Wednesday, May 13, 2009

THE ESSENTIAL DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR by Alison Bechdel

THE ESSENTIAL DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR is a recent hardcover collection of 390 of the comic strips that Alison Bechdel did on a mostly bi-weekly basis from 1987's Strip 1, introducing main characters Mo and Lois, to last year's Strip 527, when Bechdel put the strip on hold while she works on her follow-up to her book FUN HOME. Bechdel also provides a new 12-page autobiographical comic to introduce the collection.

I'd probably read about three-quarters of the strips before, either on-line or in some of the dozen or so smaller format collections (which are still available, and include most if not all of the missing strips, plus usually an original short comic book story of the characters not included in this book), but I'd always read the books in random order, so it's a new experience getting the two decade arc of the story in order.

As you'll see in just about any long-running strip, the early episodes seem a bit off, with the characters not quite settled into their definitive look or personalities yet, but everything falls into place fairly quickly, by around a dozen strips in when Mo begins working at Madwimmin Books. From there we follow the characters through two decades of life and all that entails, from changing relationships to changing jobs, and get their reactions to the changing political reality of the era (which tends to date the strip when read out of context, but in this format serves to ground it in reality, as the characters grow and change in real time along with the changes in real world events).

Late in the book it sometimes feels bogged down by the weight of its history and restrictions of its format (perhaps around the time Bechdel was also working on the autobiographical FUN HOME). But even in the later strips there's a lot worth reading in the better strips, as things revolve to some degree, but life goes on.

Anyway, DTWOF has long been one of my favourite "alternative" comic strips, and reading it in this format only improves its standing in my eyes. Whether Bechdel ever returns to it or not (and I'm honestly not sure which I'd prefer), this is a very satisfying collection. Hopefully it'll do well enough that we get a second book at some point with the missing strips, plus the short stories from the smaller collections, and maybe even the pre-Mo&Lois era DTWOF material.

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