The long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," now collected in the hardcover volume The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, (Houghton Mifflin, $25), inhabits a political world beguilingly, and disturbingly, like our own. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel's characters may be fictional, but two decades of recognizable American history are threaded through the panels, providing a sardonic backdrop to, and engine for, a fully-realized constellation of friendships, courtships, and never-ending breakups among a collection of lesbians and their friends.
Bechdel started drawing cartoons of lesbians in 1982; her first recurring characters, repressed, earnest Mo and her best friend, irreverent thrill-seeker Lois, appeared in 1987. Mo and Lois were soon joined by law student Clarice (Mo's first lover), Lois's housemates Ginger and Sparrow, Clarice's partner Toni, and an ever-expanding circle of friends, flings and exes. Put on "indefinite hiatus" by its creator this past May, the strip ran for two decades in gay and alternative papers around the country. The Essential includes about three-quarters of the DTWOF collection, giving the characters plenty of time to turn all things seemingly innocuous –--lawn signs, Prozac, commitment ceremonies -- into the politically problematic. They analyze; they perseverate; for almost 400 pages, they can't stop talking.
Bechdel's characters debate politics of all kinds, but they have the most to say to each other about the tactics and strategies of the gay rights movement. As they watch the gay movement gain prominence, the strip's characters wrestle with ironies inherent in a world of Log Cabin Republicans and gay National Review editors, of a movement turning into a niche market. Mo observes of gay neocons: "A bunch of white gay men trying to convince the homophobes to like them because they're just normal, sexist, racist, God-fearing, profit-driven boys next door!"
City Council member Ellen (of course, she's Mo's ex's new girlfriend) begs to differ: "I dunno, Mo. Street activists and dykes on bikes are great, but it takes all kinds! If some starched, straight-acting gay men and lesbians want to suck up to the Republican Party, it can only help!" It's enough to whip Mo into a frenzy: "They probably eat veal! They probably don't recycle! They probably have wet dreams about skinny-dipping at the Bohemian Grove with George Will!" The characters may be talking shop, but there's always more at stake than just ideas – their very identities are fashioned, in part, from their arguing.
In Bechdel's world, the personal is political but the political, too, gets personal. In 1990, Clarice and Toni became the first couple in the strip to have a commitment ceremony; three years later, their son, Raffi, is born. When Vermont becomes the first state in the country to legally recognize same-sex relationships, they head north for a civil union, next, a civilly-disobedient marriage, and then, finally, a divorce. For each step along the way, the whole gang feels obligated to weigh in.: To Mo, their commitment ceremony is assimilation: "I think they're clinging to an obsolete heteropatriarchal construct. Marriage is about ownership and dowries and stuff! I mean, gross!" Jezanna, boss of the feminist bookstore Madwimmin Books, and Mo's employer, turns it around on Mo: "You're responding just like you've been programmed to! Two women love each other and want to affirm that publicly, and you trash them for it!"
Mo's political commitments are tested years later, when the mayor starts performing gay and lesbian marriages. Clarice and Toni joyfully head to City Hall -- all discussions about whether they should open up their relationship temporarily on hold -- but when Mo's longtime girlfriend proposes to her on the steps of City Hall, Mo balks. "Sydney, I'm not gonna marry you! I don't believe in it! ... I won't be complicit with the enshrinement of coupledom as a privileged status." But when juxtaposed against a protestor telling a newscaster "I don't believe in gay marriage," Mo's ideological stance against marriage as an institution rings hollow.
Unprecedented mainstream acclaim greeted Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home, but this collection represents the first hardcover, major press publication of Dykes to Watch Out For. The strip's version of history "bends toward justice" (Bechdel borrows appreciatively from Martin Luther King), but also towards disenchantment. Mo describes the scene at the '87 March on Washington, in which 500,000 queer people gathered to make public their demand for lesbian and gay equal rights: "God, it was incredible, Jez! Half-a-million of us! We turned that creepy, imperialist capital into a whole different world! For one weekend, we had a glimpse of real freedom."
Six years later, Mo's home from her second Washington march, disenchanted with what she sees as the increased commercialization of her ever-burgeoning community. Mo doesn't even go to the third march on Washington -- hardly any of the characters do -- but when she makes fun of "feeling so empowered" by the "gay-friendly vendor booths," Madwimmin intern Sophie wants none of it. "Mo, I'm sorry the good old days are gone, when everyone sat around processing for years before anyone put up a flyer," she responds. "But don't try and ruin this for me!"
There's a blessedly escapist reassurance to the early years of the strip -- it conjures a world in which it's a viable, and desirable, career option to work alongside your best friend in a feminist bookstore for 15 years, an age in which you might have bounced easily from brunch at the dyke-owned restaurant to an Adrienne Rich reading to a local Lesbian Avengers meeting. Bechdel recently acknowledged as much, saying she created in the strip the community she never quite felt she had. In the first ten years, the characters really seem to believe -- in change, in revolution, in how important everything is. But twenty years on, the dykes' world is nearly unrecognizable to them. When Jezanna announces that the venerable Madwimmin Books, sales gutted by "Bounders Books" and "Bunns & Noodle," is closing, Mo responds, "I thought we were gonna make the world safe for feminism." "We did," says Jezanna. "To be packaged and sold by global media conglomerates."
Bechdel and her characters know that this isn't the full answer. In the end, so much more than global media conglomerates happened to lesbians, feminists and the gay rights movement. What Bechdel and her characters can't fully seem to reckon with is the magnitude of the change they have wrought. They are bewildered by, and tentative in, the world they themselves are partly responsible for creating.
By George W. Bush's second term, you can feel Bechdel's desperation, along with a note of unrefuted sarcasm, creep into the strip. In one frame, a pale and drawn Amy Goodman, hosting "Democracy Now!", pages through sheet after sheet of devastating headlines. The characters fight as if Bush has laid waste to their entire emotional lives, too. Angry with her unfaithful girlfriend, Mo tells Sydney, "You are so intellectually dishonest! You're like the Bush administration, fixing intelligence to support your self-serving policy." Sydney's riposte: "Well, then, since you let me get away with my obvious bulls**t for so long, that makes you like the Democrats -- complicit." Several plot lines are told as allegories to Bush administration tactics. After Bush v. Gore, Clarice falls into a clinical depression so deep that her marriage falls apart. The strip's saddest frames show scattered scenes from Clarice and Toni's slow-motion breakup.
At a recent reading in Manhattan (at the Upper West Side "Bunns & Noodle," no less), Bechdel told the audience that she was taking an indefinite sabbatical from the strip to work on a second graphic memoir. Still, one wonders if this year's election might have put the gleam back in her characters' eyes. No doubt if the strip were still being written, Mo and the gang would be in the streets protesting the passage of Proposition 8. Some would be chanting, some would be toting signs saying "Deprivilege All Coupled Statuses," some would be flirting with their exes and others would be giving speeches about how gay people want the same rights and privileges as everybody else. But all of them would be there.