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Acclaimed cartoonist Alison Bechdel is among 21 people named the 2014 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The prestigious award, commonly referred to as the “genius grant,” comes with a $625,000 cash prize distributed quarterly over five years, with no strings attached.
“When I got the call from the MacArthur Foundation, I thought I was going to faint,” Bechdel, creator of the graphic memoirs Are You My Mother? and Fun Home, says in the video below. “It was crazy. It was like someone had actually almost hit me. It was this physical blow. I feel like I’ve been in a state of shock. I think getting this kind of recognition from the MacArthur Foundation, I can feel it already changing my life. I’m having to adjust to the fact that this has happened, therefore, I must be doing something worthwhile. And to have that kind of confidence put into my work is a huge gift, and I’m going to work very, very hard to live up to those expectations.”
First awarded in 1981, the prize is presented annually to 20 to 40 individuals in the arts, humanities, science and public issues. The MacArthur Foundation views the fellowship not as a reward for past accomplishments, but rather “an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential.”
Bechdel is only the second graphic novelist, after Ben Katchor in 2000, to receive the coveted prize. She told the Los Angeles Times she’ll put the $625,000 to good, if not particularly exciting, use.
“It will give me a lot of security that I don’t have. Pay off some debts, save for retirement — really boring stuff,” said Bechdel, who’s doing an artist residency at a castle in Umbria, Italy. “I’ve been a cartoonist all my life!”
Indeed, the 54-year-old cartoonist first rose to fame with her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008. In a 1985 installment, she originated what’s become known as “the Bechdel test,” which, as The Washington Post’s Soraya Nadia McDonald notes this morning, “changed the way we think about and discuss film.”