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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For -- Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is the manner in which cartoonist Alison Bechdel presents dozens of sexually and racially diverse characters as nothing special at all, just everyday average people. And among this large and fascinating group of individuals, all of whom are breathtakingly individual and startlingly human, Bechdel never seems to play favourites. Mo seems to me to most closely reflect her creator's sensibilities (not to mention appearance), but no one is ever really celebrated in the narrative as being any wiser, or better, or more perfect than any other. It's almost like they were all created equal, or something.

Bechdel is perhaps better known these days for her rightly-celebrated graphic novel Fun Home, which after all garnered "Book of the Year" honours
from Time Magazine, without so much as being afflicted with a "Graphic Novel Category" distinction. And make no mistake, Fun Home was just that good.

And damn if The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For might not be even better. Dykes has an advantage bestowed by time: Bechdel has been working on the strip for over twenty years, and she knows her characters, all of them, inside and out.

There are hundreds of strips reproduced in this absolutely essential collection, and while Bechdel picks and chooses (not every strip is reprinted, although most seem to be), each page, representing one strip, has its own purpose, pacing and impact. Cumulatively, the end result is a knock-out blast of amazingly well-told stories and well-constructed characters. Collected all under one cover, it's a vastly rewarding tapestry that reveals itself over time, as in the minor flirtations that surface from time to time, only to blow up into life-altering passions. Just like in real life, see?

I took great delight in how Bechdel organically imbues the strip and its characters with a political consciousness. Whether examining the equal marriage rights some of her characters struggle for, or skewering the hypocritical relationship between NPR and some of its largest corporate underwriters, Bechdel convincingly and smoothly imparts a sense that both she and her characters live not only on the world, but in it. Their political awareness, and their frustration at the slowness of changes over time, jibes precisely with the world as I have experienced it over the past two decades. Not all the characters are progressives, though. Some want merely to live their lives in peace and relative anonymity, and one, Cynthia, wants to forward a conservative agenda even as she begins to live her life as a young lesbian adult. Bechdel plays fair with virtually every point of view in the book, and it's all the more readable for that virtue. Some of the characters may hit people over the head with their beliefs, but Bechdel is far more subtle.

The twenty-year arc of the collection also allows for the full breadth of human experience. While some of the women herein remain hardcore in their devotion to their sexual orientation, others find fulfillment in a wide range of partners and experiences. It's almost impossible to imagine a reader -- any reader -- not finding people they know within the pages of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, and recognizing the all-too-human weaknesses, zealotry and flaws that we all contain within us. Dykes is a vastly entertaining work, but it's also a humanizing and reassuring one. Whatever your orientation, whatever your beliefs, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For presents you with real people and challenges you to find them anything less than human. God help you if you can't find joy, love and compassion within these pages. And God help us all.

Buy The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For from amazon.com.



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