Alison Bechdel’s renown has been building since the success of Fun Home (2006). While scholars have focused on her contemporary production, her comics work within grassroots periodicals, including her long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008), has received comparatively little attention. By focusing on the grassroots context of DTWOF, this essay demonstrates how Bechdel’s participation in grassroots periodicals shaped her work. Through the development of new reading practices and the notion of queer comics archives, I show how queer communities influenced Bechdel’s visual rhetoric in the pages of WomaNews, the grassroots periodical where Bechdel first published her work and participated as a member of the collective. Informed by archival research, this analysis embraces grassroots contexts as an overlooked venue for exploring queer histories and tracing the development of queer comics.
The project of feminist cinema, therefore, is not so much “to make visible the invisible,” as the saying goes, or to destroy vision altogether, as to construct another (object of) vision and the conditions of visibility for a different social subject.—Teresa de Lauretis, “Imaging” (1984)
Origin stories are central within comics to understanding a character’s trajectory through his or her roots and original context. And, yet, the beginnings of acclaimed artist Alison Bechdel’s work are vague in her retrospective accounts. The lack of access to Bechdel’s own origin story and those of her characters obscures how directly queer grassroots politics shaped the course of her work. She began drawing comics in the pages of New York City feminist newspaper WomaNews in the summer of 1983. Over the next three years, Bechdel developed her renowned strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, evolving it from New Yorker–esque single panels to multipanel thematic takes. The pages of WomaNews evidence Bechdel’s growth as an artist not just in her comics but also in advertisements and other graphics for the collective that she created.
Despite how formative these early years and this grassroots publishing experience were for Bechdel’s career, most readers and critics do not know about them. While some early iterations of her comic appear in her first two collections with Firebrand Books, many, including her single-panel works, do not. Further, none of these early comics is included in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008b), which is now the means through which most fans and scholars access and write about the series.1 In an introduction to the volume, Bechdel (2008a, xiv) discusses her career and reduces WomaNews to an unnamed “local feminist newspaper,” further obscuring her early work that is not included in the collection.
These hidden production histories are key to situating Bechdel within contemporaneous queer discourse and to recontextualizing the visual theorizing that her comics perform in dialogue with grassroots networks. In addition to her work on WomaNews (1983–85), she served as the production coordinator for the Minneapolis–Saint Paul gay and lessbian newspaper Equal Time for four years (1986–90) before she was able to make a living from her comics and associated work.2 Bechdel also self-syndicated her strip in roughly two hundred periodicals over the course of two decades (1983–2008), which put her finger on the pulse of local social movement politics nationally and internationally over a decade before the Internet digitally networked people together. She chronicled this experience in a short-lived strip, Servants to the Cause (1989–90), which appeared in the pages of national gay magazine the Advocate. This strip follows a diverse cast of characters who work together on a fictitious queer periodical, and the plot intersects generational debates and identity politics. In this article, I unfurl how Bechdel’s queer visual politics derived from her closeness to grassroots networks, drawing on archival research of her papers held in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, Firebrand Book Records held in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University, and the newsprint collection at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Methodologically, I employ close analysis alongside historiography, using archival materials to inform both. I queer these methods through introducing new kinds of collective, visual analysis and centralizing archives as part of the analytical frame.
Archives are necessary to encounter these histories. I call for a greater engagement with archives in comics studies; the overreliance on published and available texts skews the visible reality of what we analyze (Galvan 2015). This alliance is not merely recuperative: we must be cognizant of how these archives operate to facilitate the discovery of these materials (Galvan 2017). In this article, through looking at these comics and their archives, I argue for an expansion of what we consider worthy of analysis under the banner of comics studies. Grassroots publications allow Bechdel and other cartoonists to express their politics in varied, image-text considerations that are not always explicitly comics but that benefit from analysis under this paradigm. As one can tell from a glance at the archives in play, these sorts of publications are not kept within archival comics collections but exist within queer-adjacent3 and queer grassroots archives. Analyzing these comics through these spaces, I theorize queer comics archives and develop new methods of reading comics in queer communities that shift our focus from canons to the collective practices that shape the production and circulation of queer comics art.
In order to understand not only Bechdel’s queer comics but also those of many of her contemporaries, it is necessary to review the publishing milieus that supported her work. Grassroots queer comics are overlooked by comics studies because they are often produced outside of comics communities. Throughout the years, anthologies like Gay Comix (1980–98),4Strip AIDS USA (Robbins, Sienkiewicz, and Triptow 1988), Dyke Strippers (Warren 1995), Juicy Mother (Camper 2005), Juicy Mother 2 (Camper 2007), No Straight Lines (Hall 2013b), QU33R (Kirby 2014), and Alphabet (Avery and Macy 2016) have been an important means of gathering queer comics from across their disparate publication contexts. While these venues make the work more visible, we miss a sense of the local politics that intersect with the comics, as when they appear alongside articles in periodicals. Featured in a majority of these anthologies, Bechdel is central to this community of artists. Roz Warren dedicates Dyke Strippers to her, and Gay Comix devotes an entire issue to her work (Mangels 1993). In his introduction to No Straight Lines, editor Justin Hall (2013a) acknowledges both the power of queer periodical comics and the difficulties that have kept them from the recognition they richly deserve: “The weekly strips’ publication in the gay newspapers gave them a timeliness and immediacy that was [sic] often used for direct political and social commentary. It also placed them even farther outside of the traditional comics industry than the queer comic books and tied them in even more strongly to the LGBTQ community and the queer media ghetto.” These circumstances separated queer grassroots comics from the “traditional comics industry” of their time, and they continue to delay recognition for these comics.
