SITTING IN ITALY, basking in the peaceful and rejuvenating world of an artist’s retreat in Umbria, Alison Bechdel was tempted not to acknowledge the call. “I actually didn’t want to pick up the phone,” Bechdel tells The Post’s Comic Riffs this morning from Italy, of the ring that came three weeks ago from Chicago. “I didn’t want to call back and pay for the long-distance call.
“Although now,” Bechdel jokes, “I think I can afford it.”
That’s because the call was from the MacArthur Foundation, which was tracking down Bechdel in Europe to bestow upon her one of its “genius” grants — an honor that comes with a check for $625,000.
On Wednesday, the foundation announced Bechdel and 20 other leading thinkers as recipients of its 2014 grants. Bechdel — the Eisner-winning creator of the graphic novel “Fun Home” — is believed to be the first woman cartoonist to receive the honor.
“I’m so lucky to get to be at an artist’s retreat” when the call came, Bechdel tells Comic Riffs. “Being here sort of prepared me in a way. If I had been just sitting at home in [Bolton] Vermont and gotten the call from the MacArthur Foundation, I might have just died.” (Upon receiving the news, the grant recipients are virtually sworn to secrecy until announcement day about three weeks later.)
“But being here,” continues Bechdel, speaking from Civitella Ranieri, where she is enjoying a six-week fellowship largely devoted to creating large charcoal drawings, “I built up some stamina and some sense of myself as an artist.”
For Bechdel, her entire whirlwind year seems to be supporting her life and career as an artist. In April, the musical adaptation of “Fun Home” — her best-selling 2006 graphic memoir (subtitled “A Family Tragicomic”) about sexual orientation and fraught family ties — was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
“Of course, I have no critical distance since it’s based on not just my book, but my life,” Bechdel told Comic Riffs in April of the Jeanine Tesori (music)/Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) production that ended a Public Theater run in January, and received nine Lucille Lortel Award nominations. “But I think it’s a freakishly good play. Maybe even a perfect play.” The Pulitzer jury called the production “a poignant musical adaptation.”
Bechdel — who writes of growing up in rural Pennsylvania as a lesbian with a closeted father — is also creator of the long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” (1983-2008) and the 2012 graphic novel “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama.”
Also early this year, Bechdel spoke in Charleston, S.C., and attended two special performances of “Fun Home” — just months after the Public Theater show closed in New York, performers reconvened from across the country — to support the College of Charleston in response to controversial budget cuts, which came because the institution was teaching “Fun Home” to incoming freshmen.
“What a year — it’s been really crazy,” Bechdel tells Comic Riffs. “I’m struggling to keep up with myself, and keep my feet on the ground. The play has been an amazing experience … from this censorship happening in South Carolina, and it was exciting to see the [special] performances.”
Now, at age 54, Bechdel feels as though she fully, finally perceives of herself as an artist of a certain achievement. “I’m starting to learn to think of myself as the older generation,” Bechdel says. “I just finally got a purchase on things.
“I’m finally figuring out what I’m doing, and sort of feeling like now, I have to start taking a responsibility,” continues Bechdel about her higher-profile role as a comics-maker and an artist so associated with certain themes and ideas — including “the Bechdel test,” a three-step litmus test that gauges gender representation and roles in film.
Of an artistic path that has surprised her so far, Bechdel speaks figuratively as well as geographically: “Vermont is a long way from Pennsylvania, and Italy is a long way from Vermont.”
And of the MacArthur, Bechdel tells Comic Riffs: “It’s a huge honor to receive this as a cartoonist. I know Ben Katchor has won it” — he was the first graphic novelist to do so, in 2000 — “and I hope I can live up to it.”
On its website, the MacArthur Foundation writes of her gifts as a graphic novelist: “With storytelling that is striking for its conceptual depth and complexity in structure as well as for the deft use of allusion and reference, Bechdel is changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.”
So now, how might this groundbreaking memoirist spend some of this huge infusion of MacArthur cash — a stipend spread out over five years?
“I might buy a large-format scanner,” Bechdel says with a laugh. “I’ve never spent the money on a larger one, so I’ve always done my drawings to fit on a tiny, legal-size scanner. So this is definitely awesome.”