Dykes to Watch Our For chronicles the lives of a group of lesbians living in an unnamed all-American college town. The strip is fun and fresh, combining witty political banter, insightful cultural commentary and juicy relationship drama into an utterly delightful read. I was first introduced to Dykes in a women’s studies course in college and found it quite productive for initiating discussions about gender equality, sexual relationships and American society’s treatment of all things “other.” Perhaps equally important, it was a blast to read, and I was soon introducing it to my unenlightened friends. How could anyone not fall for Mo, Lois, Sydney, Sparrow, Ginger and Clarice as they joke and tease one another over tofu tartar at Café Topaz, march on Washington for LGBT rights and sell feminist lit, lesbian erotica and Venus of Willendorf coffee mugs as employees of Madwimmin Books? A compilation of the strip’s best and brightest episodes from across the years, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008), is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Press for those interested in re-hashing these decades of fun or others wanting to catch up.
Fun Home, though penned by the same hand, is much different project. In this autobiography of sorts, Alison introduces readers to her childhood growing up around the funeral home that her family ran in their small Pennsylvania town and the simultaneously discovery of her passion for drawing and love of women. She recounts how coming out in college provoked the revealing of her father’s own homosexuality, and the narrative traces the intersections of their comparable and yet very different struggles in facing their sexualities. The complexity of her storytelling, which intricately balances words and images as they play off each other in nuanced ways, is remarkable. The years of work that went into designing, writing and drawing these pages are palpable and the sincerity of the story, in my opinion, unparalleled.
Named the Dedmon Writer-in-Residence of 2010 by the Committee on Creative Writing at the University of Chicago, Alison was in Chicago last week in order to give a lecture in Hyde Park, in which she spoke extensively about her creative process. Having learned about her visit ahead of time, I emailed Alison and was able to meet with her the day before her talk. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which touched on both of the projects named above as well as her upcoming book (working title: Love Life: A Case Study), the creativity that autobiography allows, how she came to stop using color, her take on academia and its recent attention to her work and much more. It has been only minimally edited for the sake of brevity. Enjoy!
RS: For me, your work really embodies the feminist mantra “the personal is political…”
AB: Yeah! Right On!
RS: …and I have heard you refer to “the personal is political” as “your middle name.” I was wondering if you could talk about your politics and how you became politically aware and active and how this melded with your creative process.
AB: That’s a nice light little question to start off with (laughs)…I didn’t really have a politically consciousness until I came out as a lesbian when I was nineteen. You know, I was just like this oblivious middle-class white kid and never had to deal with difference of any kind until I had to face my own. This was in 1979/1980, and it was a very politicized moment in gay and lesbian culture. Everyone was really analyzing the roots of homophobia and connecting it to every other possible kind of oppression, and it all just made beautiful theoretical sense to me. I liked it a lot. And, it’s funny talking about this now that I’m so old and jaded. Yeah, I wasn’t one of those people who was a feminist first. I mean, I was sort of always instinctually a feminist, but I wasn’t an activist in any way. And I still don’t think of myself as an activist, but I guess in a way my work has been a kind of…well, it’s partisan. It definitely comes from a particular political viewpoint.
RS: A lot of your characters in Dykes to Watch Out For debate about what it means to be politically active—if it can just occur at the level of lifestyle choices and being open or whether one regularly goes to marches, such as those on D.C. in the book…How much do these characters reflect real people or the ways in which you were involved in a movement or group?
AB: Well, yeah. I was very engaged with the general conversation that was going on about all these things—about what constituted activism, what our responsibilities were, what it means to live in this country…People talked about it. I know young people are still political, still activist in probably a different way than my generation was, but I do feel like it was all much more on the surface. We were just figuring this stuff out, stuff that you guys grew up knowing (laughs).
RS: Yeah, no definitely (laughs).
