LGBT History Month: what Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic means to me

As it’s LGBT History Month this February, I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite comic strips, Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF), its creator, Alison Bechdel, and why DTWOF means so much to me.

I first discovered DTWOF via one of the strip collections (the one in question being Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For, now long since out of print, sadly). Like a magpie for all things eye-catching and colourful, I was drawn to the cover of it where I could see a) this was a comic book and b) Lord – are those cartoon lesbians on the front? I must know more! SL-DTWOF was published in 1998 but it was a couple of years after when I discovered it sitting on a shelf, looking like something I had spent my teenage years searching for but never knew I had been until it found me in that wonderful way books have the power to do.

Just like when you discover a new music artist and you rush out and buy their backlist, or when you fall for an actor and go back and watch all their old films, I was the same with the DTWOF collections. I was at university at the time and studying in London, and my journeys back home to the south coast would always be via a bookshop on Charing Cross Road to pick up one of the DTWOF books I didn’t yet have. I actually read them out of chronological order, but now I’ve read them all many times each over the years it’s just all one story to me in my head and not divided into eleven collections as it’s published thus far.

But back to the stories. DTWOF centres around the sagas of a wide group of female friends with all kinds of different orientations, races, religions and gender identities. Refreshingly, no-one is in a box. It’s fair to say that Bechdel has created a hugely diverse world of women (and some men) in the DTWOF universe, and given exposure to African-American, Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic and disabled, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (and transgender children) characters, whose lives constantly weave in and out of each other’s on a daily basis. Each character is linked to another in ways such as previous relationships (as in protagonists Mo and Clarice), work colleagues (Lois and Jezanna) or as house-mates (Sparrow, Ginger and Lois, Lois also being Mo’s best friend). The lives of the ladies in DTWOF changed dramatically over the twenty-one years the strip was in production for*, with many characters having children in same-sex partnerships, obtaining promotions, furthering education, embarking on relationships with different genders and even storylines dealing with physical illnesses like breast cancer and MS.

Below is a proud picture of my Alison Bechdel book collection. Sadly, as mentioned, the individual comic strip volumes are long out of print, but happily I can recommend you to purchase The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, (at the very bottom of the photo) which is an anthology of the DTWOF comic strips over the years in one book (it collects a vast majority of them with a new introduction from Alison Bechdel and how she came to drawing the strip in the beginning).

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Alison Bechdel is not my favourite artist (see Will Eisner for this, please), but she is my favourite storyteller (Herge claims the both-in-one crown). Twenty one years in drawing the DTWOF comic strips has seen Bechdel through the dramas of her characters’ lives also commentate and document the social and political history of America as the strips ran (1987-2008): 9/11, the introduction of civil unions, presidential elections, capitalisation, environmental issues, the tireless campaigns for LGBT equal rights, homophobia, the LGBT world’s portrayal in the media, Pride marches (not everyone agrees with them) and even the obliteration of independent bookshops at the merciless hands of internet shopping and chain bookstores. These issues made for extremely interesting and controversial debate by her characters, and it’s scenes like these that make DTWOF so refreshing in the subjects it’s not afraid to tackle, discuss and highlight. In my personal case it was a massive sigh of relief to be able to read a story that had at least one character I could identify with, be it by their sexuality, political opinions or simply what they would do if their current relationship were in crisis. You add humour, romance, dating, careers, education, relationship break-ups, childbirth, marriage and death into all of this and you have one of the greatest comic strips ever created. The observation of LGBT society has never been as well achieved in literary form as Bechdel has done in her comics.

©Rebecca – staff member at Hive

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*Worth noting that DTWOF has not officially ended. Bechdel put the series on hold in 2008 to concentrate on writing her two graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? We live in hope though that DTWOF will return someday.

9780224087063You can read more about the DTWOF universe, Alison Bechdel’s other publications and read back issues of the strip on Bechdel’s website, by clicking here.

You can follow Alison Bechdel on Twitter here and like her on Facebook here.

You can also purchase Alison Bechdel books on Hive and support your local independent bookshop (something Mo would love you to do) at the same time by visiting her books on Hive here.

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