You can never tell what's going to hit — or when. Back in 1985, when Alison Bechdel first proposed a formula that women could use to pick movies, she couldn't have imagined she'd be known for the "Bechdel Test" three decades later. For that matter, she probably didn't imagine people would use something called the Internet to argue about it. The test, which asks that a movie feature at least two women who have a conversation about something other than a man, has proven resiliently controversial. The latest salvo was fired just this week, when TheNational Review's Kyle Smith called it "a meaningless way to measure whether movies pass the feminist litmus test."
The test's fame is just one of the many ironies that have marked Bechdel's career. She didn't actually create it, her friend Liz Wallace did. And many people who cite it have no idea where Bechdel first wrote about it: in the long-running, foundational and criminally overlooked comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.
As a judge for NPR's poll of readers' 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels, I was thrilled to see DTWOF get votes — though, to my mind, far too few. It came in well behind Bechdel's 2006 memoir Fun Home, which was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. To those familiar with Bechdel's name only from the Test or the play, the strip is a footnote. To critics who view Fun Home as the pinnacle of Bechdel's artistry (often giving short shrift to 2012's subtler follow-up, Are You My Mother?), DTWOF was some kind of 25-year warm-up exercise. But for countless readers of gay newspapers from the '80s through the '00s, it was a crucial resource — to say nothing of a singular example of the expressive possibilities of sequential art.
It started as a collection of humorous one-offs about lesbian life, but DTWOF quickly resolved into a running saga about a circle of friends in a small college town. There's neurotic Mo; Lois, the impulsive, trend-following sensualist; Clarice and Toni, the longtime couple who eventually have a child; Ginger, the rational yet terminally ambivalent professor; Sparrow, a new-age optimist; and Jezanna, the alpha-female owner of the local feminist hub, Madwimmin Books.
Thinking about DTWOF, it's easy to focus on the content. Character and theme are so central, some might put the strip in a class with its artistically unambitious forebear, Doonesbury. People always mention its politics, particularly its treatment of different races and genders. But look deeper, and you can see the depth, complexity and ambition of Bechdel's graphical achievement. Her unique line is curvaceous and fleshy, with much more physical impact than most comic creators'. The linework of the mid-'90s strips often tops that of Fun Home. With the latter, Bechdel was clearly pouring out scenes she had firmly established in her mind. In DTWOF, her line is more exploratory — she's following wherever her nib leads her.
In depicting the characters' emotional storms, Bechdel is constantly thinking about what comics can express that they haven't before. She treads pensively back and forth between cartoony distillation and vulnerable realism. Approaching every strip like a formal problem, she tinkers continually with composition and pacing, layering in nuances of feeling so that each 10- or 12-panel episode feels longer than it is. Her best strips overflow with movement and texture.
Why hasn't such a treasure been given its due? The comic-strip format as a whole has stagnated for decades as the graphic novel has become the default form for highbrow comics. Mostly, though, I blame the vicissitudes of alternative media. In its original run in gay papers, DTWOF was often relegated to the bottom of a back page and then smushed to fit an arbitrary, too-small space. The small publisher that issued the DTWOF books also erred. When it issued reprints of the early collections, it replaced Bechdel's original covers with muddy, amateurish designs.
Fortunately, such injustices add up to a phenomenal opportunity for anyone who knows Bechdel only through Fun Home, Are You My Mother? or the Test. Though the strip took a while to hit its stride and sometimes seemed hastily drawn in its last years, that still leaves two decades' worth of solid delight. Spend a few weekends (re)discovering Mo and the gang. It sure beats arguing on the Internet.