The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For reviewed by Tom Crippen

Posted by on December 15th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Alison Bechdel; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 416 pp., $25; B&W, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-0618968800

In the following article you will find phrases like “dicks become a big part of life” and “penetration is in.” Traditionally, among a certain class of people, these phrases call for a quick “so to speak” or the beloved “That’s what she said.” The second phrase is especially popular. It operates on the premise that any conceivably sexual expression must indeed be sexual if you can pretend it was spoken by a woman; most especially, any unclaimed pronoun will refer to a penis. I love it, so to speak, because it makes everything funny right away, sometimes to an improbable degree. But here we are discussing Alison Bechdel and Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel is a lesbian, her strip is about lesbians. Twenty-one years of producing a biweekly series about gay women, and someone comes along and is tempted to stick a “That’s what she said” after her work.

The reason is that Dykes, far more than you’d expect, is about penises, about their absence and then their presence. To a much lesser extent, the series also involves men, at least after its first half-decade or so. But penises and penis-bearing creatures are not identical. Needing dick doesn’t mean the women in the strip need men. The characters just need dick, either in their bodies or as part of their psyches; the characters need to be penetrated or to penetrate, or both. To put it mildly, that was not the premise with which the series began. Dykes to Watch Out For is a lot of things: a sweet-natured comedy about people, a slightly acrid comedy about culture, a gentle soap opera about daily living, and a showcase for well-imagined characters, tightly engineered panels, and busy, detailed line work. But I believe it’s also the living record of one woman’s attempt at modifying her personality, of integrating necessary pieces that had been left out. Lots of people try, and lots of people sit down to create stories that readers will want to read. Most people fail at both. From what I see here, Bechdel succeeded and she did it through a neo-Victorian mix of intelligence and hard work. She had a project, two projects, and she carried them through. And one result, in Dykes, is the sight of someone secretly but publicly attaining the personality that belongs to her, a personality that can flourish because at last the world is willing to admit that man is not quite “man,” as the term has always been understood, and woman is not quite “woman.”

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