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Good Read Column For April 15, 1998

The Indelible Alison Bechdel

By Alison Bechdel
223 pages, Firebrand Books, $16.95 (TPB)
(hardback also available - not sure of price)

(of a possible five)


Even if you're a comics fan, there's a good chance that you've never heard of Alison Bechdel. She's never written or drawn for Marvel or DC - in fact, as far as I know, she's never done a whole "comic book," meaning the 32-page magazines, although she's done at least one piece for an anthology comic mag. But her comic strip is syndicated nationwide and has produced, so far, seven books collecting the exploits of her characters. And she makes enough money from it to live on, which is more than many better known alternative press comics folks can claim.

So who is this mysterious woman? Why haven't you heard of her? Would it help if I told you the first sentence of this collection of autobiographical essays and comics is "I actually make my living drawing a comic strip about a bunch of lesbians"?

Some of you are saying, "Oh, that Alison Bechdel, while others quickly hit the "BACK" button as soon as they saw the word "lesbian" ("Ugh! Gross!"). For the rest, Bechdel's strip is called Dykes To Watch Out For, and she self-syndicates it to gay and lesbian newspapers across the country. Not being gay and certainly not being a lesbian, I've seen her stuff primarily when it gets collected elsewhere. But running into a few of her cartoons a year or so ago intrigued me, and I checked the local gay papers to see if one of them carried her. One did, but I didn't follow through and keep getting it just to read her cartoon.

I will now.

This book has some autobiography, both in text and comics form, including the story of how Bechdel came to create DTWOF, and a collection of most of the cartoons she has done outside the strip since its inception. Many of them, therefore, don't have the characters she's known for that are familiar to her fans. On the other hand, she includes every single one of the cartoons done for the DTWOF calendars from 1990 to 1997. Most of these are about Mo, Lois, Ginger and the rest, although some of them feature other characters. Between the calendar pages and the timeline of the soap-opera like plot from the strip's inception in 1987, there was enough here to get me hooked. I'm now as interested in these folks lives as I am in the cast of Doonesbury.

Its ironic that my real introduction to the strip comes in a book with almost no reprints from the strip itself (just a couple to illustrate some of the text sections). She keeps talking about how hard the calendar pages were to do, since they had to be done so far in advance she could use neither ongoing stories nor current events, the two key components of her strip. In one, she even uses a baby that, in the strip, was not yet born and she had no idea yet whether it would be a boy or a girl so she avoided direct reference by name or pronoun and depicted it wrapped in a blanket.

Nonetheless, the calendar pages are charming and they show that the interweaving plotlines and references to current political happenings are not the heart and soul of Dykes To Watch Out For. What makes the strip worth seeking out a gay and lesbian newspaper on a regular basis for a heteresexual, happily married man in his forties are the characters: Mo, the politically committed feminist socialist; Lois, the randy, self-assured butch; Clarice, the attorney in the power suit; Toni, Clarice's long-time lover and biological mother to their little boy, Raffi; Ginger, the perpetual graduate student (who last year finally finished her dissertation and got her doctorate); Sparrow, the New Age devotee; Jezanna, the owner of Madwimmin Books. . . there are several more characters introduced in this book, but my glib summary phrases do them less justice than the paragraph Bechdel devotes to them, and what's really astonishing is that this large cast manages to be, for the most part, fully realized human beings. Sparrow is closest to being a stereotype, but Bechdel mentions that she's aware of that and has tried to develop her beyond that.

Some have made fun of Bechdel's "politically correct" cast. Several of the women are African-American, Sparrow is Asian, and Thea is handicapped. But if the world of DTWOF is a little utopian, Bechdel figures its worth it to have a lot of people able to see themselves in the strip.

I'm looking forward to collecting all the books - I'd order them all right now, but I can't afford it. But I plan to start with the first and continue on, and in the meantime, I'm going to start picking up the local gay newspaper that carries the strip. There aren't many strips that are worth going out of the way for like that. This is definitely one of them.

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