All of these people comprise Bechdel's politically over-active, vegan alternative, Queer cultural, Mo-Centric Universe. To get the low down on what's happening with these wild and crazy dykes you should look for the pink triangle on a Queer Friendly bookstore near you (not Bunns & Noodle) and pick up one or all of the six Dykes to Watch Out For books. Most Gay & Lesbian newspapers carry her latest episode so don't miss it, because Soap Opera Digest won't fill you in.
Goblin Magazine: Why do so many lesbians own bookstores? We've noticed many who do in real life, your strip, and even Ellen DeGeneres's sitcom.
Alison Bechdel: Huh. I never really made that connection. And then there's Sylvia Beach, the original lesbian bookstore owner, who started Shakespeare and Company in Paris in the twenties or whenever. I dunno, feminist bookstores have their own little subculture, and often function as community centers for lesbians, which is why my strip focuses on a bookstore.
Goblin: Could you give us a summary of what's happened in your strip in the past year?
Bechdel: The most interesting thing to me is the bad character I've introduced -- Sydney, the evil women's studies professor. I was getting tired of writing about such paragons of virtue all the time. Sydney's really insufferable, but I love her because she brings a whole new level to the strip. I was getting the feeling that people might be taking my cartoons too seriously. When I got a one-paragraph review in the Lambda Book Report which managed to use the phrase "politically correct" three times, I knew I had to do something. So I'm kind of using Sydney and her over-it-all postmodern attitude to reframe the strip, to take a little wider and more ironic perspective on things. And Mo, my main character, has this combination feud/flirtation going with her, which is kind of fun. Goblin: The strip has a real soap opera quality.
Bechdel: I think of the strip as a soap opera. That's how I keep it going. With cliff hangers and things.
Goblin: Do you have to chart the plot or do you improvise it?
Bechdel: I have a meticulous, complicated chart that's constantly under construction. I think it's actually similar to the system real soap opera writers use. It's a big grid with the characters running down the left hand column and the episode numbers running across the top. Now I have it on my computer, and I can keep track of what's already happened in one color, and what I think is going to happen in another color.
Goblin: In your strip some characters just adopted a baby. Is that a major trend among lesbians in real life?
Bechdel: Well, lesbians having babies is a major trend. And because the birth mother is the only one legally recognized as a parent, the non-biological parent has to go through an official adoption process in order to have a legal relationship to the kid. So lots of women are pursuing these second parent adoptions. Until recently they were pretty routinely denied, but now more and more of them are successful. I'm not particularly into the marriage and kids scene personally, but I think the legal issues they bring up are really important. So I use the lesbian family in my strip to discuss that stuff. Clarice, the non-biological mom in the strip, is torn between wanting legal status in regard to her son, and hating to involve the state in her life in this intimate way.
Goblin: Are you making a living from your strip?
Bechdel: Yeah, fancy that. For six years now. But I'm a pretty big scammer. I sell t-shirts with my characters on them and I do a calendar every year and I schlep around the country doing a slideshow and my books get published regularly. It was after I had a couple books published that the royalties added up to enough to supplement my syndication income without a second job. All together, my six books and my calendars have sold about 150,000 copies. That might sound impressive, but it's been over a period of ten years. I have an incredibly loyal bunch of fans, and it's thanks to them that I've been able to keep doing this.
Goblin: Do you think there's any chance you might be nationally syndicated some day?
Bechdel: Not in my lifetime. Actually, I got a call from Universal Press Syndicate a couple of years ago. They were thinking of developing a gay and lesbian strip for the daily papers and wanted to see if I wanted to submit some ideas. That was my chance at mainstreamdom but I didn't take them up on it, because there just seem to be too many limitations in doing something for that broad of an audience.
Goblin: But it seems that Lesbian is the flavor of the month on TV. Ellen's about to come out, and Roseanne's mother just came out as a lesbian.
Bechdel: Oh, god. That whole TV scene just bugs me so much. I don't want to be yet another commodity on network TV. I like being a pervert in the twilight.
Goblin: Your strips are always involving current political events; are you kind of the lesbian Doonesbury?
Bechdel: That's such a complicated question. The whole phrase "politically correct" sends me into paroxysms. It's been twisted around so many times I don't even know what it means. It used to be a joke and I think it was a useful joke, you know pointing out just what you said, how . . . oh, I don't know, my characters are politically correct. What can I say.
It's hard for me to think clearly about this because I think the principles behind "political correctness" are very worthy. To be kind to people -- that's the basic concept. You know? Get over it.
Goblin: What has been your worst personal experience with discrimination?
Bechdel: I personally have not experienced a lot of overt homophobia in my life. That's mostly because I live a very segregated, subcultural kind of life. I really do live like the characters in my strips -- so I don't have a lot of contact with people who are homophobic. And I've gotten a surprisingly small amount of flack for my work because I don't think that many people who wouldn't like it ever see it. People who hate me never pick up Gay papers. Also, cartoons are harmless in a way, which is their true subversiveness.
But now that you mention it, I've been getting more hate mail lately. E-mail, actually. Now that I'm on the internet, more yahoos have access to the strip. I've probably gotten more hate mail in the last couple of months than in the whole rest of my career. Goblin: Who are your favorite cartoonists now?
Bechdel: I like everybody. Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, Charles Burns, R. Crumb, Nicole Hollander, all my queer colleagues like Howard Cruse and Eric Orner and Jennifer Camper and Diane DiMassa. I love the snideness in Eric's strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Life Of Ethan Green. He gets to be bitchy in a way I can't because lesbians are...uh...more sensitive than gay men. I like Tom Tomorrow, Roz Chast, Bill Griffith, Harvey Pekar, Ellen Forney. I don't read any superhero stuff. I like anthology comic books like Drawn and Quarterly. And I read all the newspaper strips obsessively. For Better or For Worse, Blondie, Fox Trot. I miss Calvin and Hobbes very much. And I'm a big Mark Trailhead.
