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Slice of Gay Life

Watching Out for the Dykes: Alison Bechdel's long-running strip focuses on the lives of a group of intelligent, middle-class lesbians.

Alison Bechdel writes as well as she draws

By Harvey Pekar

IT LOOKS as if alternative comics are here to stay. An increasing number of people are using them to deal with a growing body of subject matter. Alternatives received a great boost years ago from the minicomic and self-publishing movement. Matt Feazell demonstrated that for a few bucks one could print his/her own comics, opening the door for hundreds of artists to print and market their creations.

Sometimes self-published comics are so well-received that national distributors pick them up. Unfortunately, however, the overall quality of comics at every level remains low, misleading talented artists and writers into believing the medium has intrinsic limitations--and thus avoiding it as a means of expression.

Comic-book writing in particular has not improved since the heady days of the 1960s underground comics. People like Frank Stack, Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, in addition to being outstanding illustrators, were fluent authors. They read, were interested in the art and politics of their time and earlier eras; they had much broader frames of reference than most of today's alternative comics creators.

It's been particularly frustrating, therefore, to see how little attention has been paid to the laudable work of Alison Bechdel, whose syndicated strip Dykes to Watch Out For has been around since 1983 (several trade-paperback collections have been printed by Firebrand Books). She's got a core audience, almost entirely gay and feminist, but it doesn't seem to have grown much lately.

Dykes to Watch Out For focuses on a group of intelligent, middle-class lesbians--black, white, Asian and Hispanic--living in a deliberately unnamed medium-sized city. The central figure is Mo, a feminist bookstore clerk. She's bright, politically active and well-informed but full of crippling self-doubt.

Mo and many of her friends have attended college. Among them are a politician, a lawyer, an accountant and a state bureaucrat, but also some women who, like her, have "menial" jobs. The strip takes place in real time. Contemporary political events are referred to and sometimes stimulatingly debated by the characters. But Bechdel, on whom Mo seems loosely modeled, emphasizes personal and social problems as well.

Toni and Clarice's relationship is being strained because Toni, an accountant, must stay home and tend her infant child while Clarice is free to follow her career as a lawyer. Similarly, Ellen, a city councilperson, is too busy pursuing her political ambitions to have much time for her increasingly annoyed lover, human-rights worker Harriet.

Bechdel's characters range from scholarly Mo to hedonistic "Lothario" Lois. Straight people, including men, can relate to much that these women think and experience. Currently Dykes to Watch Out For is carried almost exclusively in gay publications. It's got crossover potential, though. You don't have to be gay or female to appreciate Bechdel's wit, thoughtful illustration and perceptiveness. Hers are thinkers' comics, full of the stuff that classics like Gasoline Alley and Doonesbury are made of.

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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