Drawing is often seen as a cartoonist’s primary skill, but Bechdel can also really write. The various strings of her narrative are woven together in a way that feels fresh, clever and moving. There is also dry humour ... Her conclusion is inevitably trite, but Bechdel makes for such a likeable protagonist that readers will be pleased for her all the same. And while this book might not be the author’s most gripping work, it is probably her most beautiful, being the first to have been rendered in full colour ... 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.
... a far more sprawling project than Bechdel’s two previous and entirely virtuosic graphic memoirs ... The format is larger, too, and the reader feels more space on the page to breathe, which can’t be a random choice. (One imagines very little about the art Bechdel puts out into the world is random) ... Bechdel also departs from her usual monochrome to offer a whole generous P. T. Barnum palette. And between chapters she includes airy spreads painted with a flowing brush instead of her trademark boxed-in drawings made with a quivering pen. The changes work gloriously: We realized how trapped and anxious we’ve been, and what a fleeting miracle it is to experience exuberance, ease and a state of flow ... Bechdel doesn’t learn to juggle in these pages but she sure throws a lot of balls into the air. More balls, the reader imagines at times, than she will be able to catch. You have moments of wondering if she’s grown weary trying to write this book (her last one was 10 years ago) and thus loosened her trademark rigor. But you forgive her, because you feel she can’t help it — her brain is just wired this way. She also seems to know that it’s unlikely she’ll catch all the balls. And maybe that’s OK? ... Besides, the ride is fun and even insightful. I live in a house of literary fitness freaks, and even for people who are supposedly good with words and who exercise all the time, Bechdel’s book contained real revelations ... The book makes you see exercising as a kind of touchstone, the way going back to the same place every year can be. You love to see the landscape, but the true experience is internal: dealing with your own change ... Part of the pleasure of Bechdel’s books is the conversation she’s in with herself, all the layers: the drawings, the captions, the dialogue, the annotations of the world, the storyboards that move the narrative, the burbling monologue of her mind. This is a true delight of graphic literature, and nobody does it better. You feel as if you’re peering through a plexiglass panel right into Bechdel’s marvelous brain ... Bechdel’s genius is such that even a plain old writer suddenly wishes for the ability to annotate her own text.
The book is divided by decade, each with its own enthusiasm, carrying us into the present day, as Bechdel and her partner, the painter Holly Rae Taylor ... Color? It’s the first sign that something new is afoot in a book full of familiar flourishes ... Bechdel is so associated with her material—her father’s possible suicide; her coming-out story, which she juxtaposed in Fun Home with her father’s furtive affairs with men—that her artistic and technical ambitions are often overlooked. Like Woolf, she is preoccupied with depicting the texture of thought and memory—their ambushes and heretical swerves ... The real problem of this new memoir is stranger: How does a writer so fond of depicting thought and argument, dreams and recursive therapy sessions depict what lies beyond the mind? ... Bechdel has said that she experienced the painstaking work of memory upon which her books are based as a kind of penance ... Penance but also preservation. I think of the novels of Yiyun Li that feel like collaborations with the dead, long contentious arguments to keep them alive, keep them close ... Bechdel has devoted a book to each of her parents and outlived them both. She works in color now. Her parents are small presences in this book, and shockingly benign. It is her own mortality she turns to, and all the questions that work and exercise have helped her evade.
...quietly astonishing ... 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. Her drawings are always extremely precise and extremely nimble.
As usual, Bechdel is ruthlessly honest, her sharp gaze helping us see ourselves, our culture, more clearly ... The book captures well her constant search and she beautifully describes the endorphin rush that is the reward of pushing oneself physically. She also does a lovely job of weaving in zen philosophy ... a compelling story ... Bechdel does finally find some inner calm, conquering symbolic and actual mountains, but the book, which brings us into the present with 2020 election, doesn’t end on the expected zen note.
At times, the book seems to critique the solipsism of fitness; as if to model more outward-facing priorities, Bechdel turns her personal exercise journey into a cultural study of workout fads from the sixties to today ... an amusingly—yet sincerely—highbrow perspective on the shredding of the gnar ... It seems possible—both from the ambitious work that we are now reading and from the portrait of the artist which emerges within it—that Bechdel may be constitutionally incapable of writing a 'light, fun memoir.' The problem isn’t a lack of humor. (She is frequently hilarious.) It’s that “Superhuman Strength” feels anxious to outstrip its premise, to keep gathering references and data points until the entirety of the human condition is accounted for. The book is vertiginously busy. Bechdel, when she’s not exercising, grapples with fame and feelings of fraudulence, and, heartrendingly, with the death of her mother ... No detail fails to glow with meaning; everything is related to everything else ... One paradox of Superhuman Strength is that, in order to short-circuit the self-other transaction, with its potential to annihilate the self, Bechdel seeks to lose herself, to leave herself behind. This makes her disposition toward exercise not only fundamentally defensive but slightly tragic. When I reached the spread in the book showing Bechdel’s ten-mile loop, I thought about the oft-cited difference between running toward and running from, and about the fragility of that dividing line. To claim that Bechdel is running toward transcendence—a seemingly triumphal statement—may just be a more complicated way of saying that she is running away from all the things she wishes to transcend.