This description neatly characterizes Bechdel’s own career as she published DTWOF over the course of two decades (1983–2008). Interviews with Bechdel reflect the marginal position of queer comics publishing. Anne Rubenstein (1995, 114) opens an interview with Bechdel with this one-liner: “Alison Bechdel may be the most popular American cartoonist who you’ve never heard of.” Six years later, Trina Robbins (2001, 82) echoes this sentiment in the introduction to her interview with Bechdel: “In a better world, she would already be a well-known mainstream creator.” In the intervening years, Bechdel self-syndicated her own strip in around fifty periodicals nationally and internationally. Most of these venues were strictly grassroots, but she had more mainstream coverage in a few markets. Her publication list was always in flux, as grassroots periodicals went under with frequency. WomaNews stopped publishing in 1991, and Equal Time folded in 1994. With such losses, Bechdel would seek out new periodicals with similar geographic coverage so that her local readers would still be able to access her strip.
In March 2006, in advance of the release of Fun Home (2006a), which rocketed Bechdel to mainstream acclaim, Bechdel assessed her national coverage by labeling a map with the names of her publications and marking key cities she was not reaching (Bechdel 2006c) (fig. 1). Although she had thirty-five big cities and other environs under her belt, she identified fifteen cities that she wanted. Notably, she previously had coverage in these cities, including Phoenix (Heatstroke), Anchorage (Identity Northview), and Milwaukee (Wisconsin Light). More than just a snapshot of her coverage in the United States and Canada, the map presents a sense of her span across the decades. Granted, it does not show the whole picture—the roughly two hundred periodicals that published her comic over the course of two decades—but it evokes what both Rubenstein and Robbins are getting at when they cite Bechdel’s popularity in spite of her lack of mainstream renown. When Bechdel ceased publishing DTWOF in May 2008, many periodicals had been publishing her work for nearly two decades, including small outfits like Bryn Mawr College News (Bryn Mawr, PA) and Sonoma County Women’s Voices (Sebastopol, CA) alongside more prominent and national publications like Lesbian Connection (East Lansing, MI), Lesbian News (West Hollywood, CA), off our backs (Washington, DC), and the Washington Blade (Washington, DC). Through her own efforts, Bechdel had a presence in grassroots publications across the nation, and her books and associated products were sold in an overlapping geography of bookstores.
And yet, this map and those interviews could have been framed very differently, for in 1993 Bechdel turned down an offer to produce a syndicated strip with the Universal Press Syndicate (UPS), which gets strips like Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes into the funnies of thousands of major newspapers. In making her decision, Bechdel solicited the advice of fellow queer cartoonist Joan Hilty, who was familiar with different comics markets. Hilty (1993) responded by sharing materials critical of the UPS and hedging about her advice, explaining, “So, basically, I’m just flip-flopping about what to tell you. I guess that reflects my own mixed feelings about the profession: the exposure’s great but the politics are daunting. . . . On the other hand, your work is so good—putting a lot of other comics to shame on both an artistic and narrative level—it deserves an even wider audience.” Bechdel echoed this back-and-forth in notes to herself, where she drafted questions for the syndicate (“How does the editing process work?”; “How political/sexual/etc. can it be?”) alongside questions for herself (“How much time will this take?”; “How bland would it have to be?”; “Could I work in 4 panels??”) (Bechdel 1993). These personal questions indicate that she was leaning toward “no” because this opportunity would require her to create a strip format that would have taken time away from DTWOF and may have needed to be quite “bland.” Based on politics and some well-founded assumptions about what constraints the strip would face, her refusal demonstrated why LGBTQ comics stayed out of the most visible comics communities until only very recently. Bechdel was able to turn down the offer in part because she was able to make a living through self-syndicated cartooning. In the early 1990s, she was also earning money through her stationery business, where she sold a catalog of DTWOF items, including mugs, mousepads, and calendars.
Self-syndication offered Bechdel financial solvency as well an important connection to the communities represented in her strip. If she had accepted UPS’s offer and given up self-syndication, she would have lost her source material. While she was publishing DTWOF with smaller periodicals, not only did they send her a copy of every issue, but they also frequently corresponded with her. That is, the structures of self-syndication facilitated Bechdel’s close communication with each periodical. This correspondence was often warm and friendly, as her activist interlocutors related as much to her as they did to her recurring cast of characters who became a feature of the comic in early 1987. Yet, shoestring finances made funding the comic a continual battle—one that various periodicals put extra effort into solving, thereby proving the import of Bechdel’s strip to their readers. For example, in the July/August 1988 issue of Valley Women’s Voice (Pioneer Valley, MA), the paper printed a notice above one of Bechdel’s strips: “HELP!: Don’t let Mo, Toni, Ginger, and friends leave the Valley. Only with your sponsorship ($) can we keep Dykes to Watch Out For in the Valley Women’s Voice” (Bechdel 1988). In this notice, the characters are configured as “friends” who might have to move away if financial support doesn’t come through. Ultimately, DTWOF stayed in the Pioneer Valley periodical through the funding of local cartoonist Rob Ranney and others, whose names were published alongside the comic in future issues. Across the country, members of the Lavender Network (Eugene, OR) raised $600 to fund Bechdel’s comics through their July 1990 Save the Dykes event. Sally Sheklow (1990), Bechdel’s contact at Lavender Network, communicated the success of the event through photographs and also included information about her creative project, The Sound of Lesbians, a musical comedy-parody. Through these items, Sheklow shared the vibrancy of the queer community in the Pacific Northwest and displayed a personal connection with Bechdel. These examples show how personal investment in Bechdel’s comic formed the basis for her support among these varied collectives, linking her to diverse lesbian communities.
