The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
Before I ever picked up Fun Home, I knew of Alison Bechdel’s long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. After all, it gave us the Bechdel Test; how could I not? But I never picked up any collections. These past two semesters, I’ve taken to working on homework and other stuff at the public library. The best tables to work on are in the midst of the fiction section, and, one day, while working, I looked up to see The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For on the shelf. I was a bit swamped then, and then it was checked out, but eventually, I got my hands on it, right in the middle of a reading slump. Which it promptly cured.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For collects about three-fourths of all the comic strips of the long-running comic strip, which was suspended in 2008 so that Bechdel could focus on writing Are You My Mother. (Which is on my list, believe me.) Set in a city that may or may not be Minneapolis, the strip covers twenty-five years of the life, politics, and relationships in the town’s queer community, from neurotic radical Mo to parents Clarice and Toni to young trans girl Janis, just to name a scant few out of the cast of dozens. In short—it’s life, man.
Pretty much every piece of copy about Dykes to Watch Out For resort to quoting Bechdel to describe it. I would avoid it, but Bechdel is really, really good at what she does, and a “half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel” is exactly what it is. Mo in particular (although the other characters get in on the action) often breaks out into political rants at the drop of a hat. That might sound annoying, but it works because Bechdel makes it part of the character. Other characters get exasperated by Mo’s neurotic rants and, although they try their best, lose their patience. When Bush gets elected in 2000, Clarice loses it for a few weeks, and there’s a significant change to the character. And it works—Mo’s inability to do anything without overthinking it is endearing in a way, and politics is a huge part of this community. And then it’s “endless serialized Victorian novel” in just the way I like; family drama, relationship drama, and all the rest, in infinite permutations.
In the introduction, Alison Bechdel discusses how, although she set out to paint a picture of a fantastically radical community, her comic eventually evolved into something of an establishment, where young women encountered well-developed lesbian characters for the first time. Dykes to Watch Out For was written in real-time for twenty-five years, and the main story of the strip—if there can be one—is just growing up. We watch the community go from committed young radicals to forty-somethings trying to settle down. This is most exemplified by Clarice and Toni, who commit themselves together and decide to have a son, whom we watch go from infant to surly teenager. There are other children as well, but everyone is getting older, getting more established, and picking their battles. Mo, of course, is infuriated by the idea—she calls Clarice a “soccer mom” at one point, and it’s meant to be an insult—but even Mo finds herself in a more or less stable relationship and in a stable job. In this way, it’s pretty universal, and appeals to the part of me that just adores sprawling family sagas.
But it’s also quite specific, a fascinating history of lesbian culture and feminism from 1983 to 2008. We watch the rise and fall of Madwimmin Books, a local independent bookstore that the main characters either work at or spend quite some time in. As Ana points out in her review, these are quite liberal characters who state their political views explicitly, but I feel they’re rendered so humanly that you can’t help but like them. And Bechdel did add a conservative character later in the strip, whom I find quite interesting; while she does come out as gay, she still adheres to the abstinence until marriage pledge she took in high school, and has difficulty reconciling this with the more liberal sexual mores of the queer community she’s welcomed into. I wanted to see more of this, but if it’s going to be addressed, it’ll be in new strips whenever Bechdel comes back from hiatus.
Part of the treat of a collected comic series is seeing the art evolve over time; here, we see Bechdel’s art grow more and more expressive over time, until we arrive at the high level she’s working at today. And there’s a reflection of the artist in here, too, as she grows older—in the FAQ on her website, Bechdel addresses the fact that her sex scenes have become more artfully draped over time. The layouts are often identical—this is a newspaper comic—but work quite well. It’s quite a treat to not only read the series in a nice collection, but see Bechdel honing her craft over time.
Bottom line: The venerable “half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel” is a fantastically human strip about life in this unnamed city’s queer community; recommended for everyone, especially anyone interested in seeing Bechdel’s craft develop over time.
I rented this book from the public library.