Alison Bechdel is nearly famous. In the last six years her cartoons have been syndicated in two dozen papers nationally and her books have sold over 35,000 copies. And beginning this summer her work will appear in the forthcoming bimonthly Ms. magazine.
She seems unaffected by her growing fame. She lives near Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, wears a black motorcycle jacket and clunky shoes and her hair is a jet-black pyramid like the crag on which the mountain goat stands in the Great Northern railroad logo.
She is unequivocally lesbian. Her strip is titled "Dykes to Watch Out For" and the papers in which she is syndicated are all gay, lesbian or feminist. Locally she appears in Equal Time [a Twin Cities GLBT newspaper where she worked as production manager from 1986 to 1990].
Bechdel is 29 and, black leather jacket aside, gentle and soft-spoken. She has been out of the closet for 10 years — out of the closet and into the hearts of the lesbian community, which she estimates at 5 percent of the overall population.
She's from a small farming community in central Pennsylvania. Her father is dead; her mother has come to accept her lesbianism after being horrified that her daughter was not only "out" but saying so nationally. "But she's proud of me now," Bechdel said.
Her earliest comic and cartoon influences were Mad magazine, the drawings of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams; and later, the drawings and paintings of Norman Rockwell.
"I have this paradoxical thing about Rockwell. He did all those paintings that reinforced all the stereotypes" of mainstream, heterosexual American life, Bechdel said, images that she finds antithetical to her way of life. "But I love how authentic he was, how he would would draw a real, actual chair. It's that kind of authenticity that I aim for in my drawings, to show actual things."
Before she "came out," she said, her drawings were of the Gorey-Addams persuasion, "kind of macabre." Afterwards, they turned into the present, gently ironic view of life as it is lived in one very specific segment of the population.
She studied art at Oberlin University in Ohio and went through a period of rejecting not only her own sexuality but despising cartooning as an inferior art form; she was able to accept cartooning only after she came out — to the delight of a lot of lesbians around the country.
Darcy Spears, a Minneapolis-based promoter of feminist and lesbian entertainment, is one such fan. Spears doesn't know Bechdel personally but describes her as someone she respects "who is able to take our community and look at it in a humorous way."
Bechdel's publisher, Nancy Bereano of Firebrand Books in New York, said there is almost nobody in the nationwide lesbian community who doesn't know, and like, Bechdel's work. "There are other lesbian cartoonists, but she's the most popular, the most beloved, if you will. She's like a community worker."
Bereano said she had been approached at a book fair by a man who wanted to know if it would be OK to give a copy of a Bechdel book to a woman in his office that he thought was lesbian. "I told him, if she is, she will be happy with it. If she isn't," Bereano laughed, "I don't know what she'll think." (The latest book is "New, Improved Dykes to Watch Out For"; Firebrand Books, $7.95)
"Alison is the only author I deal with who makes me laugh every time I talk to her on the phone," Bereano said.
Bechdel becomes animated when she describes her characters. The central character is Mo, whose full name is Monica, who is "the embodiment of lesbian, feminist consciousness," but whose liberal guilt somehow combines with those beliefs to keep her from accomplishing much of anything. She rarely has a relationship because she can't believe any woman would be interested in her. "I play her off against Lo, who doesn't have any big social conscience. She's just interested in pleasure and going out with a lot of different girls," Bechdel said.
Mo, Lo, and friends Toni and Clarice all have real, live personalities as clear as anything in a situation comedy on TV. Their laughs, love affairs and despairs are familiar to any reader. But while they have problems just like other people, they are only those particular other people who go to marches on Washington, talk about exploitation of workers by the imperialist bosses, and daily expect the world to be incinerated by nuclear weapons.
Bechdel said, "Lesbians have a way of making connections between different kinds of oppression. We see links between the environment, militarism, sexism, racism and pollution — ways those all come down to systemic problems."
Her characters are believable and simpatico but not exactly everyday folks. Their consistent outsiderhood, rather than their preference for sex with other women, makes them unusual. It also makes them appealing, in a lonesome, spiritually bedraggled way.
"The thing about being gay is it cuts across all political lines," she said, although it's difficult for her to imagine a conservative Republican lesbian. It's outside her experience, and Bechdel insists on doing only what she knows.
"People tell me that I need to have an older woman in the strip, or a disabled woman, but there's millions of things that I can't do, things that aren't part of my experience. I have to be careful about taking stuff on I don't know about."
If, in 10 or 15 years, her audience has spread into the majority culture, she said, she'll be very happy. "My goal is to reach a broader audience while staying radical politically," Bechdel said.