Watching out for Alison Bechdel

The post-holiday, non-magical half of the winter is officially upon us, folks, bringing with it salt hardened pant legs and frozen lungs. If there’s one thing I like about the reclusive dog days of winter, it’s all the extra time that having no life frees up for reading. Fact: without distractions like sun, friends, and the world outside my apartment my free time increases exponentially—I read at least seventeen times as much when I can see my breath outside.

I know a few people who take their winter reading very seriously, selecting only bricks over 600 pages or anything that could reasonably be classified as canon. While Russian literature has its merits, nothing pleases me more than settling down on a cold winter’s morn with my coffee and a nice comic book. To be fair, as someone who was a lit major in undergrad and now works in publishing, I like my word-picture ratio to weigh in around 50/50.

I wasn’t always a consumer of visual tales; however, before college and a crash course in the joys of web comics from dormmates I had hardly perused any panels outside the newspaper. I spent the next three years blindly in love with web comics, following them from site to site with hearts for eyes.

Bechdel

Alison Bechdel

And then, as swift as a train wreck, everything changed. I fell hopelessly in love with my soul mate, Alison Bechdel. I’ll be the first to admit that’s unrequited—she never once returned my calls.

Fun Home By chance I picked up a copy of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic at Schuler Books, a local bookstore in East Lansing, Michigan and in five minutes I was hooked. I bought the hard cover, something I did exactly once as a college student and spent the rest of the day flying through this graphic memoir. For those of you who missed the Fun Home train when it came tearing through America in 2006 with a place on the New York Times bestseller list and multiple awards, I’ll provide a brief synopsis, everyone else should feel free to skip ahead. Fun Home recounts the coming-of-age of a girl as she grapples with the pitfalls of childhood in small town America, escapes to college, realizes she’s gay, loses her father, and somehow survives it all. The subtle quirks (the father who wears Tobias-style jean shorts, has a passion for decorating, and moonlights as an undertaker in his family’s funeral home) are what give this relatable story its heart. For anyone who’s ever been gay and not known it, this book will feel a little like home. And for everyone else it will probably just feel brilliant.

My introduction to Bechdel’s work, like most of the people I know, was a little backward. In some circles, she is, and should be, best known for her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. I was given this book as a graduation present from one of my writing professors, and opening that book in her office is one of my favorite college memories. The strip first appeared in 1983 and I can’t help thinking how much better my life would have been if I’d grown up reading it. Bechdel is a small-town lesbian, which seems like an anomaly but isn’t. As most of America is made up of small towns and even smaller towns, most lesbians live and love in the heart of these one-stop-light stomping grounds. Or at least hail from there before escaping to urban epicenters of tentative acceptance.

DTWOF, yes, that’s a real acronym used by people in the know, started out as a series of unconnected strips, but by 1987 narrowed its focus. The strip zeroed in on Mo, a loveable neurotic with no fashion sense, and her lesbian entourage and appeared in dozens of newspapers nationwide. The strip followed Mo and her friends through lust and heart ache, babies and betrayal, bad jobs and even worse jobs in their small town until its (better not be permanent) hiatus in 2008.

DTWOF

Bechdel’s brilliance is sharpest in her details. DTWOF, though a little lousy with unfortunate haircuts, has some of the best fake newspaper headlines I’ve ever seen, certainly on par with Weekend Update. One of my favorite subtle jokes appeared in the form of a newscast ticker that read “If the mainstream media insists that Stephen Colbert’s Bush Roast wasn’t funny do they make a sound?”

So what’s a lady to do once she’s read every panel she can possibly get her hands on by one Alison Bechdel? Impatiently await her next memoir, of course. The Wikipedia rumor mill claims the book’s working title is Love Life: A Case Study, and is said to chronicle her relationships. In the NYT’s Paper Cuts blog, Bechdel describes the book as “a new graphic memoir about the self, subjectivity, desire, the nature of reality, that sort of thing.” I have my fingers crossed for an advance copy mailed to me personally by the comic Rachel Maddow of my heart.

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Comments
6 Responses to “Watching out for Alison Bechdel”
  1. ana says:

    I loooooove Bechdel. I’ve taught her thrice.

  2. Kate says:

    I should take your class!

  3. Gavin Craig says:

    I love Bechdel, and I love that your piece talks about both DTWOF and Fun Home. When Kevin and I were talking about film a while ago (he was pontificating, I was listening, as I know nothing about film), he mentioned the Bechdel test, and I nudged him to figure out whether he’d actually read any Bechdel. To my amazement, he was familiar with Dykes to Watch Out For, but had never heard of Fun Home, making him possibly the only straight person I’ve ever encountered who knew Bechdel in such a fashion.

    So, I guess the point is kudos all around. Especially to Bechdel. :-)

  4. Kate says:

    I love the Bechdel test because it allows me to feel like a critical observer when really I am nothing of the sort. I would like a model for gay films that requires the story to be about something other than one out lesbian meeting someone not out/ not aware she’s gay/married. And for the main drama to be about something other than admitting gayness to parents/self.

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