundly interconnected with anti-vaxxers and Trumpers. This is my challenge: How do I stop making them into others and see some kind of commonality with them?”

In the book’s concluding pages, Bechdel — the same writer who grew up in a funeral home — sheds the goal of transcendence and extols exercise for exercise’s sake, saying: “Onward to the grave!”

“I really did labor under the delusion for a long time that these workouts were somehow going to keep me from dying,” Bechdel says wryly. “I didn’t think it through that clearly.”

Today, though, she is no evangelist for a fitness regimen. “I don’t exercise in order not to die. I exercise because I am on my way to dying, and it’s just a fun thing to do.”

Read more:

Bechdel blazes another trail with MacArthur “genius” grant

'It was terribly exciting’: Bechdel becomes a character on ‘The Simpsons’