The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For
By Alison Bechdel
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I was planning on reading the whole thing but got to the end of the Introduction and here I am typing away. Which seems like a good sign (lots to talk about!).
For those of you who don’t know: Alison Bechdel is best known for Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Two smart and serious and (ever-so slightly) stuffy books which are the best things to start talking about if you’re having a proper conversation with someone about the graphic novel art-form and want to be taken seriously. I mean – LOL – hands in the air full disclosure: Fun Home was the fifth book chosen for the LGNN because yeah: it signifies comics as something more than just superheroes and worthy of being talked about in highfalutin terms and blah blah blah.
(Oh yeah – she’s also the inventor of the Bechdel test but I’m guessing most of you knew that already?).
But shit man: as good as Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are (and obviously both of them have their plus points for me at least: Dykes to Watch Out For is the proper 100% good stuff.
Cards on the table: I’m not too sure how popular this book is going to be. Like: I’m not sure how many people have read it. But basically I was getting a little bit dis-hearted with myself with kinda putting the boot in with books revolving around erm “identity.” You know – Ms Marvel and Blue is the Warmest Color especially: because – well: I just don’t think they’re particularly good books. And so I thought it would be cool to talk about Dykes to Watch Out For because – fuck it – it is a really good book. It’s dirty and messy and heartfelt and human and funny.
(Is “human” a dumb adjective? I mean – everything people do is human right? But whatever – it feels like the right thing to say so shush).
Oops – just to explain quickly: Dykes to Watch Out For was a regular comic strip with a large cast of characters that ran between 1983 to 2008 (wow that’s a long time): like a more realistic version of The Simpsons. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is the cleaned up collection for those who want to know what it’s like (but hey if you’re interested: there’s loads more collections out there).
Like: obviously I don’t begrudge Bechdel her success and it’s good that she now does stuff like doing cartoons for the New Yorker there’s a part of me that wishes she was still doing the kinda (massive scare-quotes) “low-brow” stuff she was doing with DTWOF you know? It’s like having your favourite cool band graduate from playing sweaty tiny packed clubs to performing in the Royal Albert Hall with everyone sitting on chairs. Like: it feels better when she’s playing from the heart rather than jumping through the hoops of what’s respectable (all those literary references in Fun Home etc).
More confessions: my auntie is gay and when I was growing up she only lived like 30 minutes away so we used to go visit her a lot. And so yeah: to be honest – reading DTWOF kinda makes me feel like I’m looking through a window into kinda what I imagine my aunties life would have been like at that time. You know: what kinda concerns she had to deal with and stuff like that. Although I feel like that’s probably only a small part of the pull the book has for me: because yeah (LOL) ok when it starts out – it’s not that well drawn and it kinda basic (sorry Alison) but that just makes reading it even more of a (dare I say it?) magical experience: seeing the artwork and craft slowly developing along with the characters. It kinda reminds of the horror-film sensation of back when I was doing temp work in a primary school and was sorting through the students files and flicking through their work from around age 4 to age 11. At the start they can barely hold a crayon properly and by the end they’re writing sentences: it’s freaky and weird but also kinda cool – watching a consciousness develop.
But yeah: sorry the Introduction. Alison Bechdel doing the straight to camera thing and describing the creative processes that gave birth to DTWOF. I like it. It’s cool. But it’s the bit at the end that really made me think (quote): “Have I churned out episodes of this comic strip every two weeks for decades merely to prove that we’re the same as everyone else?!”
And yeah to the surprise of absolutely no one who’s been following this far: that’s a message that I really love. You know: emphasising our similarities rather than our differences. Mo, Lois, Ginger, Harriet and Toni and all of the rest of them all come from a difference place than me – but getting to know them all the course of their adventures it’s like – well – how do I say this in a way that’s not soppy and lame? I feel their plights. I rejoice in their victories. Laugh at all the stuff that life throws their way (Am seriously considering getting “Ugh! Not again! Didn’t we just wake up yesterday?” as a tattoo).
