“The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For”: 25 years of laughing at ourselves

This year is the 25th anniversary of Dykes to Watch Out For. I’ll let that soak in for a minute while you admire the comic strip’s awesome creator, Alison Bechdel.

DTWOF has kept me sane more than once over the past couple of decades. When I came out in the late 80s, lesbians tended not to laugh at themselves. I don’t mean they were humorless — at least not all the time — but activism was beyond exhausting; it was dangerous. Being a lesbian was an identity as much as a sexual orientation. “Lesbian visibility” was about being able to see whom you were dancing with at the bar; mainstream media didn’t know we existed or, more likely, didn’t care.

As someone who tends to find something to laugh about in the most sober of circumstances, I often had to bite my tongue. So discovering Dykes to Watch Out For, in which Bechdel takes delight in the irony of lesbian life, let me know that I wasn’t alone. It also cracked me up. It still does.

Finally, we have a collection: The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a beautiful hardback volume with material from Bechdel’s 11 earlier books, plus 60 new strips that were never before published in book form.

In case the cover doesn’t ring a bell, it’s a tribute to Norman Rockwell’s 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover, “Gossips.” I love Norman Rockwell and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Essential DTWOF starts at the beginning, with the first published strip of the series. (Click the individual strips to enlarge.)

Mo has been the heart of the comic ever since. We’ve lived through her relationships and lack thereof, her lesbian and feminist causes and her career path from Madwimmen Books clerk to librarian. The funniest bits come as she and her friends act like, well, dykes, trying to balance their personal lives with their beliefs.

Much of Bechdel’s brilliance is in the details: a Xena T-shirt here, a package of instant hummus there. A lesbian mom reads Everyone Poops to her toddler. A sign on the feminist bookstore bulletin board promotes a “Marathon 12-hour Inner Child Workshop.” The context of lesbian culture and current events makes every strip recognizable.

Here’s one of my personal favorites. How could I not love such a clear illustration of the erotic power of the word “syzygy”?

At the moment, Bechdel is not writing new episodes of Dykes to Watch Out For. She’s working on a graphic novel in the spirit of Fun Home, this time about relationships. If she returns to the strip, she won’t do so until 2010, when the new book is released. She hints that she may be finished with the strip for good, but the last episode certainly doesn’t feel like an ending.

In any case, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is a great way to catch up on the comic strip and on the past 25 years of lesbian life. The artwork is incredible, the dialogue is hilarious and the characters will become your friends. Just don’t start reading when you have something else to do. Once you start laughing at yourself, you won’t want to stop.

Are you a DTWOF fan? When did you discover the series? Which character do you most relate to?