Bechdel on the Essential Dykes To Watch Out For

Before she was an Award winning cartoonist and creator of "Fun Home," one of the great American graphic novels which immediately became a modern classic, Alison Bechdel was writing and drawing the comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For." From 1983 until last year, when Bechdel placed the strip on an indefinite hiatus, "Dykes" was one of the most literate and quirky strips on the market, a serialized story with colorful characters that became a cornerstone of queer culture. Last year, Houghton Mifflin published "The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For," a hardcover selection of the strip.

Bechdel's memoir "Fun Home" was released in 2006 to universal acclaim, winning an Eisner Award, named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and named Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine, the first graphic novel to do so.

More recently, Bechdel has contributed a chapter about Vermont to "State by State," an anthology echoing the WPA American Guides; and contributed a review in comics form of Jane Vandenburgh's prose memoir, "A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century," for the New York Times Book Review.

CBR News spoke with Alison Bechdel about her work on the unique review, "Fun Home," the new "Dykes To Watch Out For" collection, and what's coming next.

CBR: "The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For" is now on sale. Does it feel good to have a record of your work like this?

Alison Bechdel: It does. I'm happy to have it all in one place, or most of it in one place. It was also a weird feeling because it's like closing the book. I've stopped doing the strip so I have a lot of sadness about that and the book kind of represents the ending of that phase of my life

You placed "Dykes To Watch Out For" on indefinite hiatus. Are you done with it, or do you have plans to return to it once you've finished your new book?

I don't mean to be coy. I just doubt that it's going to be really viable. I was able to eke out a living from it for a long time, but I just don't know if that's going to continue to be possible. For various reasons, I had to take a break from it. I'm not saying I won't go back to it, I just think it's doubtful.

What was the process of assembling the "Dykes" collection and deciding what strips would be included?

A big factor about what ended up in the book had to do with the process of getting permission from the old publishers, these small presses who had published individual volumes over the years. It was difficult to figure that all out. It ended up I could only use half or so of the material in each of those books. Then I had to make sure that my storylines remained coherent, so I had to be careful what episodes I took out and which ones I kept. I think it worked okay. It's still a continuous narrative and I was able to remove a lot of dead wood like stuff that really wasn't very good.

In the preface you wrote that the idea of your characters as role models or inspirations makes you uncomfortable.

[laughs] It's a little bit like disrupting the time space continuum, as I talked about in the introduction. It seems to introduce a kind of feedback loop in the culture that is problematic. The truth is that I was writing about culture, trying to reflect the lives of people like me, but in doing that I also became part of culture. I think that's an interesting dynamic.

Reading that, I thought of when you won the Eisner and Ellen Forney cited you as the reason she became a comics creator.

You don't think of having an impact on people. Especially other comics creators. Of course, it's a great thing, but I imagine it's like being a parent. You do good things to your children but you also fuck them up no matter what you do. [laughs]

When you hear things like that, are you self conscious the next time you sit down to work?

I don't really internalize it that much. I'm able to forget about that responsibility or weight when I'm actually working because just doing the work itself is so absorbing.

Was the situation with newspapers closing and cutting back on comics part of the reason you stopped producing "Dykes To Watch Out For?"

Totally. In the late nineties, my comic strip was in between sixty and seventy newspapers. I wasn't making a huge amount of money but I was making a lot more money than I was last May at the point when I suspended it. It had dropped to maybe twenty by then.

If "Dykes" returned, would it be in another format? Online maybe?

I think it would definitely have to be online. So far, I guess people who are making that work with online comics are selling merchandise and creating a whole little industry. I don't know. When I was younger, I had the energy for that sort of thing. I sold t-shirts and bookmarks and had a catalog. But that's not really where I want to be putting my energy. So I don't know.

"The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For" features a narrative that traverses many years and political climates, with the Bush years being particularly dour.

It got pretty grim there for a while.

But at the same time, queer culture is more mainstream now than ever. The strip ends in a very different world than it began.

It's been a very surreal quarter-century in that sense. I could never have imagined that things would evolve in this particular way. When I came out, it was into this very radical leftish gay politics that was all about... well, people joke about the homosexual agenda but really we did want to destroy marriage. [laughs] To create alternative structures. And that really didn't happen.

Do heteronormative values rule the day, has radical queer culture has been shoved to the fringes like so many other ideas have been shoved to the fringes?

I feel like that general direction has been affecting the broader culture too, not just the subculture. The close of independent bookstores and the loss of independent businesses. Walmart and Home Depot taking over the world. There's just this general trend towards sameness and uniformity and corporate ownership of everything that's similar to the way the gay and lesbian liberation movement has turned into kind of a corporate movement.

To completely switch direction, how did you get involved in the "State by State" anthology?

That was so exciting. I almost wasn't going to do that project because I couldn't figure out how to make time for it. But one of the editors, Sean Wilsey, is just a really great guy. He reviewed "Fun Home" for the New York Times Book Review and he really liked it. I think he just likes my work. I don't know how many other people refused to do the Vermont essay. [laughs] I might have been very far down on his list, but I was really psyched to be asked because it was a book of essays, not graphic essays necessarily. I like that he's taking graphic narrative as seriously as regular writing. That's really thrilling to me and I was very happy to be part of that.

The book is a funny mix of very, very different perspectives. There are some intimate personal essays and then some big sprawling historical essays. What freed me up to be able to write that was early on Sean said, don't be afraid to be personal. That really is what I do best. I'm really a memoirist at heart, so I tried to tap into my personal intimate experience of the state which led to broadening out into these historical topics. I liked that combination. I find it's my personal story that interests me in the larger stories, my personal material makes me interested in the world. So I learned all this cool stuff about Vermont by following the path of my own story.

