Essential Dykes to Watch Out For
Written & Illustrated by Alison Bechdel
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I recently talked about reading Gilbert Hernandez’s Luba, noting that the book is effectively the sequel to Palomar, one of the two most affecting comics I’ve read in my life. The other most-affecting comic is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a staggeringly literate memoir of her coming out and her relationship with her deeply closeted father. After reading Gilbert Hernandez’s follow-up to his masterpiece, I went back to read Alison Bechdel’s creative lead-in to her own masterwork.
Dykes to Watch Out For, a newspaper strip that ran in independent gay and lesbian newspapers and online from 1983 until 2008, when Bechdel put the strip on hiatus to focus on her follow-up to Fun Home, chronicles the lives of a group of (mostly) lesbians. It balances political commentary against a long-running, often humorous, occasionally sad soap opera of romantic, professional and personal entanglements.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For compiles the majority of the post-1986 strips, when Bechdel began introducing her extended cast and moved the strip away from its early gag-a-day format. Now, those early strips … well, they’re a little choppy. Though Bechdel had been penning the strip for three years already, her art remained stilted. The character work showed some charm, but only occasionally rose above ordinary. It was a slow build, but by 1990 – with 18 more years worth of strips in the book, so there’s lots and lots of good stuff left – Bechdel had captured the elusive voice of an artist with something true to say.
As the strip grew more assuredly artistically, the depth of the characters grew exponentially. Perhaps the quality of the line work allowed Bechdel to show ideas that had always been brewing in the strip but never communicated clearly. Her ability to depict characters across the entire spectrum of experience added humanity to their storylines. Many comic book artists can illustrate highly detailed scenes, moments of exquisite carnage and impossible perspectives, but through it all, most of their characters continue to shout obscenely or cry melodramatically.
Bechdel’s lines are simple, but deep. Reactions come through with subtlety and nuance, and she’s able to balance her artistic accomplishments with characterization that is apparent without having to explain itself. When Clarice becomes enraged at Toni, the character’s sniping ire manifests that rage in clear, simply human terms.
Dykes to Watch Out For is unapologetically political, and anybody who doesn’t lean left as Bechdel does will probably feel put off reading it. Yet the characters each exhibit diverse and fairly argued perspectives within the strip’s liberal outlook. Mo and Sydney frequently argue everything from gay marriage to patriarchal standards of beauty, and both viewpoints are presented fairly and levelly. In fact, one of the strip’s most interesting and challenging moments comes when Bechdel introduces a conservative-leaning lesbian into the group’s community, and despite a few jokes at her expense (though no more than any other character is subjected to during the strip’s twenty-year run), she shows an intelligent and rounded vantage point on the world herself.
Fun Home is perhaps the greatest and most important comic book ever published. (Yeah, that’s maybe a bold statement, but the book is. Read it if you haven’t. Read it again if you have.) That level of brilliance doesn’t develop overnight, and the progression of strips during its twenty-plus year evolution shows that Alison Bechdel experimented, stretched and transformed herself into one of the most important cartoonists working today in the page of Dykes to Watch Out For. Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is absolute must-read comics.