AB: So, it was exciting and explicit conversation that everyone was having. I wasn’t so much trying to reflect that in my comic strip, but it just interested me, so it was naturally what I wrote about.
RS: Stepping back, how did you become interested in comic strips and graphic novels? I know you were writing and drawing from a young age. When did it materialize in that form?
AB: Well, I always did that. I always did it as long as I can remember. Like all children draw, but I never stopped. For a long time I just thought, “this is something I’m good at; I like to draw; I can do it,” but I’m revising my theory recently. I think the reason I became a cartoonist is much more complicated and personal (laughs). I used to “my parents were really great! They both really encouraged me to draw and do my creative thing,” and they did. They were very supportive in some ways, but in other ways my parents were both these sort of tortured, creative geniuses, who didn’t really get to do their creative work. They would find ways to do it on the side, but they both had jobs—they both taught high school—but they had these wide-ranging interests. My mother was an actress and a pianist, and they both read lots of stuff. My dad did all this design and antiques and restoration work. And so my new theory is that I became a cartoonist because it was the only little creative swath that neither of them had claimed, and that they wouldn’t scrutinize or judge, because I felt a lot of judgment coming from both my parents.
RS: I remember a part in Fun Home, where you’re coloring in a coloring book and the caravan is supposed to be a specific color [and your dad took the crayon out of your hand and attempted to “fix” it]…
AB: That was a very traumatic moment!
RS: Is that why you don’t use color any more?
AB: Yeah! My dad was like a color maniac, so I just decided, I don’t need color! I’ll just live in a black and white universe! Yeah, cartooning was a way to just dispense with color.
RS: I imagine in regards to comic strips and graphic novels, you must get some readers or fans who are coming to it because they’re familiar with and accustomed to the form, but then they are also a whole bunch of us, including myself, who found out about from feminist friends or gender studies courses and are interested primarily in the content and this is our introduction to graphic novels.
AB: That’s so funny!
RS: Does that bother you?
AB: No, I mean it’s a bit of a new thing. Originally, people didn’t talk about graphic novels when I was getting started (laughs). It was like, okay, these are cartoons, we know what those are. And it was mostly this movement audience that was following them, so they were coming for the content and the form was just incidental. But now people will come up to me and say “oh, Fun Home was the first graphic novel or comic of any kind that I ever read,” and that’s really cool! I love that! But it’s funny to me that people don’t read comics. Doesn’t everyone read comics?
RS: So, Dykes to Watch Out For…you’ve been writing the strip since 1983? Is that correct?
RS: And you stopped or paused in 2008? Could you tell me more? Is it over?
AB: Well, it felt kind of disturbing to hear you say that. I’ve really kind of avoided saying definitively that it’s over. I don’t know. I just…
RS: I remember last fall when I heard you speak at the School at the Art Institute, you were talking about needing to pause, maybe just recently, because of the political climate—the election between Clinton and Obama. Did having to grapple with those sorts of issues have a part in it or was it just the narrative [of the strip] itself?
AB: I remember being kind of relieved that I had quit before the presidential race really heated up, because there were so many issues that really needed to be examined closely. It was this whole complex…race and sex and everything. I just didn’t have the brain cells to figure that out in the way that I would have liked to in the comic strip and do the other work that I was doing for this memoir. But that wasn’t why I quit. I made that decision earlier just because I couldn’t do it. I had a lot of time pressure to churn out another book, which I’m very behind schedule on even having set the comic strip aside. But I guess my interest just shifted. I feel bad. I just left the strip off in midair. I didn’t resolve anything, and I do intend to at least tie things up. I hope to have the time and energy to do some kind of little novella…just some little finale like the Brady Bunch Christmas Special (laughs)….But I don’t know…I feel bad, Roxanne.
RS: I didn’t mean to make you feel bad! There’s so much for me, for many of us who are just discovering your work in these last few years to go back to and read and re-read. They warrant many readings anyways.
AB: I just kind of lost my mojo…Maybe I’ll get my mojo back!