... full of this sort of playful imagery, making it clear that Bechdel sees the funny side of such pronouncements ... reflects the cyclical, rambling nature of her quest, and some readers may be frustrated by the lack of a more definitive catharsis ... But what Bechdel's words can't always supply, her drawing does. Each section of the book covers a decade of the author's life and closes with a glorious two-page watercolor. In these lyrical images, the heroine recedes into the landscape, and the universality of her quest comes into sharp relief ... funny, relatable, beautifully and expressively colored, and equipped with a hilarious illustrated rundown of the 'The Semi-Sadistic 7-Minute Workout.' Fellow self-improvers won't find the secret to superhuman strength here, but they might end up a little less sheepish about being human.
... makes a strong case for the intrinsic interconnectedness of creativity, spirituality, and an elevated heart rate ... Sure, The Secret to Superhuman Strength could stand alone as an entertaining look back at the rise of various American workout trends. But it’s much more than that, as Bechdel’s running, cycling, and skiing serve as a backdrop for her own spiritual and creative development ... With this book, Bechdel establishes her place in a long line of progressive thinkers who have sought spiritual growth via physical activity.
Alison Bechdel finally turns her gaze on herself, with beautiful results ... As ever, Bechdel satirizes and analyzes herself with a sharp, knowing, but affectionate touch that is observant without being solipsistic. This is a thoughtful, funny and ruminative autobiography whose intensity is leavened with surprising notes of grace.
... rather astonishing ... The Secret to Superhuman Strength is an account of Bechdel’s lifelong pursuit of nondual bliss through vigorous-to-the-point-of-violent physical activity: the dharma of working out, you might call it ... Bechdel’s on a physical journey, and a mystical one, and a political one too ... The Secret to Superhuman Strength loses me in the final pages, because it ends in serenity and existential forgiveness. Bechdel and her partner make it through 2020—the virus, the Trumpgasm—by working hard on what she is still calling 'the fitness book,' and at the top of the trail, guess what, there is hard-won wisdom ... Selfishly, I’d prefer this utterly absorbing book to end in a welter of confusion and failed chin-ups. No answers—or only those most fugitive ones, nontransferable, grasped or glimpsed for a second as you’re grimacing past your limit.
... don’t mistake it for a self-help book filled with platitudes and exhortations. Bechdel, neither a cheerleader nor a boot-camp sergeant, is never shallow ... In panels busy with expressive drawings, text, and commentary, Bechdel excavates her deepest thoughts and feelings. This latest memoir is a testimony to her determination to transcend her anxieties and find her way in life by dint of physical exertion and spiritual epiphanies. In the process, she channels her challenges into art ... As in the previous memoirs, Bechdel seeks further illumination in the lives and work of literary touchstones – including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. These intellectual underpinnings contribute to a stimulating mental and emotional workout that will keep readers on their toes, too ... Among its many attractions, Superhuman Strength provides a fascinating record of passing fitness fads as Bechdel tracks her workouts decade by decade across her 60 years ... filled with amusing self-portraits of torturous exercise classes and contorted postures that gently satirize the ridiculous lengths Bechdel has gone to in pursuit of self-improvement ... while Bechdel is adept at wry humor, lightness isn’t exactly her thing. Nor is simplicity. Like her previous memoirs, Superhuman Strength shifts between seemingly disparate subjects – her dating history, 19th century transcendentalists, the evolution of specialized athletic equipment – with remarkable agility ... a strenuous, dogged, occasionally exhausting but exhilarating marathon of a memoir in which Bechdel comes to grasp that The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend.
The author’s probing intelligence and self-deprecating humor continue to shimmer through her emotionally expressive drawings, but there is so much going on (familial, professional, romantic, cultural, spiritual) that it is easy to see how she became overwhelmed ... More thought-provoking work from an important creator.
Bechdel (Are You My Mother?) makes a welcome return with this dense, finely wrought deep dive into her lifelong fixation with exercise as a balm for a variety of needs ... Bechdel’s ever-elegant drawings, with nuanced coloring provided by her partner Holly Rae Taylor, perfectly match the tonal shifts of her kaleidoscopic narrative, alternating between soul-searching angst and dry self-satire ... Grappling with the desire for spiritual transcendence in the most intensely personal terms, Bechdel achieves a tricky—even enlightening—balance.
Divided into the decades of her life, this graphic memoir is as much a cultural history of the last half-century as it is Bechdel’s story of pursuing physical strength, which it turns out is not so different from surrendering to her art ... In Bechdel’s inimitable storytelling and comics style, as in her much-loved and -lauded Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012), this is sprawling and dense in the best way, and her legions of fans will devour it.