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The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For [7 April, 2010]

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By Alison Bechdel; Houghton Mifflin; 392 pages

When I moved to Chicago over a decade ago, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip offered me one vision of what queer and lesbian-centered life could look like.  Over the years, my sense of queerness shifted dramatically to the point where I no considered Dykesto be any kind of barometer of what my life was shaping up to be.  The strip was suspended on May 10, 2008, when Bechdel announced that she was gong on a hiatus to work on her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, about her relationship with her father.

Fun Home, published by Houghon Mifflin, went on to become a national bestseller, earning glowing reviews and awards like the Stonewall Book Award.  None of that should be a surprise, given its extraordinary complexity and deftness of both graphics and text.  But what is a surprise is that Bechdel’s memoir, which is in part about a lesbian and her gay father (the terms are rendered more muddied by the author) should gain such widespread acceptance.

Even more astonishingly, given its explicit queer content, Houghton Mifflin has now come out with an omnibus anthology titled The Essential Dykes to Watch Out ForRe-encountering the strip in this new and slick shape should bring back memories for those of us who first knew Bechdel as a regular in our gay press, no matter how far we have strayed from its central vision.  Indeed, to anyone who knew Bechdel’s work before she became a feted author in the mainstream, it seems odd to see her listed on the cover of this anthology as “author of Fun Home.”  It might well provoke more than curiosity in a different set of readers who come to this anthology after reading her memoir.

Dykes first began as a non-serialized sequence of strips, and it was only in 1987 that Bechdel began unifying them as the stories of a community of people.  These include Mo, Ginger, Clarice, Lois and a couple of Siamese cats that vacillate between sleep and irritation.  It is easy to forget that Bechdel began writing her strip early in the Reagan-Bush era, and how subversive it was for a cartoon strip to actively combine explicit lesbian sex with explicit anti-Reagan politics.  In an early — and more loosely-drawn — strip, Mo whips herself up into a frenzy: “But out there in the real world they’re bombing abortion clinics…holding Nazi and KKK rallies…trying to quarantine people who might have AIDS.”  That last reference to a disease is one of the rare ones found in a strip that held for the most part to an explicitly lesbian politics and world-view.  Men, even in the AIDS era, are scarce here.  Instead, the emphasis is on delineating the contours of a very specifically lesbian world.

Looking at Dykes, it is hard not to think that she is drawing a certain part of lesbian Chicago.  Madwimmen, the independent bookstore that serves as a social hub for the lesbians, is startlingly like Women and Children First [a Chicago establishment].  The karate club they occasionally meet in might as well be Chicago’s queer-focused Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center.  The constant angst over national issues punctuated with bites of raw and vegan food remind us of a fact that is either surprising or scary: lesbian communities of a certain ilk look and sound exactly alike, no matter where they are (Bechdel has been mostly based in Minnesota and Vermont).  But here, they also manage to be wryly and self-deprecatingly funny.  In episode 522, Lois, long the sexual renegade of the group, is worried that she is losing touch with herself: “I’m too busy being the man to do any drag kinging.  I’m raising a teenager.  I’m practically married to Jasmine.  Am I still polyamorous if I haven’t been with anyone but her for three years?…This is not my beautiful house!  This is not my beautiful wife!”

As the years go by, the women and men and the occasional transgender teenager find themselves confronted with new worries.  Having rid themselves of Bush, they must now deal with Bill Clinton’s rollback of the welfare state and then find themselves confronted by a second Bush.  Animals have a special place in the strip.  In one episode, the entire clan gathers as they wait for Clarice’s aging dog Digger to take her last breath.  One of the Siamese cats dies, and Mo is convinced that the remaining one is going through survivor’s guilt.  By the time we leave them in 2008, the ideological differences that seemed so clear in the Reagan-Bush era are much more fuzzy; the group is split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters and Lois is fishing out her gas mask in preparation for protesting both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

Returning readers will find much to remember and be delighted by in this sleek new volume of Bechdel’s archive.  Newer readers will find a world that may resonate with their experiences or seem utterly alien. Madwimmin shut down in 2008, devoured by the rapacious chain named Bounders.  Given the changes wrought to lesbian communities since Dykes first appeared in print, even old fans might find themselves wondering if the world portrayed here, defined by its chaotic fidelity to community and communal living, can still exist.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 7 April, 2010

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