Thursday, January 29, 2009

From the Library: Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For"

Alison Bechdel, author of the critically-acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home, has been publishing the serial comic "Dykes to Watch Out For" every other week since 1988. And, dear Portland writer, it is awesome. Obviously a huge influence on the ever-more-ridiculous Showtime series "The L Word," DTWOF quite un-ridiculously follows the lives of a bunch of progressive lesbians in an unnamed American city: Mo, a paranoid ideologue; Lois, her best friend who likes dressing up in drag and grows more and more to look like Tintin; Clarice and Toni, who have a kid and never have sex anymore; Sparrow, who's into crystals and emotional dialogue, and scandalizes everyone by dating a man; Ginger, who can't finish her dissertation; and an ever-evolving cast of characters getting older, confronting challenges and conservatives and kids who grow up to like Halo 3, and cracking wise throughout.

Although it's ostensibly about lesbians -- and doesn't skimp on the sex scenes -- DTWOF often seems more like a comic about a diverse range of witty people with progressive politics. More than once, a character can't get in the mood because she's too freaked out about the lifting of the nuclear test ban treaty, or the Bush administration's exploitation of 9/11. And since the political climate is always at the forefront of characters' minds, reading The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For involves revisiting twenty years of American social and political history, from the gay rights movement of the late 80s, through the 2008 presidential primaries. It's like "Doonesbury" -- as topical, as smart, and as funny -- but with diversity, and, over time, better drawing.

Besides the jokes, watching Bechdel's drawing evolve is one of the real pleasures of the Essential collection. In '88, her drawings are relatively crude, but as years pass, little gestures like a character pulling off a neckwarmer, or a bored kid writhing in frustration take on incredible accuracy. And visual gags begin to abound: as two characters discuss their sex life, a featureless barista in the background holds up a hand to a customer; barista and customer lean forward; the main characters abruptly change the subject and the two in the background go back about their business.

Alright, look, it's hard to explain or quote a comic: just check this one out. Then you'll want to go read some of the more recent strips at And then, we predict, you'll go buy the collection, an excellent value at only $25.

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