Dykes to Watch Out For

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Dykes to Watch Out For

In the mid-1980s lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel began to create the family of lesbians who comprise her popular comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. By the mid-1990s, the strip—the first continuing lesbian cartoon—had been syndicated in over 50 lesbian, gay, and alternative periodicals and had been published in more than seven collections. Dykes to Watch Out For had become an institution.

The strip is a little like a soap opera, with a developing storyline, and a lot like a peek behind the scenes of any lesbian community. The cast of characters is a group of lesbian friends in a nameless mid-size city in the United States. Just as in any real group of friends, pairings change and priorities evolve, influenced by events both internal and external. Much of the action takes place at Madwimmin Books, a feminist bookstore owned by Jezanna, a no-nonsense lesbian entrepreneur. Among the staff at Madwimmin are Mo, a lovable curmudgeon filled with leftist angst, and Lois, a butch rake with a girl in every port. Their friends include Toni and Clarice, an accountant and lawyer with a baby boy—however uncomfortably, they are upwardly mobile and nuclear-family-bound. Lois lives in a group house with Ginger, an academic, and Sparrow is a pagan spiritualist who works at a battered women's shelter.

These women, and the friends who ebb and flow around them, form a diverse community. Through them, Bechdel pokes gentle fun at the foibles of lesbians, be they politically earnest, promiscuous, or pretentious. She also allows them to change as they experience the events of the real world, mirroring the real changes that occur both among lesbians and in the larger community. Just as traditional media reflects the effects of phenomena on the larger culture, Dykes to Watch Out For reflects lesbian culture. Presidential elections, the O.J. Simpson trial, prozac, sado-masochism, transsexuality—all appear in the panels of the comic strip, analyzed and digested by Bechdel's family of lesbians.

Bechdel calls her strip "half op-ed column and half endless Victorian novel." While her primary alter-ego is clearly Mo, the anguished leftist, Bechdel does not take herself or her characters too seriously. She occasionally has her characters break the "fourth wall" and address her readers directly, or interact with each other as if they are quite different characters performing in the strip. One of the strip's calendars shows a large panel of the "green room" where characters display heretofore unseen personality traits as they wait for their "entrance" onto the strip. In another strip, characters of color, a Jewish character, and a disabled character bewail their token status in the storyline.

It is a tribute to Bechdel's skill as an artist and a writer that she can bring her characters enough life to argue with her from the page. Her drawings are clean yet complex, filled with subtle references and in-jokes for her audience, and the dialogue is lively and incisive. In fact, Bechdel's work and the success of Dykes To Watch Out For drew the attention of the mainstream press when Universal Press Syndicate approached her with an offer that could have placed her in the daily "funny papers." Though their interest was exciting to Bechdel, it only took a moment's thought to realize that whittling down her work to fit the narrow niche of the mainstream would have changed her work beyond recognition. The title would have to go, "dykes" being far too controversial, and out of six main characters only two would have been allowed to be lesbians. Unwilling to give up her vision of a strip that reflected the realities of lesbian life, Bechdel refused the offer and remained in the alternative press, where her uncensored style was welcome.

Her strips, collections, and calendars have always been eagerly awaited by her fans. In fact, the main dilemma for Bechdel's readers seems to be expressed by an urgent letter she received from a fan. "DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA," the reader wrote, "WHAT IT'S LIKE TO HAVE A CRUSH ON A CARTOON CHARACTER?!!?"

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Bechdel, Alison. The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca, New York, Firebrand Books, 1998.

Rhoades, Heather. "Cartoonist to Watch Out For." The Progressive. Vol. 56, No. 4, April 1992, 13.