RS: Do you ever think about what your characters would have say when you say listen to the news? I guess, I’m mainly thinking about Obama’s recent move to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I don’t know, do you ever wonder what Mo would be saying? What’s your relationship like to the characters?
AB: Honestly, I know this is a disappointing answer, but I don’t really think about them that much.
RS: Oh, really?
AB: Yeah (laughs)! Even when I was in the middle of doing the comic strip, I didn’t really think about them except when I was writing and would use them as different arguments and points of view on an issue….You know, I think a lot of my mission in the comic strip was…I was interested in talking about politics, but my main goal was just to show that lesbians are like regular people. And I stopped feeling the need to do that. I feel like that at a certain point that had become established in the culture. I mean that was also at a point in which my cast of characters expanded. Stuart, the straight man, came in, and all this stuff. I don’t know. I don’t really understand how I could have stopped it all so abruptly and why I am not really thinking about it except that I’ve been very caught up in trying to do another autobiographical adventure, and I find it very all-consuming. I don’t mean this in a self-disparaging way, but I kind of got tired of the constraints of the comic strip. It’s a very, very rigid form. It’s a set physical space. It’s a set interval. I have only so much room to make a small argument or show a small drama. You can do a lot of things in a serial comic strip. There’s a lot of potential there. But in a way, I kind of feel like I wasn’t able to do the creative stuff that excites me, so I’m trying just to follow what my excitement is about, and it’s for bigger stories that can’t be contained in single episodes.
RS: Yeah, you definitely gained flexibility with Fun Home. It’s a totally different project. The lack of linearity…I mean, something is propelling the story forward, but you are continually jumping back and forth through time.
AB: Yeah! I love trying to find that propulsion—what is that thread through which the events of life [can be connected]. I love trying to find that and put it down. And with the comic strip, I would always know what I would be doing ahead of time. There was not a lot of surprise. I would know what was going to happen, what the issues were, and it was fine. This [Fun Home] is more adventurous. Autobiography is more adventurous in an odd way. It seems almost counterintuitive—you know what happens in you life, but for me its more exciting than writing a fictional world.
RS: I’m always amazed by all the memories you are able to come up with. Maybe some of us just tend to block out more of our childhood. Are you continually re-remembering? Is it because you kept so many journals? Or are you just really smart (laughs)?
AB: No (laughs)! I did keep a lot of journals. I’m very sort of bogged down and confused in the current memoir that I’m working on just because I have so much material. I’ve got letters—I used to make copies of my correspondence, so I have letters I’ve sent to people. I have my diaries. I have datebooks, which were separate from my diaries, in which I would write down everything I did every day. I have letters other people sent me (laughs). I have files and files of just ephemera—ticket stubs, fliers and shit that I collected. I have photographs. And, as I’ve gone through life, this just keeps multiplying and replicating. My journal will refer back to earlier journal entries, and it just gets incredibly self-referential and confusing! And I guess that’s in part what I am writing about—why do I have this strange compulsion to keep it, to hang on to life, to somehow keep track of the flow of life? Why can’t I just let it flow? I haven’t answered that question yet, but I’m working on it.
RS: This next project is about relationships, right?
AB: Oh, god! I wish I knew what it is about! The working title is Love Life: A Case Study. And it was…(laughs)…I’m kind of reorganizing the whole book right now, so it’s confusing to talk about. It really is a memoir about my relationship with my mother. It’s kind of a companion book to Fun Home. My dad was dead, so it was pretty easy to write a book about him, because what would he know, what would he care? But it’s really hard to write about my mom, knowing that she’s going to see it. It has been an incredibly challenging thing to grapple with. I was avoiding that for a couple years. I have been working on this project for several years, and I finally realized the great lengths I’ve gone to in order to avoid talking about my mother and that I need to just jump in and do that.
RS: Is she fine with that?
