The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For. Alison Bechdel (writer/artist). Graphic Novels/Comics.
So I have a confession. Though I have known Bechdel’s name for years and years (I went to art school and studied comics for christ’s sake), her book Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was my first real immersion year into her work earlier this year. If you read that review, you know I was pretty blown away. This collection, blew me so away I don’t even know how to articulate it.
One advantage to learning about something suddenly and getting to absorb it all at once (or waiting for too long and absorbing it all at once – see my Y The Last Man post) is that you get the unique experience of just drowning in a new discovery – head first – and without having to look up. I read Bechdel’s Essential Dykes in less than three days (and since it’s 390 full page, text heavy strips, that is no joke) but I could NOT put it down. I just fell head over heels in love with these characters and all their beauty and flaws.
The Good: The absolute best thing about reading Bechdel’s work in a collection like this, maybe especially for me as an artist was the amazing experience of seeing her growth as an artist. Read over time, because Bechdel was a great cartoonist from page one, I don’t know how obvious her evolution would be, but read all in a big chunk like this it was hard to miss the amazing transformation. Check out the page below, an early strip in the collection from 1987 and featuring Clarice and Toni:
And a strip from 1999, featuring the same characters.
It’s just amazing to see the development, the characters are so much more refined (and defined) their looks really having settled in over the years, and Bechdel’s inking has so much more depth, and she’s willing (and able) to tackle much more complex panels, with greater depth of field, without confusing the eye – a real struggle for many cartoonists. Every line seems considered and confident, unlike the early strips, where she was still incredibly competent, but in retrospect obviously still finessing her work. It’s the kind of evolution that a cartoonist of Bechdel’s caliber will probably continue with her entire career and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Also fantastic is the subject matter, which Bechdel tackles unflinchingly, whether it be the intimate details of relationships, or potentially unpopular political issues. It’s a slice of life that very few people ever get to see from the inside in such an honest and open way and we should all be grateful for the opportunity – I know I am. I think because of Bechdel’s incredible talent as a cartoonist, her writing often gets ignored (I’m half doing it myself) but I do think it’s important to point out, that it’s the very subtlety with which she writes that is so brilliant. I rarely think about her words – and that – in my opinion – means it’s working – they are effortless and real. As it should be.
The Bad: Nothing bad to report. There were times when the political tirades of Mo (or various others at different points in their lives) wore a little thin, but had I been reading the strips as they were released as opposed to in a couple high intensity sittings I don’t think I would have thought twice about them as anything other than an accurate and important reflection of what was going on in the strip.
The only other negative I can offer, is a completely personal reaction I had to some of the material. Because it is so honest about relationships in particular, including the ways that people often cheat or stray when together for long periods of time, I found that aspect a little depressing. As someone in a long term relationship, and someone who is too familiar with the horrors of cheating, I sometimes felt like giving up on my real life relationship…that if these amazing smart beautiful characters were incapable of staying faithful, maybe it was just an impossible task period…whether you’re real or fictional. But, personal depression aside, Bechdel actually deals with all the relationships – cheating or no – so realistically (some characters work through those hurdles and stay together and others don’t) – that I can’t REALLY complain – it’s no fault of the material – but of the world we live in. But it sometimes made me unbelievably sad. But again, my reaction to those complex relationships was also likely a symptom of reading it in three giant sittings.
The Ugly: Nothing. Let’s look at another gorgeous strip, if only for proof of that: