Alison Bechdel: The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For


Bechdel, Alison. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)

Alison Bechdel is a fabulous cartoonist whose work easily belongs in the company of the greatest art produced by the medium's masters. Her characters, her dialogue, and her lively linework combine to create a unique voice in both the comic strip and graphic novel genres. Bechdel's Essential DTWOF book stands beside her autobiographical novel Fun Home (reviewed here) her previous collection The Indelible Alison Bechdel, and the series of DTWOF books as essentials of graphic storytelling.

This Essential volume makes Bechdel's artistic maturation startlingly clear. Her early strips show the seeds of her eventual artistic flowering, but her drawing wasn't quite there yet; practically each turn of the page shows her development as an artist and her increasing skill as a writer. It's a joy to watch her talent blossom, and her example is something that should inspire other artists. Her cover illustration's homage to Norman Rockwell's "The Gossips" was a nice touch:


The wealth of background detail is one of Dykes' most notable qualities: book titles, t-shirt slogans, and especially newspaper headlines help to add another layer of meaning to the proceedings by weaving current events into the plotlines. Bob Proehl wrote at PopMatters that Bechdel "has an uncanny ability to juxtapose news coverage, be it from NPR or Fox News, with the daily traumas of her characters, as radios and televisions constantly foretell doom in the background."

The episode titles--and even their typography--are also done with an uncommon attention to detail that rewards close attention. It's unusual to see such high quality sustained over such a long period. Even though I own all twelve of the DTWOF books, I've never read them all consecutively--which is pretty much the experience that Essential DTWOF delivers. Bechdel omitted the short stories from each volume and some of the strips--137 out of 527--so this book delivers an almost-complete experience.

The completist in me still wishes that this were an exhaustive collection, because I'd love to have everything under one cover; however, it's so nice a book that I feel churlish complaining about it. Besides, adding the supplemental stories from the individual books in addition to the missing strips would have added another 300 pages--this book may not be exhaustive, but it is still essential. Proehl made a similar remark:

If there's one complaint to be made, it is that some cartoons had to be left out of the collection. There's a lot here, but the occasional omission of cartoons combined with the large cast and juggling storylines sometimes leave the reader with the feeling they've missed something, or that they'd have happily paid an extra ten dollars to upgrade to more of an omnibus-level collection.

If there's ever an Exhaustive DTWOF collection available, I'll be first in line for it!

Bechdel has archived some of the recent strips (through #527) here, and an older sequence (#303-480) is archived at PlanetOut.

There is a review from PinkNews, an interview with Windy City Times, and an article at AfterEllen with some sample strips.

The book was also reviewed by the NYT, Times Online, Powell's, and there's a personal view from Cathy Resmer at Vermont's Seven Days.

(More reviews are available at Xtra, Comixology, Forbidden Planet, Comic Book Galaxy, and Comic Book Resources.)


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