By Alison Bechdel
416 pages, black and white
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books
I have a confession to make. For years, I picked up a copy of The Washington Blade free weekly newspaper but often didn’t read a single article. Instead, I’d flip right to the back and read the latest installment of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. So while some people have Bechdel’s excellent autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home on their bookshelves, mine is flanked with a complete collection of Dykes to Watch Out For collections (except for the one that went missing) as well as her artbook. So it was almost a certainty, then, that I’d end up with her massive best-of collection, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. But for people who have only read Bechdel’s Fun Home, though, it’s a great way to see just what else you’ve been missing.
The earliest strips in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For have a tight focus on Mo, the world’s most uptight lesbian. It’s a comedy/soap opera about her love life, or rather the lack thereof. Even in those early strips, Bechdel’s got a sharp wit about her. The first strip is setting up a massive punchline, but it feels well paced as Mo explains to Lois why none of her crushes are panning out, not seeing the dash of cold water in the face that is waiting in the final panel. As the strip progresses, though, the cast rapidly expands and that’s when things begin to get interesting.
The book spans 20 years of time, and I think it’s safe to say that the strip grows a little less idealistic and more realistic as it progresses. The early strips have Mo working at the local woman’s bookstore, shopping at the organic co-op, and breaking up with her girlfriend Harriet over excessive consumerism when Harriet brings home a VCR. Clarice and Toni are the long-term couple who have a kid together, and Lois bounces from one fling to another. By the strip’s conclusion, though, things are very different. Mo’s had to go through the closing of the bookstore, and lying down with the devil by taking a job at a mega-bookstore chain while finishing up library school. Clarice and Toni’s relationship slowly burns out and then crashes badly, even as they continue to raise their son. Even Lois grows up and changes over time, but in a logical progression. And of course, over time, dozens of additional characters are introduced; some drift in and out, while others that seem like they’re just a brief guest-star end up becoming a major part of the story, like Sparrow’s new boyfriend Stuart.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For also shows just how politically charged the strip became over its 20 years. Early strips would occasionally have minor storylines like a trip to the march on Washington DC back in 1987, or Mo’s tirades about how everything was wrong in the world, although those rants were played more for laughs than anything else. By the end of the strip, though, you can easily see what the latest event in the news was at the time and how it played through the characters’s lives. It’s much to Bechdel’s credit, though, that it doesn’t hijack the ongoing stories of her characters. It’s more of a backdrop for them to interact against, especially with Bechdel’s trademark background details that spin merrily along for those paying close attention. From changing newspaper headlines, to news programs airing in the corner of the room, Bechdel both makes a point and also uses these news points as humor. It’s hard not to laugh when Laura Bush is yanked off stage with a vaudeville hook after accidentally shifting a rant against the Taliban to one of the United States’s allies, for instance, or a book with the title Martha Stewart’s Craft and Stock Tips.
Bechdel’s art grows more refined over the years as well. Early strips have a scratchy, simple look about them. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and her talent is already evident here; Lois’s confused look in strip #63 while getting her hair cut (and unloading about relationship problems) is great, for instance, or Emma’s wistful look as she walks away from a good thing in the final panel of strip #99. As it progresses, though, Bechdel’s art grows much tighter and more intricate. She doesn’t lose any of her talent for character expressions, though; Sydney’s sly, flirting expression in strip #251 is killer, and the body language of Mo comforting Sydney in strip #411 when Sydney faces cancer feels incredibly real. Bechdel’s art is very much up to its full strength by the time her 9/11 strip rolls around, which is told entirely without dialogue but it’s very easy to tell exactly what everyone is thinking and saying.
Most impressive to me was how Bechdel chose the strips to go into The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Reprinting only 75% of the entire run, if you aren’t paying close attention you’d almost never notice that not everything is in here. All the stories still flow through smoothly, with usually one-off strips being the ones missing. I ended up pulling out some of my older Dykes to Watch Out For collections (many of which also have additional bonus features so I’m hanging onto them too!) to see exactly what was cut, but I never felt like I had missed any huge event. If you’ve never read Dykes to Watch Out For, this is a great primer to draw you into Bechdel’s 20+ year soap-opera. I was crushed when Bechdel finally placed the strip on an indefinite hiatus so she can work on her new book, but reading The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is a great way to sooth those pangs of separation. Bechdel’s one of the greats of comics, and it’s nice to see her works being presented in such a handsome fashion.