These grassroots networks infused Bechdel’s comic with queer rhetoric from a range of local and nationally known grassroots periodicals. Bechdel demonstrated how much her characters’ lives are in sync with political change in an eleven-year graphic time line that she included in her retrospective book, The Indelible Alison Bechdel (Bechdel 1998, 73–83). She created five parallel time lines—a general one for national happenings that year; one for Mo; another for Clarice and Toni; yet another for Sparrow, Ginger, and Lois; and a final one for Madwimmin Books. In this elaborate time line, Bechdel included panels and images from her strip and captioned these happenings, arguing for the importance of common lesbian lives in their parallel development alongside large-scale events. This time line also evoked her grassroots popularity, as these women could see themselves in her characters, living their lives amid global changes much larger than themselves. In doing so, it effectively illustrated the networked visual politics that Bechdel first developed in the pages of WomaNews.
Through engaging Bechdel and her work in WomaNews, I argue for new methods of reading comics that arise out of and integrate their grassroots contexts. Interacting with other content on the pages of the periodical, these comics establish particular techniques in expressing queer experience. Bechdel’s comics do visual work akin to what contemporary lesbian theorist Teresa de Lauretis (1984, 67–68) argues that feminist cinema should do in “construct[ing] another (object of) vision and the conditions of visibility for a different social subject.” As Bechdel glibly puts it in an interview, “I would love to be the lesbian Norman Rockwell” (quoted in Stephenson 1995). Further specifying this project in a retrospective comic, Bechdel asserts that her goal is to create “a catalog of lesbians! I would name the unnamed. Depict the undepicted!” (Bechdel 2008a, xiv). That is, to embody Rockwell in a lesbian way, Bechdel seeks to “catalog” a wide array of “undepicted” lesbian experiences, making visible a multiplicity of “different social subject[s]” and creating the possibilities to maintain these “conditions” through her business savvy and persistence. Well-known for the Saturday Evening Post covers where he illustrated everyday US culture for more than five decades, Rockwell further broadened the swath of the United States he covered in later work when he tackled topics like civil rights. In some of her work, Bechdel directly echoes Rockwell, as when she modeled the cover of her 1994 calendar on Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving painting, Freedom from Want (1943), by positioning the recurring cast of DTWOF around a table to celebrate the protagonist’s birthday (Bechdel 1994). By naming her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, she directed her readers to look at this project and be complicit in making visible these new subjects, an action that included not only reading her comics but financially supporting her through purchasing calendars and other items.
Not only do Bechdel and de Lauretis theorize each other, but we can build from them a theory of the archives that contain these works. Explicitly queer and queer-adjacent archives are the frame around Bechdel that further sustains these “conditions of visibility,” making apparent “different social subject[s]” from those found in comics collections in other archives. Archives that collect not only personal papers but more extensively a world of queer experience—periodicals, books from grassroots publishers, movement T-shirts and buttons, and so on—allow us to see the process of “construct[ing]” queer subjectivity and make visible not only queer individuals but truly a “social subject” in her investment in collective politics and queer networks. To wit, we can see the quotidian queer community that Bechdel strived to “catalog,” taking a page from Rockwell’s depictions of everyday US communities. Heather Stephenson (1995, 6), the journalist who solicited the Rockwell soundbite from Bechdel, posits, “Bechdel sees herself as an archivist chronicling her generation through the details of lesbians’ daily lives.” This embodiment of Bechdel “as an archivist” speaks volumes, for as a lesbian, “her generation” is the queer one that has hitherto not been seen in such fullness or, in de Lauretis’s language, as “construct[ed].” It is perhaps little surprise, then, that two decades later the critical reception of Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006a) focused on the archival aspects of her work, including her precise reproduction of personal family objects. Though this personal archive reflects individual queer experience, established queer archives make visible political networks that sustain individuals and allow us to understand Bechdel as “the lesbian Norman Rockwell” in a manner that individual autobiography alone cannot grasp.
Queer Comics Archives
Archives are not simply an aesthetics of Bechdel’s work: she engages existing archives and, like many lesbian feminists before her, actively creates her own archives to store material that otherwise might not be saved (Cvetkovich 2003 and 2008; Chute 2010; Eichhorn 2013; Kumbier 2014). These actions directly inform her artwork not only in subject matter but also, as scholars like Hillary Chute have discussed, in her rigorous process of drawing from physical examples (Chute 2010). Bechdel’s dual engagement with existing archives and her own practice of saving materials came together in late 2008 when she donated a first accession of archival material to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. She documented this process in a video posted to YouTube titled “The Memoirist’s Lament,” where she shows her many filing cabinets all over her house before she divulges that Smith College will be archiving these materials (Bechdel 2008e). With this reveal, the camera pans back from the material being shown and text appears across the screen: “god help them.” She then transitions to looking inside the filing cabinets, culling folders that end up among those materials going to Smith College. She has since donated several more accessions and plans to send along additional materials, so her archival connection is active in the present day.
When she began to identify files to send to Smith, Bechdel was also in the midst of another creative project of organization as she suspended her twenty-year comic strip, DTWOF, in May of that year and curated a selection of strips to be published with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the same publishing house that released Fun Home (2006a). Both projects were completed in fall 2008, as Smith received twenty boxes of archival materials and The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008b) was released. Due to the simultaneity of these endeavors, the archive weighs heavily on Bechdel’s collection. And it is not only the space of the Sophia Smith Collection that inflects The Essential Dykes, but it is also the Tretter Collection of GLBT archives at the University of Minnesota, where she visited in March (Bechdel 2008c), and the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University, which houses the papers of her longtime publisher, Firebrand Books, where she visited in April (Bechdel 2008d), that shape this volume.
