Since America ended its centuries-long battle with racism this past November (seriously, we did; I heard it on NPR), the nation is free to move onto its next great civil rights battle: the extension and protection of the rights of homosexual and transgendered individuals. Like the battle over race, the cultural war over sexuality seems embedded in essentialist ideas that transform people into demographics and obscure the individual lives being affected.
While this battle has become a defining political issue the past few election cycles, Alison Bechdel has been on the front line for 25 years with her serialized cartoon Dykes to Watch Out For, recently collected in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. The strip began as single panel illustrations, forming a satirical catalogue of lesbian types, a tongue-in-cheek attempt by the author to, in her own words, “derive a universal lesbian essence from these particular examples.” Over the years, it expanded into a mix of soap opera and op-ed, sort of Democracy Now of Our Lives, growing to include a dozen characters and span five Presidential administrations.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For collects over 300 of the 500-plus full-page cartoons Bechdel has produced since the series’ 1983 debut. The volume’s title plays less on Bill Watterson’s running joke of titling Calvin and Hobbes reprint collections with evermore necessary-sounding adjectives (The Essential, The Authoritative, The Indispensable ) and more on Bechdel’s attempts to balance essentialist and constructivist ideas of gender. At the start, Bechdel’s world seems populated with a collection of types rather than individuals, but with deft character development and a seemingly bottomless well of warmth and humanism, the members of Bechdel’s sprawling cast take on their own voices, defying expectations of type and embracing contradictions in the frustrating and compelling way real people do.
While on a surface level, the book is driven by the constant and sharply-rendered soap opera plots of shifting partners, shifting relationships, and the characters fumbling towards maturity, whatever that’s supposed to mean, the developing politics of the nation are of equal interest, serving not just as a backdrop but as a tentpole for the series as whole.
The one thing shared by all the series’ central characters is not sexual orientation (the cast includes lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered individuals, gender-variant individuals and even a stray straight male), it is involvement in the political process. Over its quarter-century run, Dykes to Watch Out For shows the impact of shifts in political climates and legislation—as well as the effects of media consolidation, advertising and the rise of “big box” retail—on its characters.
Even more compelling about the collected edition is the opportunity to watch Bechdel develop as an artist. Starting from the R. Crumb-inspired shaky lines of her early cartooning, which leave her pages feeling busy to the point of jittery, Bechdel eases into thicker, more confident lines to define her characters, while retaining her thinner more exacting lines to render the almost exhaustive detail with which she packs each panel.
Bechdel described her attention to detail as “an uncontrolled literalism,” a need to show as much as possible. “Do I draw the name of the book on the spines of the books on the bookshelf?” she wondered aloud to me in an interview. “Do I draw the logo of the publisher on the spine? Do I draw the wood grain on the bookshelf?” This attention to detail gives the later cartoons a lush feel, allowing the reader to linger on background details in each panel. In fact, many of Bechdel’s best jokes occur on the spines of books or the shifting headlines of newspapers. She has an uncanny ability to juxtapose news coverage, be it from NPR or Fox News, with the daily traumas of her characters, as radios and televisions constantly foretell doom in the background.
All this may make Dykes to Watch Out For seem ponderously grim, but the thing to keep in mind is that the series is consistently hilarious. Bechdel is witty and withering; the bone-dry humor she displayed in her rightfully lauded memoir Fun Home was honed to an edge on the serial work collected here. While not every page plays for laughs, most are layered thick with clever swipes at politicians, cultural trends, and the characters themselves.
If there’s one complaint to be made, it is that some cartoons had to be left out of the collection. There’s a lot here, but the occasional omission of cartoons combined with the large cast and juggling storylines sometimes leave the reader with the feeling they’ve missed something, or that they’d have happily paid an extra ten dollars to upgrade to more of an omnibus-level collection. As a new administration steps in to office with no apparent intention to staunch America’s hemorrhaging credibility on the subject of gender-based rights, artists like Bechdel, who put an array of human faces on something that has been abstracted into an Issue, become ever more necessary. If you find yourself troubled describing this volume with a loaded word like “Essential”, perhaps its better to choose one whose double meaning is completely covered by it: “Critical”.