Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

Here's an example of a book that never felt at all tedious, although the lead character certainly did. Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For ran weekly or twice-monthly for the better part of twenty-five years before she put it on hiatus in 2008. As I only saw it once in a while, I never got to know the cast and their ins-and-outs. This impressive hardcover collection compiles about three-quarters of the strip. Aggravatingly, if you're a completist like me, the omissions will drive you mad. Since the strips are numbered, I could confirm what the sometimes patchy and hopscotching flow of the episodes made me feel, that there are occasional gaps of three or four episodes. That's the horrible downside to collections like this; no matter how entertaining the work is, incomplete reprints bother me enormously.

The story is about a community of lesbian friends in an upper midwest university town, and their interactions and relationships in the wake of topical news stories from the period. I found their friction with the Clinton-Bush years fairly similar to Doonesbury's in the 1970s. Actually, I wonder whether readers down the line will find this as enlightening an experience as I did when I discovered Trudeau and realized that the politics of the day made a lot more sense flitered through him.

Most of Bechdel's cast are completely charming. I got a hoot out of Lois, the bed-hopping merry prankster of the gang, but was most focused on Clarice and Toni and their long-term relationship and issues raising a son together. Seeing how depression over Dubya's time in office impacts their marriage is alternately sweet and painful. My favorite character of all is Jezanna, who runs the local indie bookstore and faces increasingly nasty competition from the huge chain bookstores that move into town, and from a slightly-veiled version of I actually feel a little wrong-headed offering a link to Amazon in the image above for a book like this, but I know that many of my site's readers no longer have a small indie bookstore in their towns. For what it's worth, I picked up this copy from A Capella Books here in Atlanta's Little 5 Points, and hope that if you can support a local bookstore with your purchase, you'll please do so.

The only thing I did not enjoy about the strip itself was the lead character in the cast. Mo, who looks like an odd cross between Where's Waldo and k.d. lang, rubbed both me and occasionally several of her friends the wrong way for most of the book, but I was still saddened when her relationship with Harriet ended. She eventually hooks up with a unbearably smug professor named Sydney who, from my perspective, treats her like dirt. Watching Mo's character arc go from strident activism to submissive acceptance that Sydney's never going to treat her with respect, really is painful. It's actually masterful writing on Bechdel's part, giving us a character whom we can read as suffering from such critically low self-esteem that she can't let go of the thing that's hurting her the most, but never using the other characters to drive this point home through individual judgments of Mo's actions. Put another way, I really don't like Mo as a person, and were she real, I'd chew her head off, but the writing is so good that I found her story captivating.

Like Doonesbury, the cast swells with new additions and formerly central characters leave the spotlight. Towards the end, our now middle-aged heroines are left completely bewildered by a College Republican who, despite her virginity pledge, is convinced that she's gay. As the established Toni and Clarice's problems get worse and Lois starts fading into the woodwork, the new character comes in like a bright bomb to detonate some needed levity to the storylines. I was left wondering what would happen in so many dangling plotlines, but Bechdel didn't really tie any of them up before concluding the strip. So no, whether you're hoping that Sydney will finally change and give Mo the love she deserves or you're hoping that Mo will kick the jerk to the gutter, you won't find the resolution that you want in any of the six or so character arcs. But I suppose that's fair; life doesn't give you happy endings in the way that we wish for stories to. I do recommend the book for older readers despite my reservations about the many omitted strips, and I'm not sure what I'd like more: for Dykes to return from hiatus or for a two-volume complete edition with the whole story so far.

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