These three archival encounters erupt onto the pages of Bechdel’s introduction to The Essential Dykes. As in Fun Home (2006a) and Are You My Mother? (2012), in the introduction she re-creates personal documents in the telling of her artistic genealogy but depicts herself entering a locked room called the archives and accessing the documents from there (Bechdel 2008a, vii). Once she has entered this space, she starts rummaging through the drawers, seemingly disrupting classification yet retrieving her files in precise chronological order (viii). In the comic, she builds a narrative of how she became an artist through her reading of these archivally housed documents. Key here is her sprawling rendition of the archive itself, pictured in a long vertical panel on the left-hand side of the page. She uses this verticality to great effect, depicting the space as filled with rows of infinitely tall filing cabinets. This image resembles, in part, the back room of the Tretter Collection, where she captured a photo of herself in awe during her visit (Bechdel 2008c), except the shelves of archival boxes are replaced by fantastically impossible filing cabinets, giant versions of those that populate her home. At the point of donating her own files to Smith, Bechdel acknowledges in her work the hybridity of the space where such files are organized and kept—a merging of domestic and institutional storage. In this piece, Bechdel creates a fantasy archive through which she relates her personal queer history, just as institutional repositories collect a larger scope of queer genealogy. She discussed these larger histories as she blogged about her visits to the archives at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University (Bechdel 2008c and 2008d). In nesting three archives into one representation in this comic, she underlines their interconnected nature and how archives not only contain grassroots networks but are themselves also part of a network.
This network of archives that collect intersectional queer and feminist histories comprises grassroots archives started by activists. Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings (2003) jump-started critical conversations about radical archives and remains a vital cornerstone, much as Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995) did for more general archival concerns. Cvetkovich’s delineation of grassroots archival spaces not only illuminates Bechdel’s own symbolic embrace of archives, but from Cvetkovich’s description we can also fashion our own definition of queer comics archives, which preserve this doubly marginalized work—as comics are an art form often not taken seriously that marginalized folks then embrace to represent their experience. Following her analysis of different valences of queer archives, including an extended discussion of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Cvetkovich (2003, 268) defines these entities:
Ephemeral evidence, spaces that are maintained by volunteer labors of love rather than state funding, challenges to cataloging, archives that represent lost histories—gay and lesbian archives are often “magical” collections of documents that represent far more than the literal value of the objects themselves. . . . Queer archives can be viewed as the material instantiation of Derrida’s deconstructed archive; they are composed of material practices that challenge traditional conceptions of history and understand the quest for history as a psychic need rather than a science.
Throughout this passage, Cvetkovich focuses on different registers of “history” and the “challenges” that grassroots archives present, nuancing these concepts through repetition. Through coalescing ideas of “history” and its “challenges” in the “challenge [to] traditional conceptions of history,” Cvetkovich demonstrates how all the items in her opening catalog add up: as “material practices” that can perform these “challenges” through various methods. In Bechdel’s representation of archives, we can see how she leverages her “‘magical’ collection of documents” to narrate the overarching trajectory of her career, selecting items that together culminate into “more than” the sum of their parts. In activating archival objects, Bechdel “challenge[s] traditional conceptions of history” and uncovers her lived lesbian history that shapes her long-running comic. Where Bechdel illustrates the multivalent possibility of queer archives, Cvetkovich communicates the ways that archives enact that multivalence.
“Material practices” differentiate comics collections in queer archives from comics held in other archives. To create a framework for understanding how comics operate in tandem with the queer archives that house them, I theorize the notion of queer comics archives. They “challenge traditional conceptions of history” not only through the comics’ content but also in how they open up “material practices” that give us new ways to analyze the documents themselves and conceptualize the affiliated histories. In this analysis and conceptualization, we activate de Lauretis’s “conditions of visibility” that permit us to recognize new individual and collective histories (de Lauretis 1984, 67–68). Archives in general allow us to read comics with a new fullness and to see the personal networks surrounding their creation. Queer archives empower us to see new comics not housed in other comics collections and to understand the importance of social activism to comics through studying them in their original queer publication contexts in addition to examining them as they touch the lives of gay and lesbian folks who donate their ephemera to the archives or who are preserved through their communication with the artists themselves. Collections-building “material practices” embody “queerness as collectivity”—an articulation of the relational queer theory that José Esteban Muñoz (2009, 11) theorizes in Cruising Utopia. Just as Muñoz maps queer collectivity through close reading, I develop new practices of close-reading comics that emphasize relationality and thereby unfurl how queer activisms shape such works. Departing from the traditional formalism of comics scholarship that “privileges art and artists with more cultural capital, not less” (Galvan 2015, par. 9), this approach decenters the individual, honoring the rich history of collaboration in comics by opening a conversation about the multiple ways that communities shape even single-authored works.
We must analyze queer comics as they originally appeared in the pages of grassroots periodicals. I read comics as but one panel on an entire spread of content and examine how other materials on the page intersect with the comic. I further understand the periodical as a space of exploration and trace how comics art and styles evolve in this context. Given the inherent stylistic freedom, I also look to other image-text creations and read them under the paradigm of comics studies. With these practices, we read beyond the static frame that closets comics. When we fixate on the frame and what’s inside, as strict comics formalism would have us do, we fix straight edges to our interpretation rather than considering queerer readings that cross borders (Anzaldúa 1987). Many early exploratory works are never republished outside of queer publication networks, but such works—like comics-infused advertisements—are important to understanding a more nuanced queer theory inflected by the thought of local collectives. These modes of reading comics bring the surrounding community and production history to bear on what is created in the panel.
