From 1983-2008, Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For captured the drama and hilarity of lesbian life. Now it's been adapted into an Audible Original series that draws parallels between the queer past and present.
Bechdel's original comic strip started as a passion project.
"I was living in New York City working for a feminist newspaper called WomaNews," she said. "In my spare time, I started drawing these crazy-looking lesbians for fun, mostly to amuse my friends." Bechdel submitted a cartoon to WomaNews, which blossomed into a comic strip. Soon Dykes to Watch Out For was appearing in newspapers across the nation.
Visual representations of lesbians were scarce, and Bechdel's work filled a void.
"I had just come out a few years earlier and had discovered the work of JEB, the wonderful photographer," Bechdel said. "I was so hungry to see pictures of women who shared my experience. Realizing I could draw those women was exciting."
In 2008, after a 25-year run and more than a dozen published collections, Dykes to Watch Out For went on hiatus while Bechdel completed Are You My Mother?, her second graphic memoir. In response to the 2016 presidential election, three new strips appeared in Seven Days. Then the dykes resumed their hibernation, but that wasn't the end for Bechdel's beloved characters.
In 2019, while working as an acquiring editor at Audible, author-journalist Susie Bright dreamed up an audio series based on the early Dykes to Watch Out For comics.
"I thought Susie was off her rocker," Bechdel said. "The humor of the comic was in the visual details, and that all goes out the window when you're working in an audio format. I wasn't sure how we would replace that, but clearly, it was a brilliant idea."
Despite her reservations, Bechdel agreed to move forward with the series, which launched on June 1. The creative team celebrated the series' release with a live reading at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre. In July, Dykes to Watch Out For won an AudioFile Earphones Award and was named a "hilarious, heartfelt, and utterly compelling adaptation of a lesbian classic."
Like the original comic, the Audible series follows Mo, a "left of left" lesbian feminist known for her soapbox diatribes. Despite her occasional social blunders, Mo's friends insist she's a catch, and she manages to have some luck in love.
"Mo has an eagerness that can be aggravating, but it comes from a place of good intentions," said Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia), who portrays Mo in the Audible series.
"Mo feels like an extension of Alison, but I wanted to steer away from emulating anything too specific about her," Brownstein said. "Instead, I brought parts of myself that I share with Mo to the voice of the character, the parts that are supercilious and self-righteous, contradictory and frustrating."
Other members of the star-studded cast include Roberta Colindrez (A League of Their Own), Roxane Gay (author of the New York Times best-seller Bad Feminist) and Jane Lynch (Glee).
Much of the dialogue is ripped directly from the comics pages, nimbly reworked by playwright, screenwriter, and Pulitzer-Prize finalist Madeleine George (Only Murders in the Building) and directed by Obie-winner and Tony nominee Leigh Silverman (Violet). While the Audible series is set in the '80s, the text occasionally winks at modern queer culture.
"Principled non-monogamy takes commitment, Clarice," says Lois, the series' butch Casanova, played by Colindrez. "All parties need to be not just consenting but open, dedicated to processing jealousy in a rigorously honest and ethical way that deepens not just sexual but emotional intimacy. Whew, we really need a word for that." The word Lois desperately needed? "Polyamorous," which wasn't coined until 1990.
The sound design and music help the text take on a life outside its original genre and anchor listeners in the era. The soundtrack features original music from Faith Soloway, Bitch and Alana David; plus hits by Ferron, Holly Near, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Cris Williamson and Joan Jett. One episode includes recordings from the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, where the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed for the first time.
Narrator Lynch also plays a critical role in translating the comics into audio format, providing exposition, description and occasional tongue-in-cheek commentary on the characters' foibles. She guides listeners through the series with a hilariously overstated affect inspired by '60s cartoons.
"I immediately thought of the narrator in Fractured Fairy Tales and the narrator in Underdog," Lynch said. "That's what I came up with from the first read-through, and I'm glad they liked it."
Lynchwho was always in mind for the narrator role, according to producer Brightappreciates that the Audible series serves as a time capsule for '80s lesbian culture.
"At that time, it was new for lesbians to be coming together openly and living without fear," Lynch said. "There was an innocence, a freshness and a brand newness. Now there's been such polarization, and I think we're in a less innocent time than we were in back then."
Despite clear differences between the past and present of LGBTQ+ life, Bechdel notes that some parts of the historical series feel eerily relevant today.
"There used to be so much casual homophobia everywhere, and nowsince Trump and since the implosion on the rightwe're seeing that all over the place. It feels more threatening than it did when I was younger," she said. "A lot of the stuff I was talking about in the '80s feels very current. We have so many of the same anxieties and preoccupations."
While the Dykes to Watch Out For Audible series will appeal to both nostalgia-seekers and younger LGBTQ+ listeners, its humor and themes offer broad appeal.
"It's about chosen family. It's about community. It's about feeling at odds sometimes with a group of people with whom you should share a lot of traits and ideals," Brownstein said. "Friendship and romance and how those things intersect with politicsthese are universal stories, and it's my hope that this series is widely listened to."
You can listen to Dykes to Watch Out for on Audible.