I get that saying yay for how we’re all the same is politically charged nowadays (at the pub after a Comic Forum someone said that I was basically an “All Lives Matter” type – which well: makes me go fuck you / but also well yeah – all lives do matter no?). My current best guess / way to understand things is that we should try our best to resist oppression and the things that seek to divide us and deny people’s basic humanity and saying fuck off to all forms of prejudice no matter what form they take (which I think is something we all agree on). My point of divergence I guess is when people start identifying other people as belonging to different groups: like saying “these people have all been victims of a certain type of oppression” makes sense (and the oppression is the thing to fight against) but saying “these people are all the same because of their sexuality” in a way that’s not just stating a tautology just seems kinda – dumb? Like: yes there are people who are gay but I not sure I believe in “gay people” beyond sexual preferences and social pressures. If that makes sense? Like: I’m not sure if I believe there’s an extra element that means that all gay people are the same beyond them having the same sexual preference and having at various points in their life having to take shit from other people from being gay. But fuck – whatever. I mean: yes ok I’m a “straight white guy.” And what I’m hoping for in saying all this stuff is not to start any arguments or bad feelings: but to hopefully get a better insight in how other people think about this stuff.
Or: you know – we can just talk about the comic. 🙂
What do you think?
What I like about The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For is how it kinda tricked me into reading it.
I mean – shoot. Firstly you know: just to state the obvious: it’s a really thick book (over 400 frigging pages) so you know – unlike most comics: in terms of time it’s a big commitment. It’s not just something that you can whizz through on a single lunch break. Also – sorry to say it but it’s true but for this reader in terms of what it’s actually about; a realistic slice of life about people with no super-powers, no cybernetic implants, no visions of a post-apocalyptic future etc blah just normal human life – I mean: that’s the stuff that makes me yawn and go “boring” and has me looking for something else to read.
But then here’s the thing – I really like this book (it’s pretty much my only experience with Dykes To Watch Out For but I’d definitely be up for reading more if any crossed my path) and I’d gladly hold it up and say “hi! This is good! Everyone should read this!” (and damn: there’s a part of me that thinks it’s a shame that there hasn’t been as much talk about this as there has been about Ghost in the Shell and other books we’ve done in the past – which makes me think well – what? Is it that happiness writes in white? Do we only ever start talking passionately about stuff when we disagree? Would it be better for the LGNN to only do “hot button” books? I mean: I think I can see the reasons why – it’s always harder to talk about the good stuff – but then maybe that’s why we should? I dunno).
But yeah: I think part of the reason I like it so much – is how it tricks the reader to getting sucked in. Because – well – I say this in the best possible way: but it’s kinda clickbait-y no? I mean yeah yeah – I know that Bechdel didn’t plan it like this (how could she?) but it’s like the whole thing is a big long sweeping multi-generational Dickensian epic type thing BUT (and here’s the important bit) every page is it’s own self-contained little thing and (most importantly I think) every page ends with a punchline. So you know: you can pick it up and just read a page and it’s like – oh cool. Instant satisfactions. And maybe – I’ll just read one more page… And then it’s an hour later and it turns out you’ve eaten the whole packet (or whatever metaphor you want).
And well yeah – there’s something about that which I think is really cool and comics at it’s best. Luring you in with the promise of an light and easy read and then reeling you into something much richer and deeper than you ever expected.
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
Let’s be honest here “Dyke Watch” (the appropriate abbreviation), would be waaay better with all of those teenage genre things you mentioned. In fact screw the abbreviation. I’m copyrighting this and making a video game with David Hasselhoff. THIS.WILL.END.WELL.
Imagine strip X where Bechdel has an awkward conversation about art with a friend over coffee. Now imagine that but her friend is a robot dinosaur and Bechdel is a super powered time travelling survivor from the year XX7X. But it’s never brought up – at all. It just is.
