One To Watch Out For: Celebrating The Genius Of Alison Bechdel
Born September 10, 1960, Alison Bechdel is one of the most important cartoonists in the field. Her long running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For gave birth to the Bechdel-Wallace test for gender bias in film, and her award-winning graphic memoir Fun Home was adapted into a musical in 2013. Her focus on personal moments within her own life and the lives of others in the lesbian community brought feminist queer stories to the mainstream.
Bechdel grew up in Pennsylvania in a religious Catholic family. She attended Oberlin College, studying studio arts and art history. After college, Bechdel moved to New York City and applied to graduate art programs, but was ultimately rejected. She started working in publishing, while continuing to draw in her own time.
During this period she discovered Gay Comix, a queer underground comic series created by Howard Cruse. In Gay Comix, gay and lesbian cartoonists were telling their own stories, and Bechdel realized she could do this too.
Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel’s first comic strip, began as a single illustration published in Womanews: a drawing of a woman, labelled “Marianne, dissatisfied with the morning brew: Dykes to Watch Out For, plate no. 27.” Bechdel continued with the vignette format for a while before developing a more standard comic format, with a recurring cast of characters.
Dykes to Watch Out For focused on the lives of lesbians and other folks in an unnamed city in middle America. They went on dates, ranted about politics, discussed lesbian culture. It captured the lives of women, particularly queer women, in a realistic and nuanced way. It ran from 1983 to 2008, syndicated in many gay and lesbian papers and re-published in several collections.
It was in Dykes to Watch Out For that the Bechdel-Wallace Test was born. In one strip, two women are on their way to a movie theater, talking about their requirements for movies. One of the women says that she’ll only go see a movie if it has at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man. The test was devised by Bechdel's real life friend Liz Wallace, but popularized by this comic strip, and too many movies still fail the test to this day.
In an interview with the New Yorker Bechdel said about her work, “I didn’t think of myself as an activist or a lesbian separatist, though many of my friends were. I just felt the vital importance of seeing an accurate reflection of me and us in the cultural mirror, so I decided to create one.”
Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was published in 2006. Fun Home chronicles her childhood with her artistic and religious family, her coming out, and her relationship with her father, who she discovered, after his death, had several relationships with other men. The art incorporates family photos, entries from her childhood diary, and letters, often painstakingly copied into line art. It’s funny, dark, and deeply personal. Fun Home was widely praised, earning a Stonewall Book Award and an Eisner Award, and being named one of the best books of 2006 by the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Publishers Weekly.
Bechdel’s second memoir, Are You My Mother?, was released in 2012. Like Fun Home, it looks at her relationship with her family, focusing this time on her mother. Are You My Mother? plays with form and time, layering multiple strands of story over the top of each other: phone conversations, memories, therapy sessions, musings about Virginia Woolf.
In 2013, a musical adaptation of Fun Home debuted off-Broadway in New York City. Alison Bechdel’s character was played by three actors, representing her at different ages: childhood, youth (exploring her time at Oberlin, discovering her sexuality), and adulthood. This run was extended many times, and the production moved to Broadway in 2015, earning five Tony awards that year, including Best Musical.
Bechdel’s intensely personal work has changed our ideas of what both a graphic novel and a memoir can be. In 2014, she was recognized with a MacArthur “genius” grant. The MacArthur Foundation noted that the visual components of her work “do not always correspond to or illustrate the words; rather, they mutually interpret or often tug against each other, creating a space between them that invites a multiplicity of interpretations.”
Bechdel’s work reminds us that the personal is political, and everyone has a story (or two, or three) worth telling.