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Saturday, February 21st, 2009
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The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

by Alison Bechdel

Dyke Watching

A review by Chris A. Bolton

Before she made her name with the acclaimed graphic novel memoir Fun Home, Alison Bechdel spent two decades writing and drawing the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which appears in several alt-weekly and gay newspapers.

Dykes works on multiple levels. Like Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, it functions as both a time capsule and a chronicle of a community under siege. Bechdel writes in her introduction to the collection:

Being an out dyke [in the '80s] was not an easy row to hoe. We had no L Word. We had no lesbian daytime TV hosts. We had no openly lesbian daughters of the creepy Vice President....By drawing the everyday lives of women like me, I hoped to make lesbians more visible not just to ourselves but to everyone.

The comic follows the exploits of a handful of lesbian characters, including the proudly promiscuous Lois; the happily coupled, if sometimes stifled, Clarice and Toni; and the lead character, Mo, whose neurotic tics and restless nature make her the star of the series (or perhaps it's her uncanny physical resemblance to a certain cartoonist).

Bechdel defines her characters so well, and so distinctly, that a major part of the strip's pleasure is the inevitability of their personalities. The simple act of Mo going out on a date guarantees an evening (and at least one strip) that will be anything but simple, routine, or uneventful.

The cast is also complicated and diverse. Bisexual Sparrow ends up in a relationship with an overzealously progressive man. Anti-marriage Mo debates the gay marriage initiative with Clarice and Toni, who are as married as humanly possible (with or without a signed legal document). There's even a Republican lesbian in the mix.

Bechdel does an excellent job of pitting these conflicting ideals against each other without necessarily championing one ideology over the other; observing her characters and their interactions seems to take precedent over grandstanding. (Although she isn't entirely above making her own statements, as in a brilliant comic (#461) that functions as a cunning metaphor for the Bush administration's Iraq follies.)

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For starts in 1987 and continues all the way through 2008 (Bechdel began the strip in 1983, but I'm guessing she didn't want to revisit those very early years), ultimately numbering a mind-boggling 527 strips. Thus, we get to revisit the major political and sexual milestones of the past two decades -- including the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the 2000 election debacle, both Iraq Wars, and the 2004 gay marriage "craze" -- through the eyes and experiences of the cast.

The strip is also unabashedly, unapologetically sexual. You can't even get through Bechdel's introduction without finding a panel of two women sixty-nining. If that isn't your bag, be warned: I hardly need to point out that a comic called Dykes to Watch Out For isn't exactly The Family Circus, but there's enough nudity here for a Showtime series. And yet, the depictions of sex are just as varied and important as the characters, ranging from casual to romantic, intense hook-ups to outright bed-death (as in a strip (#459) where two separate characters in different couples are both too anxious about the Bush administration to have sex with their frustrated partners).

Over the years, the comic strip has been published in several small collections, all still in print. The advantage of reading The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is the chance to observe, in one sitting, the evolution of a comic, its characters, and the artist. As the characters develop, so does Bechdel's art style, which starts off simplistic and somewhat crude, then grows into the very sharp line work and precise detail that readers of Fun Home will recognize. Bechdel is particularly adept with facial expressions, often getting her biggest laughs from a simple look or reaction.

What ultimately makes The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For irresistible is its human element. The strip is alternately funny and heartbreaking, angry and sexy, revolutionary and revelatory -- and after reading the book, what stays with me most strongly is the life of the characters and their community. In that regard, it's truly essential.

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