AB: I would not say she’s fine. She’s remarkably understanding, but it doesn’t make her happy.
RS: [In Fun Home], at the moment she decided to share with you about your father and his life, first on the phone and then in person, you say it was the first time she spoke to you as an adult. Has creating this book and talking about your dad’s life opened up a dialogue or developed your relationship [with your mom] at all? Or has it just been difficult?
AB: I think it’s difficult to say. I think it has, but not in the way I sort of fantasized that it would. We all imagine these warm reunions with our distant parents and that hasn’t exactly happened. It certainly is a way of connecting with her just not the neat, tidy one that I imagined. But I keep pushing at her, I keep saying, “look Mom, I’m writing this book…it’s going to have some stuff about you in it,” and she doesn’t really want to see it or be involved. I think the less she knows about it, the less implicated she feels. She can just say, “that’s my crazy daughter writing whatever comes into her head,” but that’s okay.
RS: And your brothers?
AB: I would not recommend writing a family memoir if you want to get closer to your family members (laughs).
RS: Yeah (laughs).
AB: One brother is fine with it. One brother has a hard life and it’s frustrating for him that I get to do the thing that I love.
RS: But it took years, right? At least to have this creative freedom to work on these projects?
AB: Yes! Yes. Thank you. It did.
RS: Perhaps my favorite part in Fun Home is the section in which you start keeping a journal and eventually start inserting ‘I think’s into your writing. You have this epistemological crisis, where you are not sure, you become uncertain in your own truth. But what I think this work embodies is the fact that you’ve grappled with this and told your story in a beautiful, amazing way…There’s a certainty to it…I forget what my actually question is…
AB: Well, it’s funny that you say that, because with the “mom book” that I’m working on now…I know that writing Fun Home was an achievement. It was overcoming that self-doubt that wrote “I think” after everything, but I’m still doing that! I’m still struggling. I guess, the mother-aspect of the critic inside my head…with Fun Home it was the father aspect…They were both so, I don’t know…Criticism was the atmosphere that we lived in, and not necessarily negative criticism, just observant criticism.
RS: But they both seemed to have a hard time with it as well—your father needing to change his tie if someone made a comment or your mother not wanting to know when you were coming to her play performances [both scenes in Fun Home].
AB: Yeah, good point!
RS: I mean, even if she’s there in your head or your conversations, is she able to relate to your stress over the project? Or because it’s so personal…
AB: No, I think she does kind of relate. Oh, god (laughs)!
RS: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a psychoanalysis session with Alison Bechdel!
AB: Well, I’m sort of psychoanalyzing myself in this book, which is why it’s taking me so long—the book about my mother.
RS: You said you’re rearranging it now? Could you talk about your creative process? When do you work with the words? When with the pictures? When do you put them together? Do you have whole panels that you are rearranging, whole completed sections that are now being reshuffled?
AB: There’s going to be some major shuffling. I write in a drawing program, Adobe Illustrator, so it’s not like I’m freehand writing down and sketching pictures. I think about the writing process as a kind of drawing, though. I’m moving things around on the page. I’m thinking visually. Sometimes I’ll plop in an image from the web or something I’ve sketched or scanned, but I’m not actually holding a pencil in my hand. It’s mostly typing words on the keyboard and moving them around the little boxes on the page, because for me drawing is such intense work that I don’t want to have to redo it. If I draw a whole scene and it turns out I need to delete this panel, everything has to be redrawn.
RS: So you tend to work first with words?
AB: I guess I do. I always balk at saying it that baldly, because it isn’t just words in a word processing document. It’s words in a two-dimensional field, words as a drawing element, as a design element. But, yeah, it is primarily the words for me. I mean, sometimes I’ll get stuck with the writing and I’ll think, “what’s the next image?” and that will pull me through. But more often my process is lead by the text.