Bechdel: I hate Cathy, but I read every word nevertheless. I have a cartoon-reading compulsion.
Goblin: Do you know a lot of gay men or are you just in a lesbian world?
Bechdel: I don't know a lot of gay men. It's a sad thing.
Goblin: It's strange, you'd think Gays and Lesbians would be a minority that would be able to relate to each other pretty deeply and it doesn't seem to work that way.
Bechdel: For some people it does. For various reasons in my life I just haven't had a lot of men around.
Goblin: There was an episode in Dykes To Watch Out For where it was awkward to have a male to female transsexual at an "All Women" poetry reading. Is it really that awkward in real life? Do you see transsexuals as men in sheeps clothing? Bechdel: You know, I used to. But this whole transgender movement has really shaken up some of my previous conceptions. I'm not exactly the most informed person on this topic --I've gotten most of what I know from reading. One of the key concepts that you have to let go of in order to understand transgender is that orientation and gender are not connected in any way. You can be a biological female who thinks of herself as a male and is attracted to men, you know? Any combo is possible.
I find queer culture increasingly difficult to keep up with. It's always something. You think you have a handle on things, then something more outrageous than you could ever dream of starts becoming an everyday occurrence. The female to male transsexual thing is really fascinating, and I need to discuss it in the strip.
I have so many issues to keep track of. In the poetry reading scene you mentioned, I introduced a character who's a male to female transsexual lesbian. But that was like, three or four years ago already, and I haven't managed to work her back into the story. Goblin: You must be pretty sheltered in Vermont.
Bechdel: I am pretty sheltered. I make it out to the big city once or twice a year and then I madly try to absorb as much culture as I can. For the most part I live in the woods and get my culture secondhand from reading about it or talking to friends who live in the city.
Bechdel: Dennis the Menace is the worst one I can think of. A lot of comics are cleaning up their act a little. You know, once a year you might see Hi helping Lois with the laundry, and Blondie has a job now. And even the mother in Family Circus got her hair cut short. Is Mort Walker still doing Beetle Bailey? I think he had to 86 the Miss Buxley gags. But it's mostly a veneer, something these guys think they have to do to stay current.
Goblin: Do you think if there were more women cartoonists men would be portrayed as sexual stereotypes with big muscles and bulging crotches?
Bechdel: Well, if you've ever seen any cartoons by gay cartoonists like Jerry Mills or Donelan, that's what their men look like. The Tom of Finland physique. It's fascinating to me because gay men do to men the same thing that straight men do to women. But would women do that? I don't know. I've seen a little of it in women's underground comics, but it's mostly tongue in cheek, you know, to make a point. To make a huge generalization, men's sexuality seems to be more connected to visual stimulation than women's sexuality is. I don't think, in general, women get their buttons pushed by gigantic penises or breasts the way men do.
Anyway, to me the sexism in most comics isn't so much the physical stylization that happens. It's never giving women the punch line, never letting them have fully developed personalities the way male characters (and even animals) do.
Goblin: Is there a major mind set difference between generations of lesbians? Do lesbians in their forties think a lot differently than lesbians in their twenties?
Bechdel: I have a friend named Kris Kovick who used to be a cartoonist and she maintains that there's a new generation of lesbians every five years. So not only do lesbians in their forties think a lot differently than lesbians in their twenties...lesbians who are forty-five think a lot differently than lesbians who are forty. The biggest challenge of my job is keeping track of all this. I just introduced a teenage lesbian to my strip, she's this young girl who is an intern at the bookstore; so I'm having to learn a lot about youth culture. To me the most interesting thing about young queers is the tendency for kids to not want to pin themselves down with labels. Like a boy might have a boyfriend and a girl might have a girlfriend but they don't want to say they're gay of lesbian because it's, like, so eighties. It's an odd twist. In the old days you wouldn't say you were gay because someone would stomp you. But these days you don't say it because it's too limiting.
Goblin: Is there anything you'd like to tell people who are just being introduced to your work through this article?
Bechdel: The secret subversive goal of my work is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings. I want to create women who get to be "universal" the way, historically, men have gotten to be universal. Like Dagwood is just a regular person, but Blondie is a female person. Women are rarely represented as generic human beings. Almost every film, commercial, tv show, comic strip you look at, presumes a male audience and focuses on a male character. (Or if it's a deodorized panty liner ad or anything on the Lifetime channel, it presumes a female audience desperate to attract Mens attention, which is basically the same thing.)
My goal is to create women characters who are regular, generic people. I want men to read my strip and identify with Mo the same way women and people of color make a leap of identity to watch a Woody Allen movie or read Garfield, you know?
Goblin: Maybe you should make them lesbian cats (laughter). Is that why you haven't had any male characters in the past -- you just recently added one.
Bechdel: Yeah, that's exactly why. But I feel like it's not such a big deal anymore. I introduced this guy Carlos, who's a friend of Clarice and Toni's. He's been hanging out with Raffi, their 3 year old son. I haven't done much character development with him yet, though.
Goblin: Do you you feel attached to your characters like they're good friends now?
Bechdel: I don't talk to my characters or dream about them. It might sound kind of corny but it's kind of like they exist in this parallel world and I just kind of tune into them and find out what's going on each week. I don't really feel proprietary about them -- they just exist. My job is to listen to them as carefully as I can.
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