Like many others, my sole experience with comics for a sizable chunk of time ended with the newspaper funnies, and even that interaction was limited to Zits, Baby Blues, and Speedbump (how on earth can Dave Coverly pack so much humor into one panel while Brad Anderson, AKA father of Marmaduke, fails so miserably?). But in winter quarter of my first year at K i took a class called, half-truthingly, Reading the World: Identities—i say half-truthingly because although the texts of the class were concerned with identity, all of them were also graphic memoir, which became far more of a focal point than the identities bit.
I wasn’t exactly skeptical about this development, but—well. I guess i was. I’d like to say i was extremely open-minded to the possibility that some comics could go far deeper than, say, Peanuts, but i will be transparent and admit that when i first realized that the course would be taught in graphic memoir, i felt a little duped and disappointed. But it didn’t take me long to change my tune. We started with all-around classic Maus by Art Spiegelman which is, of course, just badass, poignant, intense, and masterful all at once, moving on to the simply drawn yet powerful Persepolis, David Smalls’ marvelous Stitches to, finally, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, which i’d been looking forward to since reading the synopsis (Bechdel’s memoir loosely about coming out in collage and her relationship with her father, whom she learned was gay after his death). I was struck by the intelligence of Bechdel’s work, her humility, and her honesty. So, i was overjoyed when a friend of mine presented me with a belated birthday present of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a collection of a long-running comic strip by Bechdel.
Basically, DTWOF is a twenty-one-year chronicle of the lives of a group of mostly lesbian friends. Because the strip ran for so long, it’s fun to watch how the characters, style, and animation grow and change over time. The plot points never fail to excite—and yet, in truth, they’re pretty down to earth. Stuff that would happen in anyone’s life. Which was Bechdel’s main purpose in creating the strip: to show that lesbians are just people, too. Well, one of the main reasons, anyway, the other being to critique current events and politics, especially as they related to the queer world. And critique she did. I mean, Alison Bechdel is so fucking smart. And i already knew she was after reading Fun Home—she’d pack a whole dissertation’s worth of literary references into one page—but DTWOF is equally amazing in its social and political consciousness, its attention to detail, its careful consideration of the world around us through its characters.
Which is a lot of the reason why Bechdel put the strip on indefinite hiatus in 2008. According to an interview with Roxanne Samer from the blog Gender Across Borders, the pressure to keep up to date on current events, especially with all the race and gender politics packed into the 2008 presidential election, made keeping up with DTWOF an intimidating prospect. Plus, it had been going on for twenty-one years. Bechdel claims she’d like to do a little tying up of loose ends, as the final comic is drastically inconclusive, but who knows if this will happen. And i’m not so sure that it should, at this point. Because DTWOF is so of its time, it would seem out of step to pick it back up three years later. And anyway, Bechdel wanted the comic to be like real life, which it is, and since when has real life been neatly summed up in 9 panels? It seems poignantly appropriate that the strip should end on an inconclusive note—not a cliffhanger, but definitely with some questions hanging in the air. And it’s up to the readers to decide if Mo and Sydney ever work it out, if Toni and Clarice ever finalize their separation, if Sparrow and Stewart ever adopt another baby.
So, for those of you L Word fans out there, let me just say, this strip reminded me a lot of the show if it was dragged back in time twenty years, if its characters were about 93% less physically perfect, and if the diversity of the cast was amplified by about 3005 times in terms of not only race but also class, gender identity, looks, age, and physical ability. Sound good to you? Sound good to me.
(Not that i’m knocking The L Word. Because i like it. A lot.)