I’d buy that.
More seriously though –
My reading experience with it isn’t “proper”. And by not proper, I mean I’ve read a fraction of it, out of sequence. The way you would treat a dog eared Calvin and Hobbes volume you’re casually rereading for the umpteenth time.
So when I talk about it – I talk with a vague inaccurate sense of a thing I enjoyed between volumes of Fables and Unwritten at the library.
It feels like a precursor to the modern slice of life web comics like Questionable Content. You know the kind that could amiably, endlessly develop characters knowing full well there was no monthly cliff hanger deadline or a 250 page Jonathan Cape minimum. There’s no classic “arcs”, people just grow and bubble and mutate in a way that feels really close to life.
What’s more fun about that in an almost voyeuristic way is that it feels like insight into a minority in a time that was majorly crummy to them (and often still are). It’s fun seeing them just be, and be funny and dramatic – I mean those characters doing…well…nothing particularly dramatic? Where the fuck else are you going to find them in that era of comic bookery?
(This is where someone chimes in with a lost Transformers cereal box mini-series that totally does do that)
And flicking through the book, seeing the characters and cast change as time went on – it feels like this hilarious, brilliant historical document that lets you laugh and bare witness to this counter culture minority across generations, adapting and changing and all that.
It’s hilarious, it’s smart, it gives me what feels like an amazing insight into the more mundane non “Oscar drama” side of being a sexual minority in America in the past. Also the pictures are pretty. So there is that. These are characters you’ll never see anywhere else, in a tone and character structure you basically never see anywhere. That’s what’s so great and unique about this and why I will go and get it once I pay my library fines (they bubbled and grew and mutated and well…here we are…)
Also kudos to Joel for resurrecting a chat I forgot to respond to by writing back to himself saying “WELL WHAT I REALLY LIKE ABOUT THIS BOOK YOU GUYS AREN’T TALKING ABOUT…”
The Gap between Panels
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter / The Hot-Doll Pages
One of the enduring impressions I have of the comic is when the main character encounters lesbians who are also Republicans on a march in Washington, and is flabbergasted. We’re supposed to laugh, but actually I had a similar reaction to meeting students who were Conservatives in my first year at university. I grew up in liberal lefty north London (Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency in fact) and blithely assumed that any young person who wasn’t progressive was somehow abnormal.
Which gets me into a wormhole about how human being create little tribes for themselves even without meaning to. I mean,Dykes can be viewed as a portrait of a tribe – a close-knit community at the margins that’s close-knit because it’s at the margins. And within it your sexuality is wrapped up in all kinds of other moral and political affiliations. It is a bit of a bubble, liable to be popped once you encounter other tribes. I made this point in a previous LGNN discussion, but I wonder whether as the stigma around being gay disappears, the bonds that keep you together and separate from the rest of society begin to loosen.
Earlier today I was flicking through Julia Scheele’s comic explaining queer theory in a bookshop, and got to the page asking whether you can describe yourself as queer while being in a heterosexual relationship. Turns out you can – and I was reminded of the character in Dykes who insists she is a lesbian despite being in a relationship with a man. My understanding of queer theory doesn’t extend far beyond those Scheele pages I flicked through, but in Dykes you get the sense that as well as sexuality being a fluid and confusing thing, being queer accrues a culture around it that’s difficult to shake off. It becomes part of your identity, even if the thing that initially pushed you into that identity falls away.
On Joel’s second email: I do think that the episodic nature of Dykes makes it a ‘purer’ kind of comic – closer to how the medium was traditionally consumed. It’s a less complete and rounded experience than a graphic novel (and Fun Home is an exemplar). Instead it’s something you live and grow with, and it keeps changing as you change. It’s a very cool thing to see something start small and circle outward until it builds a vibrant unfamiliar universe that you get to know as the creator continues to embellish it. Love & Rockets gives you the same experience, and I wonder whether it’s something you get in comics that much anymore.