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BOOKS Alison Bechdel keeps 'Watch'
by Amy Wooten
2008-11-05

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Alison Bechdel may be taking a break from her much-loved Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip, but this cartoonist certainly isn't taking a breather. ( Photo by Greg Martin ) .

Following the success of her best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home, Bechdel decided to take a sabbatical from Dykes to Watch Out For to focus on a new project. In the meanwhile, Dykes to Watch Out For fans can look forward to the upcoming release of a new anthology, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. The anthology includes favorites from all eleven Dykes volumes, plus a generous helping of strips that never made it into a Dykes book.

Bechdel reminisced with Windy City Times about Dykes and revealed some details about her new project. She will visit Chicago's Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark, Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m. for a reading.

Windy City Times: The new Dykes to Watch Out For collection is coming out Nov. 12, and contains almost all of the episodes. I think it's really cool that you have been doing Dykes to Watch Out For for 25 years now!

Alison Bechdel: Yes, I have!

WCT: Looking back when doing this collection, what kind of memories does it bring for you? You and your fans have seen these characters go through so many different story lines and grow older for 25 years now.

AB: I'm taking a break from the strip, and haven't been doing it since May. It's funny this book is coming out because I just haven't been thinking about the characters. I haven't gotten to the point where I'm even missing them yet. I'm relieved to be free of that deadline. I probably shouldn't say that. [ Laughs ]

WCT: Well, it's understandable. You have a lot going on! I heard you are working on a new project right now.

AB: Yes.

WCT: We'll discuss that soon. I know it's been a few months since you've thought about Dykes to Watch Out For, but for readers who maybe don't know, how did it all start for you?

AB: After I was done with college, I had always drawn silly pictures. I always drew men for some reason, and never drew women. But after I came out as a lesbian after college, it seemed really weird that I was drawing men and not women. I had to teach myself to draw women! But the only way I could draw a woman, in the early days, was if I thought of her as a lesbian, for some reason. So, I started drawing these lesbians.

It was really fun, freeing and exciting. It felt so good to be able to create images of people who kind of looked like me, because I didn't see women like me reflected anywhere in the culture. So, I just started drawing this series of silly drawings. It began in letters to a friend of mine, just purely for fun in this private letter. Gradually, I made more and showed them to other friends. I eventually started submitting them to a feminist newspaper. I just kept doing them. Other people seemed to like them, so I did one a month for this newspaper, and I never stopped, until last May.

WCT: It's published in a lot of LGBT newspapers, as well as feminist newspapers. At what point were you able to work on that full-time and make a living off of it?

AB: I was able to do that when I turned 30. I started with a full-time job, then a part-time job, then eventually, by the time I was 30, I quit and was just doing my comics. It was always a standing around kind of job. I would sell T-shirts, go to music festivals and do speaking gigs and freelance illustrations. But mostly that's what I did. I was a cartoonist.

WCT: What is the most important way you feel the strip had grown over the past 25 years? Additionally, what are some story lines that you grappled with that were maybe difficult for you?

AB: I think the strip changed by becoming more and more complex. I look at it over the years, and not only does the drawing get better and more detailed, but so does the writing. There is a lot more going on, and peoples' lives became more richly textured.

Difficult story lines for me were when one of my characters got breast cancer. That was pretty challenging. Actually, the whole Bush Administration has been quite a challenge.

WCT: That's for sure! I know that the writing is not only a strong point for your strip, but also for your other work. Do you write first and then draw? What is your process?

AB: I do. I write sort of in a story board format, where I don't actually have any drawings done, but I've got my panels mapped out. So, it's sort of thinking visually from the beginning, but without necessarily doing a lot of drawing, is how the story gets fleshed out.

WCT: I know you are taking a break, but do you see yourself continuing the strip? If so, for how long?

AB: You know, I've always said I'll do it until I keel over at my drawing board or until it was no longer viable, so I couldn't really make enough money from it. I think it kind of maybe reached that point. Not having keeled over, but it's become very hard to make a living from it.

WCT: Right. I can see it continuing to be difficult because so many LGBT and alternative newspapers are folding.

AB: Yeah, it's funny because the history of my comic strip is like a picture of the gay and lesbian newspaper community. These papers are folding left and right. I used to be in 70 newspapers, and by the time I quit it was down to maybe thirtysomething. Many of them could not pay, and it was getting really tough. On the other hand, the only reason I was able to do the comic strip and nothing else for all these years was because of these newspapers and because of gay and lesbian newspapers starting up in almost every major city in the country.

WCT: It didn't take very long for the tables to turn.

AB: [ It was ] definitely a rise-and-fall scenario. ... All newspapers, whether they are gay or not, are all facing this scenario because they are a dying medium.

WCT: Your memoir, Fun Home, was very successful. You had a lot of mainstream success, too. It was named Time magazine's top book of the year. Do you think Dykes to Watch Out For made that all possible?

AB: I think they are causally linked, for me, personally. I certainly gained drawing and storytelling skills through doing Dykes for all these years that I probably wouldn't have gained. Also, writing about dykes was a way for me to grabble with my own internalized homophobia and my own past. My mission for a long time was to prove that lesbians were real regular people, and that their stories are human stories worth reading. I kind of had to demonstrate that to myself before I could write this intimate memoir about my life. I also feel like it left some groundwork in the culture, too. It was part of this gay and lesbian movement that made it okay to talk personally about our lives and tell our stories. It was a personal and cultural phenomenon for me.

WCT: Does the mainstream success of Fun Home show a cultural shift in how people perceive comics and graphic novels?

AB: The great thing about Fun Home is it just caught that graphic novel wave at that great moment. If it had been a conventional novel, it would not have had any of that impact. I was very lucky.

WCT: Was it kind of strange having all of this attention suddenly on you for Fun Home when you've been doing this for 25 years?

AB: Yeah, it was very odd! I sort of have a chip on my shoulder. Hey, I've been here all along. I'm sort of a little bitter. But it proved, too, that Fun Home was a creative leap beyond the comic strip, so I'm not that bitter. [ Laughs ] I'm just happy that I got recognized for what it was.

WCT: You are currently working on a new project. What can you tell us about this new project? Is it also a memoir?

AB: It's another graphic memoir. I decided what I'm really interested in is writing about myself. This book is about relationships.

WCT: So, are you looking back at your own relationships over the years?

AB: I'm using my own relationships as a laboratory to look at questions about the self and the other.

WCT: How long have you been working on it? Since May, when Dykes to Watch Out For stopped, or longer?

AB: Longer, since Fun Home came out, I guess. So, two years now.

WCT: When do you anticipate that it will be released?

AB: It's due next September. If I indeed turn it in on time, we're looking at 2010.

WCT: This new Dykes collection will tide fans over for a little bit, but a lot of people are eager to see new strips. When can fans maybe expect to see new strips again? Will it be a while?

AB: Yeah, it won't be until after I finish this next book.

WCT: What are some other projects you have been involved in?

AB: I've been doing some very fun graphic essays. I did a piece for Entertainment Weekly this summer about reading. I just contributed a graphic essay about Vermont for a book called State by State. It's a book about all of the states. It's really exciting to have time to do other projects. I'm very interested in the format of a graphic essay. I hope it's something that I will be able to do more of.

Alison Bechdel will visit Chicago's Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark, Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m. for a reading. See www.womenandchildrenfirst.com .


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