The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel might now be best known for her excellent graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, but she’s been churning out awesomeness on a regular basis for decades in her Dykes to Watch Out For comics series. Finally, with the Essential Dykes to Watch Out For collection, we are presented with almost all of the strips in one volume.
The comics follow a group of politically conscious, multicultural, (mostly) lesbian-feminist friends, housemates, drag kings, academics, parents, lovers, and activists through the start of the 80’s to the present day. Their adventures and dialogues are not only witty and hilarious, they also chart recent trends and changes in modern lesbian-feminist thought and left-wing political theory and upheaval in a fun, light-hearted kind of way. And though these comics are about a tightly knit, uber-progressive community, the diversity of the characters’ opinions often made for satisfying confrontation and contradiction. Some of my favorite parts, in fact, are where internecine struggles come to a head and self-righteous, even narrow-minded ideas must be balanced against real people and their daily lives (Mo, I’m lookin’ at you and your anti-prozac screed! and transphobia! and…)
I loved this collection the moment I started it, but I loved it even more once I got to the second half or so of the book. The beginning was mostly centered around a steady stream of sex and relationship adventures and mishaps, which successfully acquaints us with the series’ many characters and makes visible lesbian identity and lifestyle (a goal that Bechdel outlines in her introduction). But towards the second half of the book, both the characters and their stories mature and expand. They continue to hook up, break up, and have affairs–but they also deal with aging parents, become parents themselves, fall into debt, buy their own houses, and deal with post-2004 election depression. I also enjoyed witnessing the ways in which the community welcomed (some of them goodnaturedly, some of them begrudgingly) the addition of a stay at home dad, a trans kid, and a young evangelical Christian conservative.
Writing this post is actually making me a little sad, because it means I’m really done with Dykes to Watch Out For, and I know I’m really going to miss those involved. Stuart! Clarice! Lois! Ginger! And Mo, most of all. Even though she can be a total jerk and deserves to be called out on about her holier-than-thou indignations, her neurosis is strangely charming and she’s so honestly written (I believe she’s meant to reflect Bechdel herself, and if so, Bechdel’s ability to poke fun at her own misgivings is very admirable). The DTWOF remind me of friends I’ve had, and of friends I hope to make more of. I only wish the end of the book felt more like an end to the series (hint: it’s not an end at all). I can’t stand not knowing: will Clarice and Toni remain unhappy forever? Are Sydney and Mo the real deal? Does Sydney ever become less obnoxious? Has Lois really settled down with Jasmine? Did she ever sleep with Jerry? Do Ginger’s politics ever rub off on Heather? GAH!
Anyway, Dykes to Watch Out For is great and completely absorbing. If you’re politically progressive, it’s also extremely cathartic. In any case, it’s an interesting and maybe educational cultural tome. Give it a try, even if you’re not convinced it’s your thing. Sometimes it feels good to be proven wrong!