Last May, Alison Bechdel stopped creating new episodes of “Dykes to Watch Out For,” her comic strip about a group of lesbians and their non-lesbian pals. Bechdel, who lives in Bolton, drew the strip for 25 years; in its heyday, it ran in more than 70 gay and alternative publications in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., including Seven Days. It has spawned 11 book-length collections that have been translated into Spanish, French, German and Finnish.
Making a living as a syndicated cartoonist is certainly an accomplishment, but these days, the 48-year-old writer is actually better known for Fun Home, her graphic memoir about her childhood with her closeted gay dad. It was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award; Time Magazine named it the best book of the year.
Bechdel is now at work on a second graphic memoir, and she has put “Dykes” aside, possibly forever.
If you missed out on the comic-strip phenom, now’s a good time to catch up — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Fun Home, has just released The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. The anthology collects the bulk of Bechdel’s “Dykes” oeuvre in a single volume for the first time. Now you can follow heroine Mo as she shacks up with Harriet, hooks up with Deidre and cracks up with Sydney.
Why should you read a comic strip about a bunch of lesbians? I could give you lots of reasons — it’s literate, exquisitely drawn and “deeply amusing,” according to Dwight Garner, who wrote a glowing review of The Essential for The New York Times.
But I should confess that I’m not exactly an objective reviewer. Not only am I a passionate “Dykes” fan (and, incidentally, a dyke), but I also worked as Alison’s assistant for several years, from 1998 to 2000 and 2003 to 2005. We’ve stayed friends since.
Though I may not be objective, I do have a unique perspective on the “Dykes” legacy.
In the cartoon introduction to The Essential, Alison explains that she started drawing the strip to chronicle the vibrant lesbian subculture she experienced in the 1980s — to “capture its essence.” But over the years, she says, her depictions of dykes began to create the culture they set out to reflect.
“You can’t pin things down without changing them somehow,” she writes. “Good Lord. How many young women have told me these were the first lesbians they ever met? That my cartoon characters were — oh, I can hardly say the words — choke — role models!”
Well, I was one of those women.
I first encountered “Dykes” after moving to Vermont in 1997; I was 22 years old. I had come out as a lesbian at a conservative Southern college the year before — after attending Catholic school all my life — but arrived here after graduation knowing almost nothing about lesbian culture. I had never heard of the infamous Michigan Women’s Music Festival (despite having grown up in a suburb of Detroit). I had never heard of the Lesbian Avengers. I had never known anyone who died of AIDS.
It’s not a stretch to say that almost everything I learned about GLBT culture in the 1980s and 1990s, I learned from “Dykes.”
Back then, after all, there were very few representations of lesbian life in the media. “We had no ‘L Word,’” Bechdel points out in The Essential intro. “We had no lesbian daytime TV hosts. We had no openly lesbian daughters of the creepy vice president.”
But I also got an education from Alison because she’s such an obsessive documentarian. She doesn’t just draw characters that represent real, live lesbians; she also places them in the real world — or in a parallel universe that offers clever commentary on this one. Instead of working at Borders, for example, Lois works at “Bounders Books ’n’ Muzak.” When Sydney first tries to seduce Mo, the latter is reading a copy of The Nation that bears the fictitious headline “The Corporatization of Macramé.”
And those are just background details. In the foreground are Alison’s dykes. She’s researched, written and drawn their experiences so skillfully that they ring true.
When my partner and I decided to have kids, we didn’t know many other lesbian moms, but we did know Clarice and Toni. Both of us had read the graphic novella at the end of Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For, in which their son Raffi is born. Until my own kids’ births, Raffi’s was the only one I’d ever witnessed from start to finish. I felt like I was there. I tear up every time I read it.
Alison’s strip has influenced gay life here in Vermont, too. In 1999, I joined the steering committee for the RU12? Community Center. As we were planning our first event, I remembered Clarice and Toni going to “the community center’s annual fundraising dinner” (episode 261). Honest to God, that strip was the inspiration for the RU12? Community Dinner, which has since become a local institution; the 10th one took place last May.
And the influence has worked in reverse. After I became Alison’s assistant, I had the chance to make my mark on the “Dykes” universe. Alison often draws from photos, and part of my job was posing for her. One day I might be Ginger, smacking Lois on the shoulder as she helped move Stuart out of his apartment in the graphic novella at the end of Split Level Dykes to Watch Out For. Or I might be Mo, unzipping her fly as she had cyber sex with Sydney while working at Madwimmin Books (episode 318 — yep, that’s me!).
I’d forgotten about that one until I flipped through The Essential.
I also offered advice, which sometimes made it into print, most notably when I saved Sparrow and Stuart’s daughter, Jiao Raizel. When Sparrow got pregnant, Alison was planning for her to have an abortion. I pleaded with her to keep the baby. I am pro-choice, but no anti-abortion advocate has ever argued more vociferously on behalf of an unborn comic-strip child. Long live Jiao Raizel!
I said my experience was unique, but it’s not, really. Many, many other women (and men) have contributed to this comic strip. I’ve seen it happen. You can see it, too — Alison generously gives them credit in the form of “tips of the nib” in the margins of the strip. The pages of The Essential are filled with them. (I got one in episode 317.)
This isn’t just a comics anthology — it’s the history of our lives.
I keep the 11 “Dykes” collections on a shelf in my home office. It occurred to me the other day that they’re more like photo albums than books. When I was a kid — in the days before digital cameras and the Internet — our family kept all of our photos in vinyl-covered albums that sat on a bookshelf in our living room. Whenever I missed my relatives or felt nostalgic, I opened the books and flipped through their pages.
No matter how many times I looked at those photos, I never got tired of them. They made me smile, and cry. They grounded me in my family’s history. I could spend hours lost in the memories and emotions those images evoked.
I feel the same way about this comic strip.
But, as much as I love each of my worn copies of the “Dykes” books, I’m glad the strips have been collected into one volume (by a mainstream publishing house, no less). They’re more accessible that way — and, I hope, more people will read them.
Of course, The Essential is really just an introduction. In my humble opinion, a number of important strips got left on the cutting-room floor — including the ones about Milkweed, the annoying ultra-PC houseguest (episodes 59 through 61), two strips about Sydney’s radiation tech’s son, who was killed in Iraq (episodes 443 and 451), and, most importantly, the brilliant graphic novellas at the end of the “Dykes” books.
In other words, if you liked The Essential, you’ll have to buy the other books.
Or wait for the next collection. Because I don’t think “Dykes” is really over. I’m having trouble accepting the fact that Mo, Clarice, Lois and friends didn’t live to see Obama become president. I want to know how they’d react. So I’m lobbying Alison to bring back the gang for a new graphic novella, sort of like “A Very Brady Christmas.”
Note to Alison: “A Very Dykey Christmas”? Think about it. My partner and I and our kids are available to pose if you need us.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin, 392 pages. $25.
Videographer Eva Sollberger interviews Alison Bechdel in this week’s episode of “Stuck in Vermont.” Watch it here. VIDEO: Stuck in Vermont #109 - Alison Bechdel