Such practices are not applicable only to comics that appear in grassroots spaces; rather, we must be generally attentive to original publication histories and to reading across publication contexts. Whenever a comic is republished in a new venue, its meaning—and sometimes also its content—shifts. With queer comics especially, moments of republication build community as the new setting makes the comic visible to a new audience. As we have already seen, queer periodicals enfolded Bechdel’s comic into their own local communities and inscribed her comic with additional meaning when they raised money to support her work. In prioritizing periodicals as an overlooked place for the development of queer comics, I position this article in conversation with recent scholarship that brings attention to the importance of periodicals to queer thought through close-reading the content and production histories of specific collectives (Beins and Enszer 2013; Enszer 2015a and 2015b; McKinney 2015; Beins 2017).
Now, I turn briefly to one of these methods: reading the comic in the context of the page spread. The other techniques are in play here, too, as I examine an advertisement for the collective where Bechdel leveraged comics-like imagery, and this piece is an early creation, so we could ask how Bechdel revised her style going forward. In the March 1984 issue of WomaNews, Bechdel produced an advertisement for two upcoming WomaNews workshops, where participants would “learn practical skills” like “editing/proofreading” and “layout/pasteup” (Bechdel 1984b, 8–9) (see fig. 2). The women exhibit serious demeanors as they demonstrate the skills covered in each workshop. Their faces communicate dedication—an attribute that WomaNews would want to encourage in potential new collective members. The humor lies in the action of their hands. The writerly type, bent so earnestly over a sheet of paper for the “editing/proofreading workshop,” concentrates her energies on marking one big single X on the paper as if to cheekily pronounce, “No, no, and no; all of this has to go!” Below her, the woman engaged in the “layout/pasteup workshop” has been stymied by her overzealous approach to the tools of the trade—glue, paper, and scissors. The glue is all over the table, and cutout paper rectangles of various sizes are stuck all over her. Yet, she still determinedly holds the scissors in her right hand as she attempts to wrest control of her left hand from the glue’s grasp. That levity and a bit of chaos enter the frame through the working hands implies that the activity of making WomaNews is not a mechanical endeavor but, rather, a creative, open, and human one. There is space for mess and occasionally flip decisions within a fervent framework.
Reading this piece as but one panel in a full-page spread, we can see how its meaning radiates as those looking at the advertisement could imagine the work of their hands in carefully editing the news briefs or in curating the advertisements to fill space on this and subsequent pages. We can also consider the page from Bechdel’s perspective—these are the conversations and social organizations that influenced the evolution of her work and also those she edited and organized when she participated in page layout. The humor that Bechdel balances in the representations of the women gestures toward the flexibility that she enacts to match her style to fit not only the periodical’s politics but also its limitations of page space. This matter of space became even more important when Bechdel moved from advertisements created to fit existing space to comics that she published across an array of periodicals. Her DTWOF comics blossomed alongside her participation in the WomaNews periodical. In the Firebrand reprints, we see these comics spanning two slim horizontal pages, while they take up a large full page in The Essential Dykes (2008b). When Bechdel sent her comics off to numerous periodicals, she included information about how to print and arrange this comic, giving the periodical a few horizontal and vertical possibilities so that the comic could fit various page layouts. When we expand our reading of a comic beyond the edges of the frame, as archives that house vast collections of queer periodicals allow us to do, we activate the notion of queer comics archives that free us to read comics in multiple contexts and fully engage “queerness as collectivity” (Muñoz 2009, 11).
In the following sections, I discuss Bechdel’s development as a comics artist in conversation with the WomaNews collective through analyzing works she produced while a member of the collective. I assess these archivally held works through the close-reading methods of queer comics archives, first tracing the evolution of Bechdel’s work through deliberate revision and then examining the importance of her comics-adjacent work for WomaNews. These accounts push back on the sense of Bechdel as a singular genius, since they show how Bechdel’s participation in queer networks influenced her work. Queer comics archives make visible the networked world that queer comics thrived in and that has heretofore been little discussed in comics scholarship.
WomaNews and Revision
Bechdel started publishing in WomaNews in the July/August 1983 issue and spent the next two years evolving her comic in the pages of the periodical while also participating in its production. As she became a member of the collective in late 1983,5 she produced one comic per issue along with other contributions. As she developed her hand, her earlier work explicitly served as the foundation for later work. Such was the case with a series of images of lesbians writing that Bechdel debuted in the October 1983 issue (figs. 3–8). These graphics accompany readers’ letters. Bechdel consolidated these individual panels into a DTWOF strip in September 1984 (Bechdel 1984h, 16) (fig. 9) and substantially revised this strip for the first collection of her comics that Firebrand Books released in October 1986 (Bechdel 1986, 36–37) (fig. 10). This three-year period of intense refinement preceded her creation in early 1987 of the iteration of DTWOF that most readers are familiar with, which follows a dedicated cast of characters. To untangle Bechdel’s process of making new lesbian subjectivities visible alongside her development as a politically informed comics artist, I track her revisions for these letter-writing lesbians.
These literary figures evoke the range of opinions that surround them on the letters page. The first image in the October 1983 issue of WomaNews shows an agitated woman, biting the tip of her pen while mulling over the next words to add to two pages of vigorously scrawled handwriting (Bechdel 1983b, 2) (fig. 3). This figure sits in a simple, square panel at the beginning of the letters page, in the top left of three columns, right next to the staff box.6 The correspondence that surrounds this image has the same level of fierce passion to it—if not more. In one of the dispatches on the page, for instance, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga issue a public call, asking WomaNews readers to donate money to help get This Bridge Called My Back back into print with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (Anzaldúa and Moraga 1983, 2) after the dissolution of Persephone Press, reported in the pages of WomaNews two months previous (WomaNews Collective 1983, 13). Bechdel’s figure—with her punchy persona and penmanship—taps into the unsettled energies on the letters page. The extreme color contrast deployed in representation—only scratchy, intense blacks or negative white space, no shades of crosshatched gray—visually underscores the raw nerves.
