Toronto
4 min

Mo better blues

Being a dyke pioneer means rolling with the punches

WILL THE REAL MO PLEASE STAND UP? From womyn-loving-womyn to dildo-strappin' grrrls, Dykes To Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel has documented more than 16 years of lesbian life. Credit: Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel is the first lesbian feminist for whom I want to make a fanzine. I’ve loved Hot Head’s loony antics and Tank Girl’s sexy frame, but nothing hits the spot like the savvy soap opera Dykes To Watch Out For that Bechdel birthed more than 16 years ago.



If you’ve been living in a basement since 1983 and don’t know what I’m talking about, check out her comic strip in Xtra.



I am one of the cynical, riot grrrl types who often shoots my mouth off about the bland “womyn-luving-womyn” generation – and forget to give my dues.



Bechdel is nostalgic for the times when being a lesbian feminist wasn’t uncool. “A lot of people whine about the uniform lesbian feminist era,” says Bechdel. “Whereas, I fit in. I wasn’t hiding my femme identity or my SM side. I just felt like a dyke.



“That period gets a bad rap. There was a lot of important things that happened then.”



It’s not surprising that, in talking to Bechdel, I hear the voice of Mo, the strip’s core character, whom Bechdel describes as the embodiment of the time period in which she came out (in 1979).



Mo is an “anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-big business, anti-consumerist feminist socialist.” Bechdel herself became political when she came out as a lesbian: “It was like I received a big blueprint of how the patriarchy oppresses everyone.



“I mean, now, I’m more likely to call it global capitalism, but it’s still the patriarchy.”



The strip that Bechdel began in 1983 originally focussed on Mo’s struggle to live a socially responsible life. As the strip evolved, it shifted focus to her frustration with her less than revolutionary friends who take Prozac, chomp down rib steaks, look for recognition from the state and shop at Walmart.



And though she may yearn for a more lesbian feminist friendly community, her Dykes To Watch Out For crew is anything but stagnant. She’s been criticized by mainstream publications for being racially diverse to a fault (to that she says, “so what?”) and she’s managed to explore a myriad of dyke-specific topics.



She is a social commentator with a healthy dose of cynicism and an observant eye on the lesbian community. She created Lois, the sex radical poster child, as a way to balance out Mo’s neurotic political correctness. Other characters in the strip are a lesbian couple with a kid, who decided to move to the suburbs, the owner of the bookstore Mo works in, a hello-kitty loving queer teen intern and a new age astrology nut.



Bechdel fleshes out each character so they don’t seem like stereotypes.



Bechdel’s strip is loved by many, including those of us who’d rather we moved forward from the Ferron years, because her strip does something a lot of political art and writing doesn’t accomplish. It can laugh at itself, make fun of earnest identity politics and contradictions and expose complexities in political issues.



Bechdel admits to sometimes being didactic, specifically in her earlier work, which she says was often just talking heads. “The characters used to be just the vehicles for the issues. Now the strip has become more about the characters.”



She explains the change occurred not because she wanted the comic to be less political, but she has learned that subtlety is an effective way to get points across. “I got better as a writer. I could draw subtle nuanced emotions, gestures and detail that I couldn’t when I wasn’t as good.



“I feel like the writing got more subtle as well; the heavy handed approach didn’t fit well with these sensitive drawings.”

Dykes of all ages read and appreciate the saga of Mo and her counterparts. Bechdel receives fan male from kids as young as 10, and even advice addressed to the characters, themselves.



When Clarice was on the verge of having an affair with Ginger, a letter read: “To Clarice… don’t do it!”



Even though almost all of her characters are dykes, Bechdel says she gets most of her mail from straight men – and not just the pervs. “They’re charming,” she says. “They send me very long e-mails. They’re the funny geeky boys I attracted in college, intellectual reject types.”



The question she gets asked most often is, does she pen the lives of her nearest and dearest for all the readers of alternative papers to see? Bechdel says that all the characters – from Lois, the sex radical poster child, to the domestic ├╝ber-couple Toni and Clarice – are manifestations of herself.



As the characters grow and change, I wonder if it gets easier to write, with more story possibilities opening up. But Bechdel says it’s the other way around. “It gets harder and harder to keep a sense of freedom and play. It’s constantly increasing in difficulty, the more the story goes on, the older you get, the more your prospects start to dwindle.”



The strip is carried by more than 65 magazines in North America. Bechdel has published numerous anthologies, most recently, the Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix And Miscellaneous DTWOF, a comprehensive tell-all about her creative process.



She’s currently working on a cartoon memoir based on her own life.



DYKE TRAVELOGUE SLIDES



Dykes To Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel will grace the Toronto stage with a slide show presentation on Thu, Jun 22. It’s a history lesson about the ideological shifts in lesbian lives: “How we got from lesbian feminism to dykes wearing strap-on dildos, how you get from one to the other,” says Bechdel.



“It’s one part lecture, one part entertainment.”



The slide show will focus on her comic strip, using her signature sharp wit and eye for detail to take us through the last 20 years of lesbian life. In particular, she will discuss the assimilation of gay men and lesbians into mainstream culture.



“It’s fascinating and horrifying at the same time. In some ways it’s a good thing, because people become more tolerant. On the other hand, when subcultures become assimilated, there is an authenticity and integrity that you lose.



“I’ve always treasured that I didn’t have a TV show shoving down my throat who I was supposed to be.”



She sighs heavily when I mention the shows Ellen and Will And Grace. “I’m trying to go with the flow and not be too crabby about it.”

She loves to hear the audience responses, but traveling isn’t the easiest. “I love it, but it does feel like a job.”



Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of the show and are available at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (73 Harbord) and This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church St).



Alison Bechdel.

$10 adv; $15 door. 7pm.

Hart House Theatre.

7 Hart House Circle.

(416) 922-8744.