Alison Bechdel : Just an everyday story of lesbian folk at home...

What makes 'Dykes To Watch Out For' such a hit cartoon strip? Louise Gray talks to its creator Alison Bechdel
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If the following image strains the imagination, just remember that truth can be stranger than fiction: should the letters that Alison Bechdel receives be any accurate indicator of the reading preferences of the US military, at least one marine is tucking copies of her cartoon-strip into his rucksack. Well, during the Second World War, the marines did much the same with Superman. But now they're reading Dykes To Watch Out For.

Speaking from her home in rural Vermont, Bechdel admits that such a thought does engender a frisson of shock and awe, but then, one suspects, that she may get a kick out of this. Although the title of the long-running cartoon (it appears fortnightly in over 60 American newspapers, and in the UK in Diva, the lesbian monthly) for which she's famous might suggest that it appeals primarily to a gay readership, it's like saying you have to be a sailor - or a whale - to read Moby Dick.

But the sad fact remains: unless you're a lesbian or a US Marine (both would be a plus), it's unlikely that you have heard of Bechdel. In which case, you are missing out on one of the most subtle comedies of modern manners to come along in the last two decades. That they happen to be gay mores is neither here nor there. Bechdel's community of lesbians - headed by the angst-driven Mo, a clerk at Madwimmin Books until market forces (in the thinly disguised shape of medusa.com and Bounders) intervene - is more diverse than comedienne Jackie Clune would have us believe. Living in Erewhon, a place loosely based on Minneapolis where Bechdel once lived ("If I'd based it in San Francisco or New York, the focus may have got lost"), they are lawyers, lecturers, mums and, in Mo's case at least, underachievers.

"One of my goals is to document the experience of my generation," Bechdel says of the strip that started by chance: having graduated in liberal arts, she took to cartooning in the margins of her letters. When a friend suggested that she submit some ideas to a local paper, it seemed like a great way to avoid getting a proper job and simultaneously be a full-time lesbian. She now writes them in batches of two, once a month. "I have a hazy fantasy about lying on my deathbed when I'm 117" - this may not be such a fantastical exaggeration; her great-aunt lived to 110 - "and completing the last panel. Which is to say no, it's not finite."

With the strip now in its 20th year, Bechdel is celebrating with her new book, the 154-page Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms To Watch Out For. Don't be put off by the breathless title: it's a tilt at current manias (gay, and otherwise) to categorise the gamut of human identity and desire. And, in something of a first, Bechdel herself will be visiting York to take place in a lesbian books fair organised by Libertas!, a feminist bookshop, that in a case of life following art, is closing its premises to become an online service.

Bechdel has grown fond of her stable. "It's true," she says. "I may be writing from a very minor perspective, but these characters are as human as anyone else, and I really am insistent about letting them be universal.

"I was reading about August Wilson, the black playwright, who said he didn't attempt to translate the black experience for white people. He just wrote, and he's become a major playwright because of this. I cling to that particularly with my characters. The strip is about all kinds of things, not just gay and lesbian issues, although the world is seen through that lens. These events - births, deaths and everything in-between - happen to everyone."

This is, perhaps, a reflection of how comics have changed themselves. Now a more self-knowing genre, there was a certain inevitability about the emergence of cartoonists addressing themselves to subcultures. Yet while gay cartoons have a rich heritage - Kate Charlesworth, Grizelda Grizzlingham, and in the US, Bechdel's personal favourite, Howard Cruse - the nearest equivalents to DTWOF are to be found in Matt Groening's Simpsons, Posy Simmonds's Weber family sagas or, elsewhere, Armitsead Maupin's Tales From The City.

"Alison Bechdel is unique," says Jim McSweeney, of Gay's the Word, the London bookshop where every new volume from her is a cause for celebration. "Like the best soap operas, it's a story that you can grow up with, and it doesn't really matter at which stage you first catch it. She's got a great eye for detail. It is political, but she doesn't demonise any group."

Bechdel is also adept at treading very carefully through minefields of information. Violent antipathies seem to be a characteristic of all radical political groupings, and over the past 20 years, Bechdel's strips have negotiated, inter alia, lesbians who want nothing to do with men, lesbians who want to become men and lesbians who think having a boyfriend is fine and dandy.

Because cartoons, as Bechdel points out, are still perceived as relatively harmless productions, they contain an enormous subversive potential. Political cartoonists have capitalised on this with varying degrees of savagery. There's no such savagery in Bechdel's work, which isn't to say that her humour lacks the passion - her barbs against corporate America and, increasingly, her country's foreign policy are carefully sharpened.

But perhaps the most subversive aspect of Bechdel's art is that, her characters are the same as anyone else; Mo, Sydney, Lois and their gang are growing up and growing old. They're just an ordinary bunch of homos. Sapiens, that is.

'Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms To Watch Out For': (Alyson Books £9.99) is out now. 'Libertas! Lesbian Books Festival': York (01904 625522, www.libertas.co.uk), 29 Oct to 2 Nov

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