With a new audio adaptation, Vt. cartoonist Alison Bechdel reflects on 40 years of Dykes to Watch Out For
Vermont cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel has many keys on her ring. And fans, that reference is for you. Bechdel has written the best-selling graphic novel, Fun Home, which was turned into a three-time Tony award-winning musical.
Young millennials who surf Tumblr might recognize her name from the Bechdel Test — a test academics and TV and movie fans use to determine the depth of female representation within media.
It was first depicted in the comic strip that started Bechdel’s career, Dykes to Watch Out For — a cult favorite that depicted the real experiences of lesbian life and community.
The strip ran from 1983 to 2008. Now, Bechdel is returning to these characters in an audio adaptation of the comic strip, also called Dykes to Watch Out For.
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke to Bechdel about her new project. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Dykes to Watch Out For started as panels of jokes about lesbian life, then slowly developed into showing lesbians figuring out their love life, family and politics. How was the strip originally received? And how has that changed over the decades?
Alison Bechdel: Well, I started the comic strip right after I got out of college. I was in my early 20s and living in New York City; it was a very different time and place. And when I started the strip, it was really just for quite a small audience. Just you know, for other lesbians. I wanted to see images of my life reflected in the culture. And I didn't see that anywhere. So I just thought I would do it myself. But it was published in a tiny, feminist monthly newspaper. And it took years to expand beyond that little circle. Gradually, I started self syndicating it to the gay and lesbian newspapers that were starting to pop up around the country in the '80s. Eventually, book collections were published, and it just kind of slowly reached a slightly larger audience over time.
Into a much larger audience over the last four decades for sure. Throughout your comics, you've had a wide range of characters who represent different lesbian archetypes. How did you develop these characters? And I got to ask, do you have a favorite?
Well, I have to confess that all of those characters are just versions of myself. That's the only way I could figure out how to write about all these quite different people. I'd find something I shared with each of them, something I had in common with each of them. But they are a very diverse group. I was always kind of proud. Because once I was critiqued in a book review for being multicultural to a fault, and I thought, "Is that really possible?" But I was kind of proud of that. That was important to me as a lesbian, not seeing myself represented in the culture. I knew other people felt that too. So I have lots of people of color. There's a disabled character. There's two trans characters in it. The cast of characters just kind of became more diverse with time.
So from comic strip to podcast, I'm so curious — what does that process even look like?
Yeah, doesn't that sound crazy? How would you make a comic strip into something that's just audio? Because the whole point of a comic strip is it's visual. I was sort of taken aback when this idea first got broached. But I knew they had a really wonderful playwright in mind to write the script. I knew I couldn't do that translation from comic strip to, you know, essentially like a radio play. So we hired a wonderful playwright, Madeleine George, who writes for that great TV show Only Murders in the Building. And she made a wonderful script. We're really dramatizing these stories that happen in little small intervals in the comic strip, making them into these longer narrative arcs that are really fun to hear actors reading. The amazing Jane Lynch is the narrator who kind of ties things together, but then there are actual actors reading the characters voices, so really bringing it to life in this wonderful way.
You mentioned Jane Lynch, but the podcast has a real star lineup with Roxane Gay Carrie Brownstein, Roberta Colindrez. What was the process of casting these different characters? And did you have a cast wish list?
There was a lot of people involved in this, and I'm not like a big entertainment world person. I didn't know half the people they were even talking about; I kind of just let other people make those decisions. But I'm so happy. Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia makes an amazing sort of main character. Roberta Colindrez is this wonderful actor who played my college girlfriend in the musical Fun Home. She plays Lois, the sort of lothario. And there's a lot of great chemistry between these actors.
Was the goal to preserve the originality of the strip with the new podcast? Or did you ever stray from the source material to modernize it?
