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Alison Bechdel, 1994

Well Drawn: Talking with Cartoonist Alison Bechdel

By Owen Keehnen

If you've never caught Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip or seen any of her five collections by Firebrand Books, you're missing something truly wonderful. Her smart and sassy cartoon chronicles the lives of a lovable circle of friends and lovers. It's an ongoing drama of an extended created family--a wonderful soap opera with lots of laughs, a great political slant, and heart to spare. Though there are many hilarious incidents and insights, Bechdel's strong and fully developed characters really account for her strong and very loyal following.

The cartoon runs in over 40 alternative papers in the U. S. and Canada, and her second and third collections--More Dykes to Watch Out For and New, Improved! Dykes to Watch Out For--were recently translated into German. Her latest collection Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For is perhaps her finest and there is no end in sight. Recently I talked with Alison about the popularity of Dykes, its artistry, and what it all means to her.

[Since this interview was conducted, several more volumes of Dykes to Watch Out For have appeared, as has Bechdel's Lambda Award-winning memoir, The Indelible Alison Bechdel (1998).]

Keehnen: Did you always want to be a cartoonist, or did this career evolve from another set of circumstances?

Bechdel: It's pretty much what I always wanted to do, even when I was a little kid.

Keehnen: How did the Dykes to Watch Out For strip come about?

Bechdel: It sounds contradictory, but--although I always wanted to be a cartoonist--by the time I was out of college, I wasn't clearly pursuing that. When I started drawing Dykes to Watch Out For, it was just little sketches in the margins of letters I was writing to a friend. It was just for fun. I xeroxed them and showed them to another friend of mine who said I should submit them to Womanews, a newspaper in New York City where we both worked. So I did. That's how the strip became a regular thing.

Keehnen: Your second collection, More Dykes to Watch Out For, was a watershed for you. In it you introduced that wonderful cast of recurring characters. Did the creation of Mo and company change the meaning of the strip for you as well?

Bechdel: Yes, very much. I always wanted to have regular characters but just didn't feel emotionally able to do that. I was sort of intimidated. It seemed like a big responsibility to create this whole virtual world. The change made it go from a topical silly strip to a more character-based drama.

Keehnen: It's very compelling and the characters are great. I find myself being possessive of them in the same way I am with Maupin's Tales of the City inhabitants. Even though you said it's sort of a virtual world, are these great dykes based on real people?

Bechdel: Completely fictional. If anything, they're sort of different sub-personalities of myself . . . all my various personas.

Keehnen: What character is most like you?

Bechdel: I guess Mo, though I think I've grown a little.

Keehnen: Is there some trick to making two-dimensional characters come to life?

Bechdel: I think of them all like I think of real people. I analyze their psyches and motivations the same way I do with my friends.

Keehnen: Political incidents are often chronicled in your strip--the Hill-Thomas hearings, the Gulf War. What role do you think humor has when confronting such grave issues?

Bechdel: It's difficult for me to discuss these things in the context of a comic strip. I'm always struggling with having a message about what's happening without being leaden and ponderous. I think of the strip as part entertainment and part chronicle. It's important for me to get in what our responses were as a community to events.

Keehnen: Do you think of it then as a sort of time capsule?

Bechdel: Yeah, I do. I feel like one of my goals is to keep a graphic chronicle of my generation in terms of the everyday details of our lives. That's the kind of history that fascinates me and that I think is crucial to preserve.

Keehnen: A couple of times your characters have stepped back from the ongoing strip and conducted a sort of forum on their plight as powerless creations beneath your pen. Do they exist independently in your mind?

Bechdel: Absolutely, I feel like I channel the strip. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I feel like they are out there living their lives and evolving in their community, and my job is to tune in every couple weeks and see what they're up to.

Keehnen: Do you receive a lot of letters with suggestions?

Bechdel: Yes. I've been getting a lot lately from women who want to see more Jewish characters and issues covered. Many people have a personal or local issue they want me to cover, like this boycott or that strike at a university; and I can't really do all that. I have to stay true to the story and the characters while remaining open to suggestions. My favorite letters are those with psychological insights into the characters.

Keehnen: How long does the average strip take to complete, and what are the steps in your creative process?

Bechdel: Probably four long 10- to 12-hour work days. I do them in binges. It's a written process first. I write a script before I do any art. Writing is the hardest part for me.

Keehnen: Have there been any offers or attempts to stage your work?

Bechdel: Several offers. It's not something I'm really interested in doing because I wouldn't trust anyone else to write something, and I don't have the time or interest or skills to write a dramatic script.

Keehnen: What have been your biggest cartooning influences?

Bechdel: Mad Magazine and Tin Tin.

Keehnen: If the New York Times offered to run your cartoon if you would tone it down a little, would you accept it as a visibility coup or turn it down as a compromise?

Bechdel: It's strange because I've actually had to deal with that. Universal Press Syndicate contacted me this past summer to see if I wanted to develop a gay strip for the mainstream dailies. They didn't want Dykes to Watch Out For. They said they wanted something less political . . . and I sort of know what that means. I thought about it a couple of days and decided it wasn't what I wanted to do. I'm very happy doing what I'm doing. I think it's time for a mainstream daily with gay characters, but it's not on my agenda.

Keehnen: Currently your strip runs in over 40 alternative papers in the U. S. and Canada. Have you ever had any problems with "questionable" content?

Bechdel: Oh yes. The Washington Blade in fact recently refused to print a strip of mine.

Keehnen: Why?

Bechdel: It was either the image of Mo masturbating or the image of Clarice and Toni engaged in oral sex, though you couldn't really see anyone's genitalia. I don't mind when papers make those decisions at all. It frees me more to do what I need to do.

Keehnen: What can we look forward to from the gang in the future?

Bechdel: Mo is going to start dating again. That's my main plot right now. Plus now I have this baby that has to start growing up.

Keehnen: I figured gay parenting would become a prominent theme after Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For.

Bechdel: I got myself into that one.

Keehnen: Since creativity is a form of expression, what statement do you want your cartoon to make?

Bechdel: The bottom line of my agenda is to reclaim the representation of women and show them as whole people. You never see whole women who aren't part of some man's story or some projected fantasy. It's really important to me to show women being real human beings in ways we never ever are allowed to be shown as being.

Keehnen: Thanks, Alison, and all the best to you in the future.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Bechdel, Alison

Comic Strips and Cartoons

DiMassa, Diane

Maupin, Armistead



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