I think of myself as a counterculture aficionado. But somehow I was oblivious to the existence of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For until I read the masterful graphic memoir Fun Home and became interested in Bechdel’s other work. The strip originated in 1983, published in alternative newspapers across the country, but the characters didn’t start recurring until 1987. From then it evolved into “half op-ed column and half endless, serialized Victorian novel” as Bechdel describes it.
Unfortunately it is not actually endless. When I found out the strip went on hiatus in 2008 so Bechdel can focus on her forthcoming graphic memoir, Love Life, I felt like my three year old daughter who recently discovered The Teletubbies on DVD from the library and can’t understand why no stores currently carry their loot. What’s a too-late fan to do?
You can find an online archive of the strip here: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/strip-archive-by-number. But to truly immerse yourself, I recommend checking out The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. This compilation begins in 1987 with protagonist Mo’s genesis and follows her kvetching life through May 2008. When Mo’s not fretting over politics, global warming, vegetarianism, war, feminism, and social injustice in general, she’s worrying about her love life, her work life, her health…you get the picture. At first unemployed, Mo eventually gets a job at the locally-owned Madwimmin Bookstore with her drag king friend Lois, but over time Bounders Books and Muzak runs them out of business, so she goes to library school and eventually becomes a reference librarian. I have no idea why I am so drawn to this drawn character.
Other characters include Harriet, Mo’s girlfriend at the beginning of the series (who leaves Mo when they get into an argument over the consumerist act of buying a VCR), and Sydney, Mo’s girlfriend at the end of the series (who somehow stays with Mo despite her constant nagging about Sydney’s compulsive spending habits, including buying a DVD player.) There’s Clarice (an environmental lawyer) and Toni (an accountant), a mixed-race female couple who marry and have a son together via artificial insemination. There’s Sparrow and Stewart, a mixed-race opposite-sex couple who don’t marry and have a daughter together. Sparrow is the director of a battered women’s shelter and Stuart is a stay-at-home dad who homeschools their daughter while canning tomatoes out of his garden (since they only eat locally.) There’s Lois, the drag king mentioned above, who at first rejects monogamy but eventually hooks up with a single mom and helps parent her transgendered child. There’s Jezanna, Mo’s rotund boss at the bookstore, who begins the series married to her job but eventually falls for the nurse who cares for her mother dying of breast cancer. There’s Ginger, who procrastinates away a decade to finish her dissertation, but eventually becomes an associate professor at a state university. We watch Ginger’s dog grow from puppy to senior, and when it’s time to put him to sleep, the whole cast of characters (and this reader) mourns his passing. Eventually human-relationship phobic Ginger meets dog-lover Samia. The only glitch is Samia is still married to her husband…
Despite the title and my description, this strip is more than a soap opera about a community of lesbians. A more apt title might be Progressives to Watch Out For since the one factor all the main characters have in common is their progressive political outlook. You don’t have to be a lesbian to enjoy this strip. If you enjoy feeling part of a progressive social movement, reading this book will be like meeting old friends. Perhaps it’s the same reason so many modern Americans have become enthralled with reality TV and social networking sites as our mainstream society splinters further: no matter who you are, it’s fun to peek into other people’s lives, even fictitious one’s, for some gossip, and for a sense of community.