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

Talking on the phone her home and studio outside of Burlington, the 2014 MacArthur Scholar says she had a safe and privileged place to weather the pandemic, in peace and staying “in balance.” Last year she had her graphic novel to focus on, and her wife, painter and colorist Holly Rae Taylor, to help her meet her book’s deadline last December – a shared project that was “very absorbing and distracting from the craziness outside.”

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

Still, Bechdel’s new work illustrates how much she’s spent her life on the move – embarking on “nearly every new fitness fad to get down the pike”, she writes, as well as activities with a long history . Karate in Pilates. Bike trek. And climb mountains, perhaps “to better fathom my own depths”.

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 struggling with important themes – pressing to examine what happens when the physical meets the metaphysical.

“I really intended to write a short, fun, light-hearted book about my sporting life. It immediately got complicated by other thoughts — by mortality,” says Bechdel, who launched his comic strip from long-running ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ nearly four decades ago.”I was getting older and 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 influential relationships and ideas that dominated a different decade of his life. “The book took a long time partly because of the way I put it together,” she says, noting with a laugh, “I couldn’t finish the last decade before I actually got it. lived. Thank God I experienced that.

The book explores Bechdel’s many motivations for living a life of pain and aerobic gain. Growing up in a family that took up skiing, she was struck early on by images of muscular men promising physical results, from Jack LaLanne flexing in a onesie on TV to cartoon advertisements for bodybuilder Speedo. leopard-print Charles Atlas urging skinny kids to become the ‘Hero of the Beach’. “Oh, to be independent! Hard as a rock! An island!” Bechdel’s avatar says in the book, admitting that she has come “to accept the inescapable fact of my ultimate addiction” though she continues to measure her “self-worth, to a disturbing degree, by my physical strength.

Her commitment to fitness, however, becomes a quest for transformation and transcendence – from her college years, when she emerges amidst a supportive lesbian community and endures the sudden death of her locked-up father, that she comes to believe to be a suicide, at the dawn of middle age, when she begins to document the changes in her body.

“When I hit the 40-year mark – it was an intense transition – I really started to understand: self-sufficiency is impossible. So I worked on that,” says Bechdel, who also notes how point menopause is “such a big window into the whole aging process because you age very quickly in a short period of time – it gives you an idea of ​​what you’ve been doing all your life.

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

“I kept being drawn down this metaphysical path,” she says, toward “the Transcendentalists, who I had always been curious about but didn’t understand. So it was kind of a fun rabbit hole to go down, and that led me to the British romantics,” like William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Soon, she was not only tracking the 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 changes while pursuing her physical form, she examines what she might be running from and what she might be trying to transcend. And as the action shifts to modern times, it challenges its own views. “A trend in the book is about self and other – the tension we feel with others – and my belief, at least the belief I’m trying to get across, is that people are really deeply interconnected,” Bechdel said. “If I truly believe this, it means I am deeply interconnected with anti-vaxxers and Trumpers. This is my challenge: how to stop making others and see some kind of commonality with them? »

In the final pages of the book, Bechdel – the same writer who grew up in a funeral home – abandons the goal of transcendence and advocates exercise for exercise’s sake, saying, “Onward to the grave!”

“I really worked for a long time under the illusion that these workouts were somehow going to save me from dying,” Bechdel says wryly. “I didn’t think about it clearly.”

Today, however, she is not an evangelist for a fitness regimen. “I don’t play sports so as not to die. I exercise because I’m about to die, and it’s just a fun thing to do.

Scott R. Banks