Noah started the ball here. What was my personal discovery in comics for ’08? I could have done Steve Gerber’s all-text issue of Howard the Duck, but I’m beat and will settle for my experience reading A. Bechdel’s Essential Dykes to Watch Out ForIn effect the experience means I read the series from start to finish, or almost. The book drops 137 strips, leaving 390 to take you from 1987 to last year. Good enough to get me from one end of the series to the other.

It was the first time I’d seen more of the series than isolated bits here and there. Since the early/mid-’90s I had read a couple of the individual collections put out by Firebrand Books (now with great new covers), plus strips here and there that surfaced in the New York Press. (The paper’s right-wing proprietor ran Bechdel’s leftist genderqueer menagerie as filler in his back pages.) I very much liked Bechdel’s earliest cartoons, done before Mo and Lois and the rest of the cast showed up, and I sort of liked the installments I’d seen of the continuing series. But Essential allowed me to follow the series from start to finish and for most of the middle.
When I read the series all the way thru, I found that I’d been harboring a delusion. Since the mid-’90s I had believed that Bechdel’s inspiration had been used up with the early strips. I thought that the continuingDykes story was a mere money-making effort and that it had become increasingly mannered and lifeless. Well, it is mannered, not to mention engineered. The pages are crowded with panels, the panels crowded with figures, the figures’ mouths jammed with words (and, yeah, sometimes the effect is like school librarians trying to be clever). But lifeless the strip is not.

Bechdel is compulsive and methodical, and these traits aren’t a replacement for spent inspiration; they’re how she gets the job done. The figures line up in tight, shallow friezes, and it’s evident that Bechdel drew each one from a posed snapshot. But she knows how the characters should pose, and what they should be saying and doing. From about 1994 on, when you read a few of the strips you very quickly come to feel like you’re looking at a crowd of people you know doing what comes naturally to them, even if they all have Edward Gorey eyes and a tendency to hold themselves in profile. She’s a good caricaturist, which you wouldn’t expect from Fun Home. She pops out one bit player after another, and they have the good bit player’s ability to look and behave like no one else on earth without seeming like a stunt. Bechdel has also developed a fine touch for visual dynamics — her zero-depth friezes are a concession to storytelling needs, not signs of a skill deficit — and the way she draws a rainy morning is a pleasure to the eye.

I leave out my favorite aspects of the strip: the sociology, characterization and story. I don’t want to sound like a well-meaning dork liberal or a middlebrow lover of the lose-yourself-in-the-characters fictional experience. But I am both those things, and my two days of reading Essential Dykes were a pleasure in just the ways I could have wanted

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