She’s a ‘Dyke to Watch Out For’

Comic strip and graphic novel writer Alison Bechdel visits the U.

Stephanie Dickrell

The term “dyke” just doesn’t mean what it used to.

When “Dykes to Watch Out For” creator Alison Bechdel named the comic back in 1983, the word had a different meaning than it does now.

Reading

WHEN: 7 p.m., March 6
WHERE: Cowles Auditorium, Humphrey Center, 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis
TICKETS: Free

“I think I gave it two brain cells of thought,” she said. Back then, she said, she knew many women who identified themselves proudly as dykes and didn’t give it a second thought.

“Dykes to Watch Out For” has lasted more than two decades and has become a staple for many readers, both in syndication and on her Web site.

Tonight, Bechdel will return to Minneapolis for a reading. She moved to Minneapolis with a girlfriend and lived here for four years. One of the bookstores in the strip is based on Amazon Bookstore, the oldest feminine bookstore in the nation. Bechdel will read from both her comic strip and from her graphic novel memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragedy,” as part of the Toni McNaron Lecture in Arts and Culture.

“Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy” follows her family and childhood spent growing up as the daughter of a funeral director. It concentrates mostly on the relationship with her father and the discovery of his affairs with other men during his marriage to her mother. The affairs were only revealed to her after she came out to her family as a lesbian. Her father died not long after those revelations, and the memoir chronicles her experience grappling with those events.

Bechdel’s memoir, published in 2006, is not the first graphic novel to deal with more serious issues than typical comic book characters like Donald Duck or Superman. Graphic novels seem to be in the forefront of public consciousness lately and are gaining the respect of the literary community. She’s in good company. Recent examples include Joe Sacco and his work about Palestine, “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust, and most recently, “Persepolis,” a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi about her time in Iran, which was turned into an Academy Award-nominated animated picture in 2007.

Bedchel’s novel is peppered with literary references and Greek mythology, so much so that even the well-versed reader wishing they had spent more time on F. Scott Fitzgerald and less on reality television. It’s fitting though, as both of her parents were English teachers.

Although she has another memoir in the works, Bechdel’s career as a comic strip writer started with a one-panel gag strip, similar to Gary Larson’s more mainstream “Far Side.”

That proved to be too tiring, constantly trying to be funny in very short form, day in and day out, Bechdel said.

So she moved on to longer strips, choosing instead to develop storylines about characters and their relationships over time. As for humor, she said, “I don’t even try. I don’t even think I’m funny.”

She doesn’t need to be as she has a relatively loyal fan base acquired over the past 20-plus years.

Over those decades, the strip evolved and acquired male and transgender characters, and as her Web site suggests, might better be titled “Cartoon-Based Beings to Watch Out For.”

With such a well-established strip and characters, creating new material is relatively easy.

“It kind of perpetuates itself,” she said. She also uses current events in her strips, so one recurring theme is her having her characters react to what’s going on in the world today.

The strip also has a distinctive leftist feel – with recent strips documenting characters’ focus on becoming “localvores” (eating only local foods) as well as organic and vegetarian story lines.

As opposed to falling into the stereotype trap that lesbians are automatically leftist liberals (say that 10 times fast: lesbian leftist liberals), Bechdel recognizes that “there are all kinds of lesbians.”

“I’m more interested in talking about a certain worldview,” she said. She also realizes and likes that part of her audience are non-gay leftists.

It seems that you can’t keep Bechdel from writing and drawing, as she’s been doing most of her life.

“I was always drawing,” she said, “as soon as I could hold a crayon.”