RS: I would like to ask you about academia. Obviously a few of your characters in Dykes are professors, your parents were both teachers, you give talks at schools and much of your use of language seems to come from an intellectual environment, but there’s also a humor to it. You poke fun at academics in your work too, perhaps most noticeably in the titles of the books the characters are reading, the dissertations they’re working on, etc.
AB: I feel like if I had had my shit together more when I was in college, I probably would have become an academic. If I wasn’t so insecure and if I hadn’t been so afraid of speaking my own perspective. Both of my parents could have been college professors, but they were teaching high school, because for various reasons they couldn’t push through to work at a more intense level, the demands that that would make. I feel like we’re all—my parents and me—college professors manqué. So I guess I live out the fantasy, what life might be like as a professor. I love campuses. I love the idea of academia—a community dedicated to knowledge in this little cloistered world. I love that. I just want to be in that, but I’m not. In many ways, I’m glad. I could never sit on committees. I’m not that kind of person, so it’s probably just as well that things worked out the way they did.
RS: And how do you feel about your work being taught in the classroom?
AB: Well, I’m delighted of course. It’s kind of funny. If I had sat down with both hands to write a book that would be taught in college classes, it probably would be Fun Home. It works for gay and lesbian curriculum. It brings in all of these English class classics. But that wasn’t my intention. I don’t know. We will see if it persists. It might just be a blip, but it’s kind of cool right now.
RS: Yeah, I think it’s great. It’s fun to read alongside other writing. In my case, I first read Dykes in a women’s studies course, so we were reading a lot of feminist theory. To bring this pleasurable material in…
AB: Yeah, I know reading other kinds of stuff is pleasurable too, reading really dense ideas and stories is its own pleasure, but I do feel like…I don’t have the greatest attention span in the world. I want to make something that is easy to read. I want to get as much information and experience into a package that is as accessible to read as I can. I guess that’s what is changing with Dykes to Watch Out For…for a comic strip there’s a lot substance to it, there’s a lot issues and nuanced stuff going on with the characters, but it’s still a comic strip. It’s still coarse, and I want to work at a slightly finer level of getting more information, more ideas, more complicated ideas into a package that is still accessible, easier to read than not to read.
RS: I just want to check….How long has it been? Are we almost out of time?
AB: Oh, yeah, we should probably wrap up.
RS: Okay, lastly, this interview is for a blog, and I know that you have your own very well maintained website with a blog component. Can you tell us what you do there, what we can find, what sort of work or insights to your work is provided in that space?
AB: I’ve actually been feeling kind of conflicted about the blog, because…I mean, I like it. I like having a place for readers to get together. I love the community that readers have formed there. But I am not making posts very frequently. I was when I first started. I might just have blog fatigue like everyone gets, but also I feel like it was kind of sapping my autobiographical juices, which I need to put in this other project. Blogging is wonderful, but it’s a certain kind of writing. It’s not seasoned. You haven’t sat with something and refined it over and over. It just comes out, and then it’s gone (laughs). So I’m not doing so much blogging lately, just kind of doing a minimal amount of posts to keep a connection going.
RS: Could it perhaps become another way that you keep track of your life?
AB: Totally! It totally is! It has become like an appendix to my journal. I’ll think, “what was that idea I had?” and I have to go search my blog for it. So that’s kind of funny, but also, who wants their journal up, out in the ether?
RS: Well, if anyone would be comfortable with it, I think it could be you (laughs)!
AB: Ha! Well, that’s a good ending note, Roxanne (laughs).
RS: Well, thanks so much for meeting with me!
AB: Yeah, thank you.
RS: It’s been a pleasure.
AB: It has.
After her talk last Wednesday, Alison made my wrist an official work of art, drawing herself as my watch asking “what time is it?” This may have caused me to be more than a little ecstatic for a good few days….
More information can about Alison and her work, including her blog, can be found at her website, http://www.dykestowatchoutfor.com, and a great video about her creative process in creating Fun Home is available on Youtube.