This intensity of feeling would continue in the women Bechdel drew for the letters page. All told, during her tenure at WomaNews, she created six letter-writing lesbians who were freely repurposed in the same section in subsequent issues. In all these images, the women are actively putting words on the page. The last of these figures first appeared in the July/August 1984 issue of WomaNews, a year after Bechdel’s first contributions to the collective (Bechdel 1984f, 2) (fig. 8). This focused figure, in a jumper and with an apparent mullet, crunches on M&Ms, which are spilled across the selfsame page where she is composing. This woman and the five who precede her embody a wide variety of writerly affects—from those who smoke while writing (Bechdel 1984e, 2; Bechdel 1984d, 2) to those who contort their bodies to write (Bechdel 1983a, 2) to those who stare out into the distance for inspiration (Bechdel 1984g, 2) (figs. 4–7). In each iteration, the words of the letters surrounding these images supply the context, rather than Bechdel’s words themselves providing contextualization.
This framing shifts when Bechdel further developed these writerly affects in the “Literary Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip in the September 1984 issue of WomaNews (Bechdel 1984h, 16) (fig. 9). In this short strip, a narratorial voice, identified as “Heloise C. Bland” in the strip’s subtitle, proposes, in the first, text-only panel, “to provide a brief psychological catalogue of the more common types of lesbians who write.” In the following panels, we encounter six distinct women, represented not just as “types” but more specifically as species: Bland gives each of them a pseudo-scientific name in the accompanying boxes that describe each woman. These six species do not generally map one-to-one with their six WomaNews letters page predecessors; rather, their evolutions are more complex.
Although the letters-page lesbians show a range of affects, their association with the opinion page of a feminist periodical restricts their representation. In fact, their framing bespeaks these limitations—they are seen, more or less, in medium close-up, focusing their attention on the act of composition. We know relatively little about the worlds of these characters. These figures universally evoke collectivity by remaining open for identification with the varied letter writers of WomaNews. In her strip, Bechdel retains the universal quality of these women by transforming them into literary species.
To understand these species, we must grasp their natural habitat and behaviors, so we are treated to these figures in medium to medium-long shot, connected to their physical surroundings and the fullness of their bodies. In all the panels, we are told a story about the woman in association with her environment that shapes and is shaped by her writerly affect. The first four species are solitary, but the final two panels open up species of writers who are sexual (Scriptus interruptus) and social (Procrastinatoria inertia), and Bechdel increases the size of these panels in order to show these women engaged in composition through avenues of relation to other bodies. All these writerly species, however, have something, animate or otherwise, that inspires them to write.
The most newly evolved of the species in the strip is the one on the technological forefront, Floppius discus, who stares intently into a computer screen while jamming to tunes on her portable audio cassette player, the “Walkperson.” Both of these technologies were newly available in the 1980s, with the personal computer highlighted in the American cultural zeitgeist in 1984 following an unprecedentedly popular Apple computer commercial during that year’s Super Bowl.7 This new, hip writerly persona exists alongside the orderly Analus perfectus, diligently at her typewriter with a cup of tea as day breaks. In the structure of the comic, this picture of perfection is formally contrasted with Tequila nocturnalia, the tortured writer—both smoker and alcoholic in this rendition—scribbling out words in the dead of night. But what about Analus perfectus vis-à-vis Floppius discus? We are in a moment of coexisting writerly technologies, but there is the future pull to the computer, borne out over time, further bolstering the forward motion of this figure. It is interesting, then, that in this strip, Floppius discus is the only overtly raced character. The future is more multicultural and complex than the white and tidy world of Analus perfectus, soon to be obsolete.
When Bechdel published this strip in her first DTWOF collection in 1986, she made further changes, forecasting the developing politics of her representations (Bechdel 1986, 36–37) (fig. 10). Indeed, looking from the version of “Literary Dykes to Watch Out For” in WomaNews to the one in her first published collection is akin to a lesbian spoof of the childhood “spot the differences” game in any Highlights magazine. If Floppius discus was the multicultural future foretold in the first iteration, then this future is building steam in the second version, where two more figures are visually reworked as women of color. These reworkings of Ingestis poetica and the woman listening to Procrastinatoria inertia do more than simply acknowledge the rising prominence of woman of color feminism. These personages also foretell the growth of the personal brand of lesbian feminist diversity that Bechdel more fully embraced when she relaunched DTWOF with a multiracial cast of recurring characters in 1987. It’s hardly a coincidence that these two revised figures resemble two of her DTWOF characters, Sparrow and Ginger, respectively.
Overall, the collected version of this comic is more polished—from the neater styling of the typeface to the amount of detail lavished in representing each figure. In the revision process, some background elements were omitted to streamline the drawing—from the missing ashtray in Tequila nocturnalia’s frame to the reduction of the food items represented in Ingestis poetica’s workspace. In the revision of Procrastinatoria inertia, the “most prevalent type of lesbian writer,” Bechdel changed the panel in numerous subtle ways that culminate in altering its meaning and its relationship to the reader. In both iterations, Procrastinatoria inertia has vaguely the same look—her T-shirt-and-jeans torso faces forward while she gazes semiwistfully off to the left in recounting her Connecticut childhood. In its first version, Bechdel directly aligned this figure with the readers of WomaNews by portraying her in a WomaNews T-shirt. This WomaNews Procrastinatoria inertia tells her tale at the bar to no one in particular—there is a couple getting handsy off frame to her right, and on her left, her one potential listener dozes while clenching a bottle of alcohol. With this T-shirt, Bechdel suggests that all readers are likely this woman at one point or another. In her revision and with her addition of an African American proto-Ginger in the frame, Procrastinatoria inertia takes on new meaning. By depicting the woman in a plain white T-shirt, Bechdel removed the associational ties to WomaNews, but we know, by the framing of the comic, that she is still not only a lesbian but ostensibly a dyke to watch out for, in the many valences of the phrase. Though the couple off frame to the right are still getting handsy in this version, this new Procrastinatoria inertia, in telling her tale, provokes a response—namely, one of proto-Ginger’s apparent exasperation. Her annoyed expression isn’t just about an irritating bar patron but gestures toward an exhaustion with this kind of white lesbian feminist, obliviously grandstanding about her privilege with no sense of the varied experiences of the feminists around her. Intersectional politics became an even more overt discourse in DTWOF in future years.
