I read Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For in various alternative weeklies and online for about 15 years. I always found it enjoyable, sometimes very funny, sometimes a bit raunchy, always very political. Really my kind of thing. But I've just read The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a massive, nearly-400-page tome collecting nearly (see below) every single DTWOF strip from its 20+ year run that wound up in 2008, and I've come to realize just how flat-out brilliant the strip was, ranking with Bloom County and Doonesbury in blending incisive editorial with charm and humor.
Bechdel may be best known as the creator of the "Bechdel Test" ("Does a work of fiction feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?") and for her bestselling, groundbreaking graphic novel memoir Fun Home. It's not surprising; the former is the kind of snappy and clever critique of gender bias that is short and smart enough to spread far and wide; the latter is a kind of magnum opus, telling a story of great honesty, sorrow and joy between a single set of covers.
Alongside these, a single strip from the DTWOF canon may seem either too wordy to spread or too slight to rate. But when the entire run of the comic is taken in a single draught, you come to see that Bechdel isn't just the master of the one-liner, but also of the slow burn — the long-building, complex, nuanced storyline that surprises you with the laughter in the hopelessness and the sorrow in the joy, like the first time you try putting salt in your chocolate chip cookies and find the sweetness leaping to your tongue.
Revisiting the entire run in one go was like re-reading Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, another serialized story that combined queer soap-opera drama with scathing politics. And like Maupin (and Garry Trudeau), Bechdel is pretty damned good at both caricaturing her ideological enemies and also giving them their due (the strip on NATO bombing in Serbia is a masterpiece of political analysis in 11 panels; and the characters of an evangelical right-wing lesbian undergrad and a gung-ho Army mom who lost a son in Iraq are not merely political foils).
Bechdel's canon is also an important reminder of the change in radical politics over the past 25 years, and the relentless grinding away of the legitimacy of dissent and the creation of a kind of economic precarity that makes protest into a luxury for people who aren't crushed by student debt and the specter of poverty in retirement (there's a strip where a character has to convince a bank to give her a mortgage in spite of the fact that she defaulted on her student debt — like a relic from an era of unimaginably plentiful Slack).
Artistically, reading through a 20-year run is also a treat. Bechdel attended to and improved her craft year on year, her characters growing ever-more expressive, her lines growing surer. And the characters aged, really aged, so there was none of the sense of a timeless time you get from so many long-running comics.
Re-reading these was a balm for me after a busy and sometimes grueling year. It made me revisit the beliefs and experiences that formed me, and made me laugh so hard I cried, and sometimes made me cry a little for the traditional reasons.
It's prompted me to buy a copy of The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama, another massive tome of radical feminist political comics that started in 1981. I can't wait to settle down with it.
Update: Thanks to Ocherdraco in the comments for correcting me: "It does not contain the entirety of the strip; it contains selections from the 11 DTWOF collections. From Bechdel's description: 'It contains 390 of the extant 527 episodes. That's 74%.'"