*Dykes to Watch Out For — Recommended Series

Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF) is a lesbian soap opera with political themes, populated by a variety of fascinating women who come in all shapes, ages, races, and inclinations. The books poke fun at the foibles of human behavior, making this an entertaining read for anyone, regardless of sexual preference.

Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Dykes to Watch Out For
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The first book is a collection of single-page strips about such topics as lesbian etiquette, wearing short hair and being mistaken for a guy, the perils of roommates and relationships, and taking a partner for granted. Intermingled are alphabetical illustrated couplets of a variety of women, such as

G is for Gretchen, who knew at age seven.
H is for Hope, who would not go to heaven.

Gretchen is a girl pitching baseball, while Hope is wearing a nun’s habit and a devilish smile. This first volume also taught me the very important Bechdel’s Movie Rule: Only go to a movie if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.

The second book, More DTWOF, starts with similar stand-alone pieces, although they’re more fleshed out than some of the cartoons in the first book. Politics also come to the fore, with strips about prejudice and fear of harassment. (Twenty years later, these concerns are still relevant, with conservatives trying to prevent legal recognition of gay relationships.)

More Dykes to Watch Out For cover
More Dykes to Watch Out For
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They’re bridging the gap to becoming stories instead of just setups for punchlines, and the figures populating these early strips resemble some of the continuing characters met later. There’s also a longer story called “The Crush” about falling in love at a martial arts camp.

After that starts the continuing DTWOF story, all about Mo, her friends, their lives, and their loves. Mo’s a romantic bemoaning her celibacy. The women she knows aren’t political enough, or intellectual enough, or aren’t available. Her friend Lois is more interested in sex than love, while Clarice (Mo’s ex-lover) and Toni are a happily committed couple. They introduce Mo to Harriet at a march, and the two slowly work their way around to dating.

Mo is tightly wound and sometimes tiring, but lovable all the same. Her friends get frustrated with her but keep putting up with her. The passion that makes her so annoying also makes her attractive and fun to read about. Her anxiety is inspirational when it’s not catching.

New, Improved! Dykes to Watch Out For cover
New, Improved! Dykes
to Watch Out For
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The women are delineated in a thin-line style heavy on expression. They’re comfortable with their bodies, and so is the artist. This is not a series for people who avoid nudity and lovemaking in their comics. Sex is an important part of the characters’ lives, and that’s reflected in the stories. The portrayal runs the gamut from seeing sex everywhere when you’re not getting any to all but ignoring it while in a committed relationship.

New, Improved! DTWOF expands the cast to include Jezanna, owner of a feminist bookstore, and Lois’ housemates Ginger, a Ph.D. student, and Sparrow, a New Ager. Mo and Harriet become a couple, Lois pines after an older woman who’s just come out, and Clarice and Toni talk about having a baby at the same time Clarice ponders an affair with Ginger. Plus, Mo tries therapy when she starts losing her righteous indignation.

Dykes to Watch Out For: The Sequel cover
Dykes to Watch Out For:
The Sequel
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In DTWOF: The Sequel, all is not well. Harriet is jealous of Mo’s time with her therapist, while Lois applauds and Mo seethes over lesbians who call themselves non-dykes. Is diversity good for the group, or does it make them less special? Are they reclaiming patriarchal expectations in a new way, or selling out, or just being themselves? I did a double-take when I read the rants about impeaching Bush and our thoughtless use of oil driving us to war in the Mideast; they’re as timely now as they were in 1990.

Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For
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Harriet and Mo continue to have problems in Spawn of DTWOF, while Clarice and Toni try to get pregnant and Ginger deals with a long-distance romance. Mo develops a crush on Thea, her coworker at the bookstore, even though Thea’s in a committed relationship. As expected from the title, the book ends with a lengthy segment showing the birthing process and delivery, as the family of characters gathers round.

Unnatural Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Unnatural Dykes
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Mo is just about the only character not coupled up in Unnatural DTWOF, but there are sometimes benefits to single life. (Strangely, Harriet’s new partner resembles Mo, only more so.) After being treated for back trouble, Mo finds a new energy for accomplishment, including getting in shape and learning new technology. Meanwhile, Jezanna’s store faces competition from a new chain book superstore, and Sparrow’s girlfriend June is getting used to sobriety.

Time is passing for these women, and they’re dealing with more concerns in life than who to sleep with. To emphasize how far they’ve come, the book ends with an oral history section in which the characters reveal how they first met each other, in various combinations, at a march on Washington. The sense of history is magnified by looking at the issues they were concerned with then, and what they’re worried about now.

Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Hot, Throbbing Dykes
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In Hot, Throbbing DTWOF, Mo keeps getting involved in arguments with Sydney, a women’s studies professor who works with Ginger. Sydney’s an urban snob and disagrees with everyone and everything, although she’s interested in studying Lois’ turn as a drag king. Clarice and Toni are coping with toddler Raffi (aided by male role model Carlos) at the same time Toni inadvertently comes out to her conservative, disapproving parents. The book concludes with a lengthy story about a sex-friendly fundraiser to save the bookstore.

Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For
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Most everyone’s looking for new lodgings in Split-Level DTWOF. Clarice, Toni, and Raffi are thinking about moving to the suburbs, while Sparrow, Lois, and Ginger’s landlord is selling their house out from under them. Mo’s disturbed by the level of debt Sydney has, complicated by her continuing to acquire more stuff. Anyone’s who’s ever tried to move a household can relate to the concluding story, about coordinating use of a rental truck and having all your friends pitch in to schlep boxes.