Queer Comics-Adjacent Material
In addition to her comics, Bechdel’s image-text contributions to WomaNews included covers, advertisements, and graphics accompanying articles. Through these works, Bechdel implemented the visual language of comics and experimented with her form in ways that she later integrated into her comics. This technique was another form of revision, another instrument in her toolbox for creating more visible lesbian experiences. Across her advertisements promoting both social events and collective-building workshops, we can see her nascent visual politics, where she is thinking about how to portray a range of characters that represent collective experience.
Her advertisement for the WomaNews Fifth Anniversary Variety Show! embraced diversity by featuring five very different women locked arm-in-arm doing high kicks (Bechdel 1984c, 11; Bechdel 1985, 11) (fig. 11). Unlike the Rockettes, the famous New York City all-female precision dance troupe known both for high kicks and for a similitude of appearance among members of the group, the five women here differ from each other in every attribute: age, race, weight, cup size, height, shoe taste, hairstyle (Lambert 1987, par. 11). Bechdel’s visual reference radiates particularly forcefully as the December date of this event—and, thus, the publication of the advertisement in the November and December/January issues of WomaNews—coincided with the Rockettes’ performative mainstay, the annual holiday show (par. 18). For Bechdel to copy the Rockettes’ signature high kick but radically depart from the accompanying display of only one sort of woman is especially progressive, given that the Rockettes were not yet a racially integrated troupe (Peterson 1984).
Bechdel’s image suggests the unified movement of her dancers’ high kick—other visual signifiers of similarity be damned. These women are linked together in political movement that builds strength from their diversity. Unlike the Rockettes, who pride themselves on similitude, success here is judged by difference—how many kinds of women can come together in coalition, high kicking (literally or metaphorically), arm-in-arm?
The wording of the ad suggests further coalitional broadening. The text framing the image is hand-drawn by Bechdel, as well, meaning that she was involved in the nitty-gritty details of the event. In the November version of the advertisement, the text beneath the image exclaims, “Singers! Dancers! Musicians! Surprises!” A number of possible expressions are enthusiastically encouraged; spectacles that fall out of the expected triptych are celebrated as “Surprises!” Further, prominently under the event information and taking up the same width as the image and its adjacent text, a line announces, “Performance space wheelchair accessible,” welcoming sisters with disabilities. The text extends the range of expressions and bodies that can participate in both this variety show and collective. Moreover, this advertisement, in both the November and December/January issues, is embedded on the bottom right of the two-page calendar of events potentially of interest to those in the WomaNews community. Beyond the borders of this ad, we are immersed in a wide range of upcoming events for women of all sorts of dispositions.
In other advertisements, Bechdel showcased more ways that readers could support the collective. For the April 1984 issue, she devised a new advertisement for the sale of WomaNews T-shirts (Bechdel 1984a, 21) (fig. 12). In seeking to draw women into the collective by celebrating its politics as an active, fun, engaged endeavor, Bechdel employed multiple panels. In its arrangement of panels into a two-by-two grid, this advertisement reads as a comic. The narrative does not follow one woman in her WomaNews T-shirt but potentially four different women with diverse approaches. In each panel, cropping or perspective obscures the face of each woman, but contrasting visual cues—background texture, T-shirt, and hairstyle—suggest that we are looking at four different lived experiences. The illustrations encourage various uses for the T-shirt, definitively echoed in exclamatory text in the space below each panel. In the top row of panels, Bechdel portrays two women altering the T-shirt to fit their daily lifestyles—the first woman rips off the collar, sleeves, and bottom hem of the shirt to create a punk look, while the second woman keeps a pack of cigarettes rolled in her right sleeve. By recommending alterations to the T-shirts in the very advertisement selling them, Bechdel and the WomaNews collective imagine a whole host of gender presentations in this garb. The WomaNews T-shirt and WomaNews itself are open for reinterpretation and negotiation on a regular basis.
The bottom row juxtaposes these diurnal activities by suggesting two nocturnal approaches to the garment. In these panels, both women are getting ready for bed while wearing their WomaNews T-shirts, but their shared experience diverges from there. Above a caption that intones, “Wear it to bed!” the first woman dons the T-shirt as her nightie, while diligently brushing her teeth, an action that suggests a quiet end to the evening. This speculation is supported by both the content of the second panel and its negating caption, “Don’t wear it to bed!” Here, a woman removes her T-shirt in order to join an already naked partner awaiting her in bed; her evening is likely far from over. While this image is fairly innocuous in its portrayal of an imminent intimate encounter, the inclusion of lesbian sexuality as something that can be playfully tackled in a T-shirt advertisement gestures toward a feminist politics that embraces a wide range of sexual expression, just as the first row validates a gamut of gender presentation. Taken together, these panels celebrate a variety of sartorial choices, reflecting the array of political coverage but injecting it with humor through the comics medium. In this and other advertisements, WomaNews is explicitly evoked at the top, framing these representations. The collective nurtures Bechdel’s visual politics and gives her the space to experiment with the comics form. Over the course of her career, grassroots spaces have continued to support Bechdel’s growth.
