Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beren deMotier copyright 1998 Beren deMotier
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Bravo Alison Bechdel, Wordstock Author

The review below was written a decade ago, about a book some of her more recent fans may not know. They should.

The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. New York: Firebrand, 1998, 223 pp., $16.95.

This spring, Firebrand Books has published a new book by author/illustrator Alison Bechdel, well known for her comic strip, "Dykes To Watch Out For." This book, The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes To Watch Out For, is a delicious concoction of calendar drawings, autobiographical graphic stories, commissioned artwork that hasn’t appeared in earlier volumes, and letters to Bechdel, all wrapped tightly together by Bechdel’s personal narration.

Were I to predict anything in the coming year, and take a bet on it, my money would be on a Lambda for The Indelible Alison Bechdel. Though how to categorize a book like this would be a distinct problem (even if the publisher has helped the selection committee out by simply printing “humor/lesbian studies/autobiography” on the cover, all of which apply). But more, it is a portrait of the young woman as an artist, and a compellingly honest one at that.

The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes To Watch Out For is full of great stuff. From her graphic inner covers riddled with cultural references (including the WNBA, dental dams and Prozac!), to the letters on the ending page from younger readers who have found solace from her strip, it is a full feast of images and information, humor and humbleness, for the reader’s pleasure. Her opening paragraph sets the tone—conversational, real, in awe of where she finds herself in life. She writes, “I actually make my living drawing a comic strip about a bunch of lesbians. That might not sound quite so improbable as it did fifteen, or even five years ago, but I never take it for granted.”(9)

The Indelible Alison Bechdel starts briefly with her development as an artist, from tomboy drawing cowboys to college art student discovering she could actually draw girls to the birth of DTWOF, which started inadvertently with her creation “Marianne, dissatisfied with the breakfast brew”(27) on the margin of a letter. From there Bechdel takes us to “The Wonderful World of Me”, a chapter of autobiographical cartoons. These include an excruciatingly detailed depiction of her coming out (including “nerdboy” experiences, visits to the gay union on campus and that fateful night)(35) and a hilarious piece on her no-less-excruciating experiences with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival circa 1993. (58)

In “Character Development; Adventures in Monogamy”, Bechdel includes a breakdown of the cast of regular characters introduced in January 1987, and a stunning blow-by-blow of what happened to the characters and when, over a ten year period. From Mo falling for Harriet, to Raffi’s birth, to the near-demise of Madwimmin books, it’s all there, as condensed and titillating as a lesbian People. After that, there is a complete collection of all the calendar comics created from January 1990 to December 1997, when Bechdel stopped producing an annual calendar.

These calendar pages serve to show the development both of the characters over the years, and the on-going development of Bechdel artistically and as a writer. And many of them are simply hilarious. Her January 1994 issue “It Was Twenty Years Ago Today” which shows many of the characters circa 1974 is particularly clever. Not only in managing to show Lois attempting to play gynecologist with her school chum, and Mo held in rapt fascination by the image of Jan Brady, but in the swell drawing of Sparrow in one of those plaid tunic dresses that were all the rage at the time. I even had one, though it didn’t look as cute on me. The calendar pages also gave reign to Bechdel’s talents as a limerick writer, including the randy:

A fortuitous hole in her jeans
Provided Celeste with the means
To enjoy a caress
With no need to undress
While she thrilled to her favorite scenes(165)

Which is accompanied by a drawing of two women having a lovely time in a movie theatre without anyone the wiser.

The touching finale of the book is a section aptly titled “Audience Participation” and it is a sampling of letters Alison Bechdel has received during her years as a lesbian cartoonist. She starts this section with an autobiographical drawing of herself being watched from behind as she attempts to pen her trade. She writes that while “a novelist might get letters from readers about a recent book, those responses never influence the novel itself—it’s already a fait accompli. My comic strip, however, is never accompli: it’s literally endless.”(207) And though the suggestions by fans are legion, “being an assertive, egalitarian lot, my audience does not scruple to let me know what’s wrong (or right, for that matter) with the strip”(207), the letters she receives also let Bechdel know that they are out there. She writes “That people not only read my strip but are sufficiently engaged with it to suggest that Sparrow think about going to massage school is all the success I could ever hope for.”(208) And a success that she has thoroughly earned.

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