So the timeframe presents an interesting problem because, yeah, the events in the strip happened 40 years ago. And it's not something that you can really update and make modern because it's so much a function of its time. But Madeleine really dug into that and made it very much — I don't want to say a history lesson, because that sounds boring. But it is the kind of history lesson; it takes you back in time. It's very clear that this is all occurring during the Reagan administration. AIDS is happening all around. There's a big march on Washington that year. So you're you're very brought into that cultural moment, which is exciting. To have it actually, I don't know, come alive is really cool. And I think young people are going to find it interesting.
I'm curious, Allison, is there a particular storyline you were really excited about hearing in podcast form?
I hadn't thought about this, Jen. But an interesting thing Madeleine did was she found audio footage from the 1987 march on Washington for gay and lesbian lives. Although my comic strip goes there — I take my characters to the march on Washington — it's very brief. We don't really see too much of it. But by using this actual audio from the march, there's this amazing, I don't know, really thrilling episode where the characters are there and really feeling this excitement and seeing the power of this huge group of people who helped make it bigger than any gay march before that. So she really brings that to life.
I was really moved by your recent remembrance in Seven Days of New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren, who passed away in April. And I'm wondering, Allison, if you can tell us a bit about your friendship and what his loss means to communities around the world — but but also right here in Vermont?
Ed was so amazing. I didn't get to know him until — well, it was when I became the cartoonist laureate, I replaced him. He was the second Vermont cartoonist laureate, and he handed his laurels over to me. I think it was 2017. And he was just so dear. You know, I never would have expected this old guy — this old, you know, established fancy New Yorker cartoonist to take an interest in, you know, a lesbian cartoonist. And I know I'm self ghettoizing by saying that, but I'm 62 years old. I can't help it. But he was so open and cool. And he said really nice things about my work. And I just started hanging out with him and seeing his studio and talking comics with Ed Koren was amazing. I just, I miss him. I loved his work. I still love his work. I especially love how beautifully he captures our life in Vermont in his work.
What was the process like of of drawing that illustration that ended up in Seven Days?
Well, it's a four-panel strip. And in each one, I recreate a Koren cartoon starting with one I might have seen as a teenager in the New Yorker, you know, when I was 13, or 14, to his most recent one, the one that was in the magazine the week that he died. And I felt like that really brought me close to him, to try and copy his crazy technique with his tiny little furry lines. They're not even lines. They're just like little insect trails or something. So it was a kind of an exercise and then getting close to the spirit of Ed by trying to copy his work.
Switching tracks a little bit, Allison, a lot of your work has come out during vital times in LGBTQIA history. You know, Fun Home being on Broadway when gay marriage was becoming legalized. I'm curious, why is a relaunch of this comic strip important with the recent rise of anti-trans legislation and LGBTQIA attacks happening all over the country?
Well, we certainly hadn't anticipated all of that when this was first conceived, I think in 2018 or '19, although it was beginning to happen. Over the years, I have heard from young readers of Dykes to Watch Out For — for some reason young people still pick up this comic strip, which is very moving to me. — and their response would always be, "Well, you were dealing with the same stuff we are." And that was always a little disturbing, like, "Oh, yeah, I guess stuff hasn't really completely — you know, we don't live in a utopia yet." And now now we are living in kind of a dystopia in terms of LGBTQ rights. It's just really crazy to me what's going on, and so I'm happy that this work can be there to, I don't know, give people some entertainment and some support.
The U.S., we can often think of comics as like for kids, or superheroes or the Sunday funnies and I'm curious, have you found an attitude change about what comic strips can be?
Oh, very much. I mean, I started drawing comics in the early '80s, which was before this watershed moment when Art Spiegelman's Maus was published, which changed the territory for comics forever. His comic strip, of course, was about the Holocaust, his graphic novel, and that changed it for everyone. Now, it was OK — and not just OK, but actually a really great idea — to write about all kinds of serious and difficult topics in the language of comics. So I really benefited from that, and when when I was ready to write a memoir about my own family, my closeted gay father, the memoir that that turned into became Fun Home. That was fine. You know, people were already used to that idea that you can tell these difficult stories in comics.
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