The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel.
Seems like it's been forever since I finished a book. I had these grand illusions that once our unofficial summer began, I would just crank out book after book after book. So not happening. Seems like things are just as busy as ever...just a different kind of busy. I am very happy about some of the things I have managed to accomplish during the last few days, even if I have only managed to finish one book. Uh, yeah, Debi, speaking of books, why don't you get on with it already?!!
I love this book! I love this book! I love this book! I love this book!
I fully admit that when I ordered it, I had no real clue what it might be like. It popped up at Amazon as one of those, "if you're ordering this, then you might like this, too" things. I saw it was by Alison Bechdel, and though I haven't yet read Fun Home (bad me!), nearly everyone who has read it has loved it. Plus there's this whole "I can't get enough of comics!" thing I have going this year. Needless to say, it ended up in the cart. And I couldn't be happy that it did!
In case there are others out there like me, who have never heard of Dykes to Watch Out For, it's a comic strip that Alison Bechdel has been writing since the mid-80's. The strip focuses on a wonderful group of counterculture friends, most of whom are lesbians. And this book gathers a rich collection of the strips spanning from 1987 through 2008. This book also contains an introduction, also in comic form, about how Alison Bechdel came to spend her career writing this incredible comic.
Snippets from the intro:
"I saw my cartoons as an antidote to the prevailing image of lesbians as warped, sick, humorless, and undesirable. Or supermodel-like Olympic pentathletes, objective fodder for the male gaze."
"By drawing the everyday lives of women like me, I hoped to make lesbians more visible not just to ourselves but to everyone."
"I had set out to name the unnamed, to depict the undepicted, to make lesbians visible. And I had done it!"
"Have I churned out episodes of this comic strip every two weeks for decades merely to prove that we're the same as everyone else?! Here. You decide. Essentially the same? Or essentially different?"
My answer to that question: these characters are as essentially the same and as essentially different from me in the way that every other human being I've ever encountered is. In fact, the characters in this book are each unique human beings with both similarities and differences between one another. Alison Bechdel did not create a world of "cookie cutter" lesbians. She created a community of wonderful individuals.
Before I go on, I might as well say that this is not a book that everyone will love. A "sort of" subtitle on the cover says, "The Lives, Loves, and Politics of Cult-Fav Characters Mo, Lois, Sydney, Sparrow, Ginger, Stuart, Clarice, and Others." And it's that "Politics" part that I can see some seething over. What can I say...it's an added bonus to this book when you agree with Alison Bechdel's politics. But I'm guessing that if you fall to the right of the political spectrum, you're going to have some issues with this book. It would probably be something like forcing me to read Ann Coulter...a dramatic rise in blood pressure, bouts of nausea...you get the idea. Just to let you know.
But while this book never shies away from political issues, that is definitely not all this book is about. Remember "lives" and "loves" was also mentioned in the subtitle. And wow. I couldn't believe how immersed I became in these characters' lives. It took me almost a week to read this book, but believe me, that was only because I had so much going on. I hated it every time I had to set this book down! I carried it from room to room, just in case I could steal a couple minutes. It was positively addicting! You know that feeling you sometimes get when reading a book, that you just so badly want to be friends with a character in real life? Yeah, these characters are like that. Well, most of them. ;) And I think much of what made this such a rich experience was getting to see them over the course of more than twenty years of their lives. And this wasn't twenty years that Alison Bechdel sat and created all at once...these strips were written over that period of time, so the growth and changes in the characters could not possibly feel any more genuine.
An added bonus for me was the fact that these characters are about the same age as I am, and thus the world events they lived through mirror my own memories of those times of my own life. And it's not just the events in the world at large, but also the everyday events that happen as we continue to grow and age. Unemployment, breast cancer, pregnancy, divorce, relating to one's parents as an adult, cheating, going back to school, parenting, homeschooling...the list of topics this book encompasses is endless. Yep, even the loving relationships we have with our animal friends.
But as much as I can relate to so many of the experiences of the characters, I will never personally go through others. I can hurt, I can empathize, I can become overwhelming angry at the injustice, but I will never personally know what it feels like to be disowned by my parents simply because of my sexual orientation, I will never personally know what it feels like to not be allowed to marry the person I love, I will never personally know what it feels like to have my children bullied at school because they have two moms.
These characters are so easy to love. Not because they're perfect. But because they're not. They are just so essentially human. As the book begins, they are young, strong, idealistic, out to fight the patriarchy. They all age. And while I believe they all remain strong, the idealism of some characters becomes shadowed by reality. I love this richness...as in the real world, even people who agree on the goal don't always agree on the way to get there. And as in the real world, sometimes a person who is discriminated against can fail to see how they are embracing these same kind of prejudices. (When one of these women admits that she is bisexual and begins seeing a man, a few of her friends are aghast and feel that she has somehow let them down.) It felt like such an honest look at how someone might come to terms with their initial feelings of mistrust with bisexuality and with transgenderism. And I couldn't help but feel enormous respect for the way Alison Bechdel let these amazing women be so human, and not feel the need to make them into some kind of perfect ideal.
This book is filled with humor. It is loaded with sarcasm and biting wit. It pulls no punches. And it is overflowing with compassion. I'm not sure if Alison Bechdel set out to create a work of art that touches the soul, but that is truly what she did.
You know, I seriously feel like I could gush about this book forever, but I fear I've talked long enough as it is. Nymeth just wrote a post about her top ten reads of the year thus far. I haven't actually made a list, but I can tell you this book would definitely be on it if I did! And I suspect it will remain there at the end of the year...I'd have to read a lot of incredible books in the next six months to knock this one off the list.