I am stepping all over BOOK_REVIEWER's bailiwick by writing my own unauthorized book review today, but I have a feeling she might forgive me on this one as it totes warrants everyone hearing about it!
I'm referring to the inimitable The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The book compiles twenty years of the infamous comic strip into a hefty tome of all things lez with sumptuous results.
We get the chance to watch Bechdel's art evolve from squiggly 1980s butches into her vividly recognizable contemporary panoply of loveable characters lovingly rendered. Her heroines slog through every major political event from Reagan's departure to the Iraq occupation, and throughout I suspect we hear Bechdel's ultraliterate voice in her characters' passionate criticisms of their era's injustices. Dissections of other concepts that are topical yet timeless (such as marriage equality and lesbian parenting) pop up somewhat presciently in her earliest comics and span the whole book.
Bechdel self-consciously struggles with the task of highlighting all that is special, different, and radical about lesbians while simultaneously depicting them in the most mundane of everyday situations; in an effort to pin down the dyke "essence" she cannot help but admit that humanizing a counterculture invariably involves comparing that which is unique to that which is universal--effectively destroying the "us" versus "them" activist component of drawing a comic with the word "Dykes" in the title. Her later comics face further complication of themes as she introduces her first transgender characters who steamroll over all "common wisdom" notions of gender--welcome additions to Bechdel's work that showcase her maturity as an author.
The one element of her oeuvre that keeps me puzzled is the extremely high volume of infidelity among her characters. Every couple of strips features forbidden lust, causing me to wonder if this is another comment of Bechdel's on lesbian culture at large, or if the yearnings and trysts of the Dykes to Watch Out For are purely plot-driven. (I guess I may never know.)
Much of the book's activity takes place in a bookstore, so be prepared for SAT vocabulary and hidden references to Shakespeare; I would venture to say that your average dyke is (SADLY) far less literate than Bechdel and her two-dimensional progeny would lead an uninitiated breeder to believe. Even if you are not up-to-speed on your postfeminist dialectics you will--not might, but will--unceasingly enjoy this witty and thought-provoking compilation. Get a copy today and watch all your friends beg to borrow it (but make them get their own copy; let's all support kick-ass lesbian authors!).
Bechdel, Alison. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.