Alison Bechdel, Queer Archivist
An ode to one of the greatest living archivists of the QILT2BAG+ community in North America
The first time I read Alison Bechdel’s Essential Dykes to Watch Out For was in 2009, when a friend gifted it to me for my birthday. Unlike my Gen X, U.S. born partner, I missed out on the various publications that regularly featured Alison Bechdel’s iconic strip featuring the lives of Mo, Clarice, Toni, Lois, Ginger, Sparrow et. al. Before getting it as a gift, it was something I’d been searching for since encountering a few panels from it in an anthology I found at the library about comics and graphic novels as a genre. This anthology introduced me to several queer comics, like Hothead Paisan and Love and Rockets, both of which I was able to find collections of. But Dykes to Watch Out For eluded me until I ripped the wrapping paper from the hefty package my friend handed me for my twenty-fourth birthday.
Since coming out a decade prior, I had made a point of learning all I could about queer history. Or perhaps, the more accurate thing to say is, as a child of nerdlings, I am inclined to seek out knowledge and expand my understanding of anything that interests me. As a newly out bisexual at fourteen my first point of order was to seek out and methodically read every single QILT2BAG+1 Young Adult book that I could get my hands on. By the time I was nineteen, I was looking for movies, seeking out stories from community elders in my home town, and bookmarking every rainbow plastered website I’d ever encountered.
When I received the Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, I was an archivist of the queer community in my own right. Reading Alison Bechdel’s decades long comic gave me an experience of being met, while also being in absolute awe of and appreciation for her work. This was when the now infamous Bechdel Test2 was still only known and talked about in lesbian and bisexual women’s circles. I did not know about Fun Home (released in 2006, two years prior to the Essential DTWOF and not yet produced as a Broadway play) and was largely oblivious to the details of the U.S. Political landscape.
Admittedly, when I first read the collection, I hardly paid any attention to the politics. I was enamoured with the characters, with seeing so much representation and so many variations of representation from my QILT2BAG+ community.
At the time I was extracting myself from my local community in preparation for moving to London, and so it was a comfort to see the staying power of the relationships of Bechdel’s characters. I’m pretty sure I finished reading the whole thing in less than a week that first time around.
On my second reading of The Essential DTWOF, I was seeking comfort and comfort alone. I’d been living in the UK for five years, was just out of an abusive relationship, and was re-finding my sense of self.
When it came time to move to London, I chose to bring a select number of books with me. I didn’t necessarily think I’d read them; The books I brought were more about the emotional support they would offer. I was leaving my human friends and family behind. My book kin were (within reason) transportable the way my human kin were not, and many of my books connected me with my people. It wasn’t just that I brought my hardcover first edition copy of Lamb by Christopher Moore. It was that I brought the hardcover first edition copy of Lamb that my dad put real effort into finding as a Christmas gift.
Such was the case with The Essential DTWOF. The friend who gifted it to me was one of my dearest at the time. It wasn’t just an incredible archive of the community that meant the most to me, but a thoughtful gift from someone who knew me well enough to know it was a perfect gift, even though I had no idea it existed until he handed it over. This sense of love and care was what I was seeking on that second reading, along with the joy I’ve long gotten from reading comics.
Growing up without a TV, books were the primary form of entertainment in our house. Amongst the stacks of sci-fi (my dad’s preferred genre), murder mysteries (my mum’s preferred genre), and reference books on art, architecture, jewellery, animals, and the cosmos at large (A mix of both my parent’s choices) were various comic strip collections. I did not know that Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and Bloom County were featured in newspapers until nearly adulthood, as we didn’t have a newspaper delivered. I thought they always came bound in compilations, compilations I would regularly read through from start to finish throughout my childhood.
As such, comics have been one of the core ways I gained exposure to pop-culture, political landscapes, and broader global realities. As I got older, with each rereading of a collection by Bill Watterson, Berkley Breathed, or Gary Larson, I would understand more of the world. Calvin & Hobbes transformed from fun adventures with a boy and his tiger to philosophical commentary and reflections on what it is to be human. Bloom County transformed from largely indecipherable, to wildly funny and scathing commentary on American culture and politics. The Far Side…well, The Far Side remained absurdist and gave me a great appreciation for such humour, which is immensely beneficial these days.