The last page of your piece is a very cool map of Vermont.

That map almost killed me. It took as long as the whole rest of it.

Was that part of your original concept?

It was. In the original WPA travel guide that Sean sent all us writers in the back was this big map of Vermont with all these little icons. Fish. Skiiers. I just love maps. I feel like maps are like cartoons. They do what cartoons do, which is to take the complex three dimensional world and iron it out into this accessible, simplified but still rich image.

There's so many layers to the map. There's the text, there's the underlying shape of the state itself, there's all my little illustrations. Fitting that all together was a huge project.

Was it a chore deciding what to include?

It was more what not to include. That's my writing process in general. I want to do everything and then it's a process of winnowing down to what's possible.

Tell us more about your creative process.

I write in Adobe Illustrator, so I'm typing, but it's in a two-dimensional way where I have the feel of the page and I'm creating panels and breaking down action. I'm not actually drawing but I'm visualizing the drawing, like doing a storyboard without the actual pictures. If I get stuck I'll print that out and do sketches to figure out a certain problem, but mostly I'm working on the computer. Then I draw.

It's always such a battle for me between the words and the pictures. I just always had much more to say than I had room for. I never had room to do more than characters' heads. It was very rare you had whole bodies or action shots. It's funny to look through the new book because you can see my progression from simpler stories with fewer words to, in same space, these incredibly dense word balloons. I just got out of control at certain phases. And I know that for a cartoonist I am very word heavy and I am conscious of that. But to me part of the tension that's exciting about comics is that balance between words and pictures and constantly trying to get it right. And constantly failing, which only inspires me to keep trying.

Is that part of why "Fun Home" was so fascinating for you, because the book format gave you the space to show what you could do as an artist?

I didn't realize it, but after all those years of working in the tiny constrained format of the comic strip, I'd built up a lot of drawing strength which I wasn't really able to exhibit because I couldn't spread out with anything. It was quite a treat to have a whole book with full page spreads and all kinds of stuff to do, even though I barely tapped into a lot of those possibilities. I'm definitely on my way, I think.

In the acknowledgements of "Fun Home," you mentioned the cartoonist Howard Cruse. Was "Stuck Rubber Baby" a big influence or inspiration?

Yes. Absolutely. I knew Howard all during the time he was working on that so I would talk to him and hear about the maniacal lengths he went to to make that book what it is. He did that before the internet, before google image search. It was astonishing what went into that. The trips to the library to go through picture files to find what kind of parking meters they had in Alabama in 1962. It was crazy. But it was from hearing about his experience that I learned what it meant to undertake something like this. It was very sobering. I knew that it just ate up his life for a long time. And I guess I figured, well, here's someone who did it, maybe I can do it too.

How long did "Fun Home" end up taking?

Seven years from start to finish.

Was a lot of that just writing and working it out?

A lot of it was working it out, learning this new technique. Learning how to write visually in a way that I didn't really have to with a comic strip. The comic strip was really just scenes with dialogue. Fun Home had more layers to it. I had this narration, I had all of these literary digressions. I had to figure out my voice. All of that stuff took a really long time of just muddling around. And the drawing itself, while it was really labor intensive, I did the bulk of it in the last year or maybe year and a half.

On the release of "Fun Home," you went from a cartoonist to not just a big comics figure but a literary one. Has that been an adjustment?

[laughs] It's been very hard to get used to. I think I'm finally starting to settle into it but I had gotten so used to feeling kind of underrated for my whole life. I didn't really get a lot of exposure outside of gay culture. I was never really part of the comics scene. I'd never been to a comics convention until the year "Fun Home" came out. So now I have the opposite fear. My anxiety is about being overrated with all the attention the book has gotten. And that's uncomfortable, but I would much rather be overrated than underrated.

Overrated pays better.

That's right. And really, if it weren't for "Fun Home" and the success that it has had, I really don't know if I would have been able to continue doing comics. I really don't. It was getting pretty grim with the newspaper situation. So I'm really happy I get to keep doing this for the time being.

You're working on a new memoir. How much can you say about it?

We can talk a little bit about it. I'm trying not to talk to much because my talking about it is outstripping my writing it to an alarming extent. [laughs] I'm trying to reverse that. It's called "Love Life: A Case Study" and it's an attempt to look at episodes of my own romantic history to explore this bigger idea of the self and the other that's part of not just our intimate domestic relationships but as part of how the world works. The way that we turn people into others. That's all I'll say.

It's funny. Today, the section I'm working on with this new project, I'm talking about my first communion when I was eight. I was raised Catholic and so that's what you'd do when you were a little kid, you had your first communion. Part of that was going to confession. I remember how intoxicating it was to go confess my sins and feel freed of them. It made me so happy. It was a really ecstatic experience. I think that's my template for memoir writing. It's a way of confessing and cleansing myself. There's something transcendent about it for me. A way to transcend myself. And I think paradoxically by going into my own story in minute detail it's a way of getting outside of myself into something bigger. I guess memoir is my spiritual practice.

Who are the memoirists you've read and enjoy?

I love Bernard Cooper. I love Lynda Barry's autobiographical cartoons. I love all autobiographical cartoons. I just love that medium. I love R. Crumb and Aline Crumb's stuff. I love Harvey Pekar. He was a big influence, just the way he would take him humdrum daily life and make it into literature.

Do you have any advice for the younger you?

[laughs] That's an interesting question. People always say, do you have advice for younger cartoonists and I always say no, god no, I can't take that responsibility. But for myself? I probably wouldn't tell myself anything, either. You just have to figure these things out. Maybe I would have said that.

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