Post-Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Post-Dykes to Watch Out For
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Post-DTWOF finds Stuart, Sparrow’s boyfriend, moving into their household in a relationship both romantic and financial. The new suburbanites are having trouble with their neighbors, and Sydney’s hiding her online fling from Mo. The challenges the characters face have changed over the years, but the basic desire to be loved mentally and physically remains.

The introduction to Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms to Watch Out For makes two important points: stories about lesbians are human stories that can be enjoyed by anyone, and “the whole point of a liberation movement… is to render itself obsolete.” The strips deal with the materialism of popular culture, civil unions, the Gore/Bush election, general struggles of adulthood, and the loss of a beloved supporting cast member.

Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms to Watch Out For cover
Dykes and Sundry Other
Carbon-Based Life Forms
to Watch Out For
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Thankfully, for those of us who only read the strips in the collections every couple of years, Invasion of the DTWOF begins with a “where are they now” section. The strip’s cast has grown over the years to the point where catching up with the characters takes over four pages.

The blend of political commentary and soap opera is still the draw. In the foreground, the characters talk about pressing social issues while trying their best to deal with the everyday domestic challenges that come with families and roommates. Change is managed but rarely welcomed, just like in real life, since so often the ramifications are negative or at best, unexpected. That’s especially obvious as the various kids grow up and deal with their own role and gender issues.

Invasion of the Dykes to Watch Out For cover
Invasion of the Dykes
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Things aren’t often very happy, but then, given the past few years, that’s realistic as well. The overwhelming matter on everyone’s mind is going to war with Iraq. Later on, the conflict of the day becomes “should we get married” once it’s temporarily legal. Getting a chance to spend time with these fully rounded characters again is enjoyable, even if what they’re facing isn’t. Through it all, at least they have each other.

Under all of this appealing and addictive soap opera, the series explores the fundamental question of how much a group not part of the mainstream should adopt their customs, including monogamy. Mo’s deathly afraid of conservatism and complacency; she fears fitting in. It’s a fascinating learning experience to see someone so similar to me and yet so different work her way through life.

The Dykes to Watch Out For website has more information about the strip and the author. Many strips may be read online at the PlanetOut archive.

Bechdel was interviewed in Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists. A personal retrospective, The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For, collects comics not found in the book series, including work from anthologies and from the DTWOF calendars, as well as information on Bechdel’s life and development as an artist, with drawings beginning at age 3 that pace her life changes and attitudes. Essays discuss the nature of auto-biographical cartooning (several examples of which are included) and analyze the limited range of women’s roles in comics. There’s also a timeline of character and strip events and lots of commentary by the artist.


12 Responses to “*Dykes to Watch Out For — Recommended Series”

  1. Ian Brill Says:

    This is one of the first comic strips I read where I realized that the strip structure could actually produce stories with emotional weight to them, not just easy punchlines. Bechdel’s Fun Home has been recommended to me enough times that I’ll be reading it pretty soon. Apparently it’s a big leap forward for her talents.

  2. Vincent J. Murphy Says:

    Wow! Between this and Eyebeam, you are hitting all the comic strips I used to read back in college. Had a friend who bought both collections regularly. Thanks for the walk down memory lane: now I have to re-read these!

  3. Johanna Says:

    That’s the last one I have planned for a while, but now I’m curious to hear what else you read in college, Vincent. :)

    Ian, I’m looking forward to seeing Fun Home too.

  4. James Schee Says:

    I need to try this stip, as it sounds really good. I want to try Bechdel’s autobio book too, that was just covered in EW.

  5. Anun Says:

    Just to be a picky continuity type — everyone thought Sydney was hiding an online fling from Mo, but what she was actually doing was taking the online chats she was having with Mo and selling the transcripts to men’s magazines.

    Later on, that might change.

    I also hope you get to read FUN HOME soon, because it’s absolutely excellent. I’m an enormous fan of DTWOF, but FUN HOME is on another level entirely. Really beautiful work.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Anun, I try not to spoil too much of the plot, even though I’m aiming to describe individual volumes. The longer a continuing series goes on, the more difficult it becomes, though. That’s why I’ll often stick with what someone thinks is happening early on, even if it’s later revealed to have been misunderstood or have a new interpretation.

    Thanks for the Fun Home recommendation.

  7. Anun Says:

    Oh, my bad. Everyone ignore the previous exchange!

    And read DTWOF.

    And read FUN HOME.

  8. Johanna Says:

    Oh, no problem, I figure that the comments are fair game, and I appreciate you clarifying that.

  9. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Alison Bechdel has been writing and drawing the lesbian soap opera Dykes to Watch Out For for decades. Her comic strip characters are true to life, with one in particular resembling her and her attitudes closely. In her new book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, she sets aside the fictionalization to present a memoir of her childhood. [...]

  10. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] I was glad to find out more about old favorites Keith Knight and Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For), and I was excited to discover new talents like Emily Flake (Lulu Eightball), Tak Toyoshima (Secret Asian Man), and Mikhaela B. Reid. Also included are Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks), David Rees (Get Your War On), Jason Yungbluth (Deep Fried), Stephen Notley (Bob the Angry Flower), former Usenet buddy Barry Deutsch (Ampersand), and ten more. [...]

  11. I’m Back! » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Bechdel sign my copy of Fun Home and even add a sketch. I asked her when we might see the next Dykes to Watch Out For collection, and she said it would be longer than usual because she doesn’t have a publisher [...]

  12. *The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For — Best of 2008 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, many readers wanted to see more work by her. Her earlier series, Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF), is good reading, but hard to catch up on, with 11 books released over two decades, many of [...]




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