Networking Dykes Online
Eight years after ceasing her creation of DTWOF in 2008, Bechdel released a Thanksgiving strip in November 2016 that responded to the presidential election of Donald Trump. She published the comic both in her local Vermont paper, Seven Days (Burlington), as well as on her personal blog, where she briefly prefaced it: “Since I stopped drawing Dykes to Watch Out For at the tail end of the Bush administration, people have asked me many times if I thought about my characters, and if so, what they were up to. And I would have to be honest. No, I didn’t think about them, and I had no idea what they were doing. But last week they all started flooding back” (Bechdel 2016). She has since circulated two more strips in Seven Days and through her online outlets, the second coinciding with the Ides of Trump postcard-writing campaign in March 2017 and the third in July 2017 following the characters as they celebrate the Fourth of July. As she wrote on the release of this second strip, “I plan to continue doing these on an occasional basis as a way of staying sane” (Bechdel 2017). The commenters on her website and Facebook post thanked her for this strip and agreed with her sentiment about maintaining sanity. Despite the fact that Bechdel had not published a strip in nearly a decade, her community continues to affectively relate to DTWOF—evident in these responses and in Bechdel’s statement that people asked after her characters.
These moments of interaction evidence how the transformation of grassroots infrastructure in the digital era facilitates community connection. Bechdel herself cites this direct interaction with her “strong community of readers” as a reason to start releasing her strips on her blog when she began the practice in early 2006 (Bechdel 2006b). Though common Internet wisdom advises against reading the comments, in queer communities this space facilitates an engagement that shapes future work. This dialogue echoes the correspondence with individual periodicals that I discussed at the outset of this article. In both instances, those who love her work communicate their support and discuss the future trajectory of her plot. In digital space, she often directly responds to these suggestions in the comment stream or by penning response posts on her blog (Bechdel 2006d). One of the hallmarks of comics is how they circulate among many publication venues, and I have argued throughout this piece that we must centralize queer periodical networks to understand the development of queer comics while simultaneously underlining how archives—grassroots archives in particular—preserve these networks.
By turning to the digital in closing, I urge us to pay attention to how the digital infrastructure of these spaces also facilitates “queerness as collectivity” (Muñoz 2009, 11). In digital spaces, we must regard both those new artists who have innovated the form of the web comic and those artists, like Bechdel, who take up the digital to supplement existing careers and how they re-create their physical communities in these new spaces. For Bechdel, this new infrastructure supports her identity as “the lesbian Norman Rockwell” as she connects more closely with readers while making lesbian experience visible in multiple forms (Stephenson 1995). On her blog, she not only distributes her comics, but she also shares sketches, textual reflections alongside accompanying photos, homemade videos, and various other new media image-text creations. This platform allows her to get back in touch with her beginnings at WomaNews and Equal Time, where she created comics-adjacent work in close proximity to her more formally legible comics. By embracing queer comics archives and affiliated spaces, we come to regard the role of queer community and transgress the borders of what constitutes comics in ways that better reflect and serve shifting queer activisms.
Margaret Galvan is assistant professor of visual rhetoric in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She is currently at work on a book, In Visible Archives of the 1980s: Feminist Politics and Queer Platforms (Univ. of Minnesota Press, under contract), which traces a genealogy of queer theory in 1980s feminism through representations of sexuality in visual culture. Her published work, which analyzes visual media culture through intersectional archival approaches, can be found in journals like WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Archive Journal, and Australian Feminist Studies and in collections like The Ages of the X-Men (McFarland, 2014) and Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
I would like to express my gratitude to Alison Bechdel for her work, her precise record-keeping and archival donation, and her generosity in facilitating this research. Many thanks are due to the grant-funding institutions (the Graduate Center, CUNY; Smith College; NYC Digital Humanities) and the archives and archivists who have supported the development of this research over the past few years. Thanks also to key individuals who have been invaluable interlocutors: Nancy K. Miller, Meredith Benjamin, Melina Moore, Jack Gieseking, Jonathan W. Gray, Leah Misemer, and Hillary Chute. Thanks also to the editors of this special issue, Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz, for their keen editorial insights.
Judith Kegan Gardiner (2011) explicitly analyzes DTWOF through this collection.
In an interview with Anne Rubenstein (1995, 116), Bechdel says, “And I started volunteering at a feminist newspaper called WomaNews where I did paste-up and production and wrote an occasional review.”
In designating certain archives as queer-adjacent, I identify spaces that aren’t explicitly queer but that contain a lot of materials relevant to queer experience, like the Sophia Smith Collection, for instance. This use of adjacent resonates with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (2003, 8) discussion of the nondualistic nature of beside in Touching Feeling and how the spaciousness of that preposition allows “a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations.”
Gay Comix was a comics series that ran for twenty-five issues between 1980 and 1998 under three successive editors: Howard Cruse (#1–4), Robert Triptow (#5–13), and Andy Mangels (#14–25). In issue #15 (1992), Mangels renamed the series, Gay Comics, acknowledging the changing times and diminished presence of the underground comix scene that initially birthed the series. When discussing the series collectively, I refer to it by its initial title as that appears to be the general convention.
Two months after first publishing in WomaNews, Bechdel joined the staff box (masthead) as a named contributor, and two months later, in the December 1983/January 1984 issue, she appeared as a full member of the collective’s staff, a position she continued to hold for a year and a half until the July/August 1985 issue.
Coincidentally, the October 1983 issue was the first in which Bechdel was listed in the staff box as a contributor to the collective.
Linda M. Scott (1991, 67–68) describes the huge public response following the advertisement in January 1984, which translated into big sales for Apple in the coming months.