REVIEW: Dykes to watch out for

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Were there any lesbians around before New Labour and Bill Clinton?

Why, yes. Before the glitz and glamour of The L Word, before But I’m a Cheerleader and If These Walls Could Talk 2, there was Alison Bechdel, whose cartoon strips Dykes to Watch Out For were first published in feminist paper Womannews in 1983.

Having won critical acclaim for her autobiographical cartoon Fun Home in 2006 and 2007, Bechdel will publish The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For this December.

The book is a collection of the series of the comic strips.

Having only been born four years after the comic strip was created, I was unfamiliar with it apart from its appearances in Diva magazine. Reading through a copy, however, I soon became hooked.

The storyline follows the life of Mo, a neurotic, ultra-feminist, political activist New York lesbian, and her band of merry fellow dykes.

All the usual characters are there; the sex maniac (Lois), the long-term couple trying for a baby (Clarice and Toni), and the spiritual therapy addict (Sparrow).

Basically, this is The L Word before the Noughties; instead of pontificating wittily into their chai lattes, Bedchel?s characters protest against Ronald Reagan and run vegetarian co-ops.

Not that the cartoon is self-righteously liberal. One of things that makes it so entertaining is its affectionate satire of late eighties/early nineties lesbian hippy culture.

References to imaginary books such as The wheat-free guide to creative visualisation in co-dependent past-life relationships, seemingly endless lentil stews and the fact that every single character attends therapy at some point made me laugh out loud.

Whilst being generally light-hearted and amusing, the comic strips tackle some issues that were not widely and explicitly discussed in mainstream fiction until much later.

Bedchel’s characters talk about race, gender, disability, artificial insemination, monogamy, infidelity; even lesbians transmitting HIV/AIDS is touched on, which you’d be hard pushed to find even in today’s popular drama and fiction.

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is enjoyable on several levels.

Comic strip fans will appreciate its skilful artwork and characterisation.

A reader can appreciate that, given the context that the comic was created in, it was quite revolutionary, whilst younger readers like me can look at it as a warm and funny period piece.

In fact, I finished the book quite annoyed that I wasn’t old enough to get a crew cut, go vegan and join an anti-war kiss-in on the steps of Washington’s Supreme Court.

The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For is published by Random House and will be available from 4th December.