Still A Dyke To Watch – Alison Bechdel

Still A Dyke To Watch – Alison Bechdel – Brief Article

Etelka Lehoczky

“DTWOF” creator Alison Bechdel mines more laughs from the lesbian zeitgeist

As she approaches 40, Alison Bechdel is at a peak in her career–her ninth book is just being published, her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” appears in more than 50 papers around the country and the world, and she’s working on a graphic memoir. So what’s she got to worry about?

“I’m having assimilation anxiety,” she says. “How can I keep doing this subcultural comic strip in a world where there’s no more subculture?”

It’s a natural concern for a veteran of nearly 20 years of radical activism. Since she started cartooning for community papers in the early ’80s, Bechdel has seen many upheavals in gay America. As scholar and activist Karla Jay, author of the recent Tales of the Lavender Menace, says, “Not only is she a wonderful cartoonist, she really presents the broad spectrum of the lesbian community. She presents all sorts of issues in a way that is educational without being strident.”

Today, though, as Bechdel watches gay culture become more mainstream, she’s having a hard time figuring out where she fits in.

“I don’t want to be one of those people who gets, like, stuck in their outmoded politics,” she says ruefully. “I really don’t want to sound like this whiny old leftover.”

Bechdel’s concern with the muddying of gay life’s boundaries has been visible in her recent comics, collected in the new Post-Dykes to Watch Out For (Firebrand, $11.95 paper, $24.95 cloth). Longtime couple Toni and Clarice have moved to the suburbs. Madwimmin Books is under perennial threat from chain stores and E-merchants. New Ager Sparrow has begun dating a man, and the other characters–all around Bechdel’s age–feel out of step with the new generation of “postgays.”

“This is such a strange historical moment, when our culture is disappearing,” Bechdel says. “I really understand that the world is changing and there’s not the same need for that culture. But the other day I was culling through all this wonderful amazing stuff from the early ’90s–the Lesbian Avengers handbook, all this material from the ’93 march [on Washington], all this ACT UP stuff–all this vital stuff that’s just not happening anymore.”

Bechdel is well aware that her distaste for gay centrism can sound crotchety. “I very much believe that we’re making forward movement no matter what it looks like to me,” she says. And, living in Vermont in the wake of its civil union legislation, she’s acutely aware of the tangible results of years of activism, particularly since she’s been with her partner seven years.

“The Vermont thing has had a very visceral impact on me,” she says. “In some ways I think my radical politics are kind of a sour-grapes defense mechanism. Like, if I can’t be part of your club, then you’re a bunch of creeps. But my feelings have really changed. I’m not going to run out and get married, but it’s like this big weight was lifted off my shoulders that I never knew was there `cause I didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

She may feel nostalgic for the radicalism of days gone by, but Bechdel’s still clear on her goals and values–and how “DTWOF” fits in with them.

“Ideally, I want everyone to read what I do, and I don’t want to have to write about `normal people’ in order to get them to do that,” she says. “I want people to read about life from this other perspective. That, to me, would be a mark of the success of this movement.”

The cast of characters:

MO

Political, more than a bit whiny, and dating thoroughly postmodern tenure-tracker Sydney

LOIS

Sexy, savvy, and beginning to explore her polymorphous perversity

SPARROW

Dedicated social worker, surprised everyone by going bi with sensitive guy Stuart

GINGER

Underpaid prof, still fixated on her brief, ill-advised fling with Clarice

CLARICE

Overworked lawyer, married to Toni, facing lesbian bed death

TONI

Stay-at-home mom, committed to marriage rights (and better sex)

Lehoczky writes regularly for the Chicago Tribune.

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