‘Toon fine- tuned

ALISON BECHDEL, appearing with DIANE FLACKS, tonight (Thursday, June 22), 7 pm, at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle)..

ALISON BECHDEL, appearing with DIANE FLACKS, tonight (Thursday, June 22), 7 pm, at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle). $15, advance $10. 922-8744. Rating: NNNN

Ask Alison Bechdel how to survive drawing the same cartoon strip for nearly 20 years and she’d give you a simple answer — listen and adjust. Since her lesbo-comic Dykes To Watch Out For launched in 1983, the landscape her cartoon observes has been radically redesigned.

Just for starters, it’s called queer more often than gay. For another, it’s much bigger.

Bechdel (pronounced Bek-del) first ran the strip in the New York City magazine Womenews. Her profile grew with the gay press and queer visibility, and now Dykes To Watch Out For is syndicated and appears in over 60 publications.

Expanded palette

The issues that have gripped the gay community have morphed, too. That’s where Bechdel comes in. Through her protagonist, Mo, she tracks what’s on the minds of her ever gender-bending scene.

“I feel like I’ve expanded the palette, for sure,” she says on the phone from her home in rural Vermont, where she’s readying the slide show she’ll present tonight (Thursday, June 22) at Hart House.

“My character has gone from being militant and anti-patriarchy to wearing a strap-on dildo.

“I think of myself as an archivist, as somebody who traces the ebb and flow and flux of culture. I’m always trying to keep track of the trends. But really, polymorphous perversity? Polyamory? That’s just another word for non-monogamy,” she laughs easily.

“The central difference I see over the years is the dissolution of the tight-knit community. I missed that golden moment of community coming out in the 80s, and I keep looking for it.

“Are we just disappearing? Was our separate culture a part of our oppression, so that when the oppression gets less intense the culture dissolves? If that’s the case, the disappearance of our culture would be a good thing. And yet I miss it.”

She drew all her life — ironically, almost exclusively male figures.

“It wasn’t until I came out that I started getting interested in drawing women,” she recalls. “It got to the point that I couldn’t draw unless I was drawing lesbians.

“I eventually created a panel that I called Dykes To Watch Out For #27, as if I’d drawn a lot beforehand,” and that grew into a full-blown strip.

She considers herself a better visual artist now, and that, combined with the compulsiveness that seems to dog cartoonists (see also her biggest influence, R. Crumb), means she has no problem cranking out the strip.

“I wish I could destroy the old drawings. I can draw much more subtle expressions and more complicated gestures, so the writing gets more nuanced. Fifteen years ago a strip of mine averaged about 250 words, and now it’s up to 400.

Even though an artist under pressure to come up with an original idea every two weeks could be forgiven for plundering her friends’ experiences, Bechdel’s more respectful than most. In her new collection, Post-Dykes To Watch Out For, running up the side of several panels is a caption beginning with “Tip of the nib” that credits various people for her ideas.

Spontaneous flow

On R. Crumb: “I’m in awe of him because the work flows out of him in a way it doesn’t for me. I’m much more deliberate and laboured. I work on generations of sketches before the final one. I wish I could harness that spontaneous flow.”

But she can be cutting, too.

On Matt Groening: “When he started running that diary of his, it was so boring. I just got so jealous, because my next project is a cartoon-based autobiographical memoir — a graphic memoir, actually — and I got mad because he put so little into it. It was as if he’d run out of ideas. When I create mine, I’ll put more in, I promise.”

The theme of the next few strips? That’s easy: “Mid-life crisis,” especially being single and over 40.

“There’s such a small pool to work with.”

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