Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist and writer who created the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel’s work mixes humor with real-life situations faced by many Lesbians, and Dykes to Watch Out For achieved cult status as an iconic representation of the Lesbian community.
Bechdel attributed early influences on her work to Charles Addams, Mad Magazine, Norman Rockwell, and Edward Gorey. “When I was twenty-two,” she said, “I picked up a copy of ‘Gay Comix,’ an anthology comic book edited by Howard Cruse. It was seeing his work there, along with stuff by other early gay and lesbian cartoonists like Mary Wings, Jennifer Camper, and Jerry Mills, that made me realize I could draw cartoons about my own queer life.”
Dykes to Watch Out For began in 1983. Initially, the common thread that connected the individual comic strips was that they all commented on Lesbian relationships, but no narrative construction emerged from one strip to the next. The generic Lesbians of this early work appeared and disappeared without being developed as characters.
In 1987, Bechdel introduced Mo and Mo’s friends to the strip. Within one year, Mo had developed into a central character with obsessions and nightmares familiar to many politically engaged Lesbians. Bechdel portrayed Mo as someone who obsesses about reactionary politics and worries about a world in which “they’re bombing abortion clinics… holding Nazi and KKK rallies… trying to quarantine people who might have AIDS!” Mo is an insecure young woman and, although she fantasizes about having a relationship, she has difficulty letting her guard down. Talking to her friends Clarice and Tony about whether she should call Harriet (whom she had recently met at Gay Pride), Mo has a hard time keeping calm: “But what if she’s in the bathtub?! What if, like, her parakeet just died or something? What if she’s expecting a call from someone else she gave her number to?”
Mo soon became a source of gossip and comic relief for Bechdel’s fans. Although some of Mo’s preoccupations changed as she developed over the last twenty-five years, she never adjusts to consumer culture or to reactionary ideology.
Slave to Her Characters
Bechdel created a large cast of characters in addition to Mo, turning Dykes to Watch Out For into a community. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a slave to my characters,” wrote Bechdel. “They run the show, and I just function as their scribe, inking out the vicissitudes of their lives while chained to my drawing board.”
Bechdel said that her audience’s feedback and “the peculiar reciprocity that has developed between the strip and its readers” provide her with “an essential fuel.” Bechdel’s work addressed not only issues specific to Lesbians and Queer people. It was concerned with broad issues, including political activism, parenting, Gay parents, monogamy, Lesbian sex, dating, breaking up, Trans issues, the closing of women’s bookstores, health, academia, power relationships, aging, and losing one’s parents.
In a strip from 1985, Bechdel presented her readers with “The Rule” (which Bechdel attributes to Liz Wallace), a standard for judging movies that has gained currency among her fans. The Rule has three requirements:
1. The movie must have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
It eventually became known as “the Bechdel Rule.”
Bechdel is also known for her autobiographical works. She has often commented on the narcissistic pleasures of writing cartoons about her own life as “a sort of guilty pleasure, a potent mix of self-indulgence and self-flagellation.” In her graphic memoir, Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic (2006), Bechdel focused on her relationship with her father – a funeral home director and English teacher – who died, possibly of suicide, very soon after Alison came out as a Lesbian.
Drawing from family photographs, as well as the journals she has kept since childhood, Bechdel portrays herself searching for answers to the numerous questions she has about her father. Fun Home reveals Alison’s discovery of his life as a closeted homosexual man. As she examines family photographs, she finds a suggestive photo of their babysitter with whom her father had an affair. Later, as she is looking at more photos and thinking about her father she ponders: “In another picture, he’s sunbathing on the tarpaper roof of his frat house just after he turned twenty-two. Was the boy who took it his lover? … As the girl who took this Polaroid of me on a fire escape on my twenty-first birthday was mine?”
Bechdel, Alison. Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston [etc.]: Mariner, 2007.
Bechdel, Alison. The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand, 1998.
www.dykestowatchoutfor.com/index.php, accessed July 2010.