An American Cartoonist 

The Boundary-Leaping Work of Alison Bechdel

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These days, Alison Bechdel is best known for her graphic memoir Fun Home, a best-selling volume in which literary allusions and careful, detailed line work combine to explore Bechdel's childhood relationship with her father. Fun Home garnered both critical accolades and commercial success—Time magazine named it the best book of 2006, making it one of the rare, genre-busting graphic novels to reach a broad audience.

Long before Fun Home, though (and after it, too!), there was Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel's serialized comic strip about the romantic lives and friendships of a group of lesbian friends. After 25 years, Bechdel recently stopped chronicling the lives of the neurotic bookstore clerk Mo and her friends (lesbians all, natch).

"It was very hard to stop doing the comic strip," Bechdel tells me. "It was almost built into my body, this interval of 'comic strip every two weeks.' In a way it's been really nice not to have those deadlines, but it was also very disorienting to let go of this thing that's been structuring my life for 25 years."

Dykes to Watch Out For is on a possibly permanent hiatus (Bechdel says she's "leaving the option open of resuming it at some point," but doesn't have any definite plans to do so) while Bechdel works on her new memoir, which she describes as "an extended essay on the nature of the self in relation to others."

There's no publication date yet for the next book, so in the meantime, it's worth picking up a copy of the just-released The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which compiles strips from all 11 Dykes compilations. If you've only read the comic in the biweekly installments meted out by Just Out, you'll be surprised and gratified by how much continuity and depth emerges when reading the strips back to back. Dykes is a seriously addictive merger of the personal and political, as the lives and loves of Bechdel's mostly lesbian characters unfold against a social and political backdrop that includes the early days of the AIDS epidemic and several presidential administrations. It's as though someone combined Days of Our Lives with CNN, and set the whole thing to a Team Dresch soundtrack.

There's a moment in one of the strips where Dykes protagonist Mo describes her experience at a gay march in Washington as like "being 100 percent queer and proud of it, but at the same time not being queer at all anymore." That observation applies equally to the comic strip: The panels of Dykes are populated almost entirely by lesbians, but there is nothing sexuality-specific about the relatable, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking situations described therein.

"That did become a mission of mine," Bechdel says. "To present an unrelentingly lesbian experience that was at the same time completely normalized. It was a way for me to normalize my own queerness.For many years, I identified myself as a lesbian cartoonist. I would hear of people who would say things like, 'I'm a writer, and I'm a lesbian, but I'm not a lesbian writer,' and that would just bug the shit out of me. And in a way I feel like over the years I've come around to that—maybe from a different, less self-loathing perspective, but I've ended up in the same place. And that makes me really happy, like I've become an American cartoonist."

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