On my third reading of The Essential DTWOF, the 2016 U.S. Election had just passed, and for the first time I was aware of how much history repeats itself and the sharpness of Bechdel’s observations of that fact. Bechdel’s familiar cast of characters reckoning with George W.s confirmation and subsequent re-election was a reflection of what was happening in the world around me. There was catatonic disbelief (Clarice), moral outrage (Mo), centrist indifference (Sydney), spiritual grasping (Sparrow), and galvanizing action (Stuart) in response to Cheesey Mussolini’s election. It blew me away, how I could swap out “Bush” for “Trump” in a number of the strips and they remained entirely relevant.
Recently, I read this collection for the fourth time and found appreciation for both the timelessness of this strip and the archive that it offers us. In the opening of the book, Bechdel presents a philosophical question as a kind of anthropologist of the lesbian (et. al) community. She set out, she says, to document the complexity of human identity, to capture and share lesbians beyond some limited idea established by cisheteronormative culture (see, the Spinster or the Lesbian Porn Icon). She questions if she succeeded, but then panics, realizing she did not account for the observer effect. In setting out to capture the community she belongs to, she can’t not also influence that community.
Reading her book roughly every four years certainly influences how I look at the QILT2BAG+ community and society as a whole. I am as acutely aware of how much has changed since she first began the strip, as I am of how much work remains to be done. Bechdel’s characters were ahead of their time on certain subjects, expressing an urgency in addressing global warming, for example, that I’ve yet to see en masse at this very late, hot, date.
It also, despite the characters being fictional, provides a nuanced look at the incredible diversity within the community. The characters live in the intersections of their identities, and respond to the world accordingly. They grow and change over time, and show incredible support for one another even when they are confused or hitting a learning curve they didn’t expect.
The DTWOF cast may not “exist”, but the essence of what Bechdel documented with them certainly does. There are all the kinds of people like the characters of DTWOF active in the world today. People continue the grassroots organizing featured in the early strips of the 80s and 90s, the gender liberation work of the strips through the early 2000s, and the constant and consistent call for intersectional awareness throughout the entire collection.
The characters feel real, and rereading this collection is like catching up with friends. So much so, that I find myself wondering about them now, in the midst of the pandemic, in the age of Black Lives Matter and post #MeToo. Bechdel no longer draws the strip, and I doubt has an interest in rebooting it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think about where each character would be today. Rafi, Clarice and Toni’s son, would be twenty-eight this year and I can imagine a plotline where he gets caught up in GamerGate and maybe Stuart helps deradicalise him. Jasmine’s daughter, Janice, would also be twenty-eight, and probably making video essays about trans liberation with Lois, supporting young trans kids coming out. JR, Sparrow and Stuart’s progeny, would be eighteen and I imagine doing some excellent TikTok activism.
Bechdel is one of our community’s greatest archivists. In reading DTWOF, I have found a sense of belonging and identity I first started to look for when I came out at fourteen. I genuinely think The Essential DTWOF should be essential reading for any newly out queer person in North America, especially if they identify as a lesbian or are AFAB, trans, genderqueer or non-binary. Knowing where we have come from can give us both a sense of appreciation for our ancestors and elders, as well as an appreciation for the work yet to be done. This collection offers up so much in that regard, and I look forward to revisiting it in another four years or so.
Queer, intersex, lesbian, transgender, two-spirit, bisexual, asexual/aromantic, gay + (pansexual, nonbinary, demisexual, bear, otter, puppy and so on)
Fun Facts I learned while researching for this piece! The original strip was published THE YEAR I WAS BORN. Which is neat. Also, the original test idea wasn’t by Bechdel, but by Liz Wallace, who is credited in the marquee of the original strip.
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