Alison Bechdel started publishing her serialised comic Dykes to Watch Out For in 1983. During the ’80s it solidified into a coherent, engaging serial. Over the years the strip has distilled American popular culture through the prism of a gay female artist to critical acclaim and no little success considering most alternative serials in the States rarely last more than a few years. Alison really hit the mark though with her graphic novel memoir Fun House, which was published during 2006 documenting her childhood and her austere father. As a far more eloquent reviewer noted: ‘Forget genre and sexual orientation: this is a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.’ I discovered that Alison was visiting the Angouleme Festival de Bande-dessinee in January 2007 and determined to ask her about how she and American culture had changed since 1983. Despite having the arduous task of signing dedications to people in their books she found the time to chat with me for half an hour.
LH: Do you think American culture has changed in a positive or a negative way since you started Dykes to Watch Out For back in ‘83?
Alison: I think it has definitely changed for the better. But there have been things that have been irretrievably lost in that process that I feel bad about. There used to be this rich separate gay and lesbian culture and now there’s not (laughs). It’s all on television. If you can watch Queer as Folk or The L Word people don’t seem to have the same need to create their own alternative culture. That’s what I loved about being queer. You got to have this whole separate club. I miss that.
LH: Moving onto comics, you mentioned in the lecture about why you started writing comics, but were you always interested in producing that kind of narrative artwork as a kid, or was it something that you saw later?
A: I made some attempts as a kid. I once wrote a graphic novel when I was seven, but it was like one panel on each piece of paper. My drawings were really small, so there’s just these two little guys in the middle of the pages. So I had a sense of telling stories graphically. But I didn’t do it a lot, that was like a one shot thing. I mostly just drew pictures.
Random signature hunter: I heard on the radio that you wouldn’t have written the story had you known it would be so popular.
A: Well, yeah it’s a very personal story…
LH: Have you freaked out about it since it came out, or has it just been, ‘Oh well it’s out now.’
A: Well my mother freaked out and that freaked me out. But I think we’re all settling down now.
LH: There was a comparison to David B about the conversation today, about how he was cut off for three years from his mum…
LH: So it hasn’t been like that?
A: No, but she has cut me off from anymore information about my father, or my family. And she won’t tell me anything because she’s worried that I’ll write about it, and I would (laughs).
LH: With your next project, is it going to be another graphic novel?
A: It will be a full length thing. I don’t know if it will have the same sort of over-arching narrative though that this book has. I don’t have another story to tell like this one. What I’m writing is kind of a love story. But it isn’t one love story. Each chapter will be a different phase of a relationship; meeting somebody, touching somebody, kissing somebody and getting progressively more intimate until you’re fighting but the subject matter will be different relationships. The structure will be a traditional love story, but will actually be about many different relationships.
LH: I’m not sure whether you did just mean it, but you just said that fighting is at end of intimacy. Is that the most intimate stage?
A: Well, I don’t know. I’ll figure that out when I get there. It’s inevitably part of a relationship. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fight.
LH: I think you said you had the plot outlined at the beginning for Fun House, did it change much over time?
A: No, I didn’t really have much of anything outlined in the beginning. I didn’t know what shape the book was going to take. I had no idea.
LH: Was it really just the one photograph you found and it started from there?
A: I started it just by writing down core memories that I felt instinctively were part of the story, but didn’t know how, or where they would fit. Very slowly, over the course of years, I found a structure and it started to take shape.
LH: So is that how you write Dykes to Watch Out For?
A: No, it’s completely different. I do it by the seat of my pants. I don’t know what’s happening in my next episode. I used to have a plan, but I don’t really have the time to think ahead very far.
LH: Do you consider Dykes to Watch Out For autobiographical in any sense, or have you in the past?
A: You know, I haven’t in the past, but more and more I do. It doesn’t even feel like fiction to me sometimes. It’s not strictly autobiographical. It’s not really what happened in my life. But I certainly live a life very similar to those characters.