From 1983 to 2008, Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For offered playful, incisive commentary on lesbian culture. Forty years after the comic's inception, it's been adapted into an audio series produced by author-journalist Susie Bright.
The Dykes to Watch Out For Audible Original series launched on June 1. In July, the series won an AudioFile Earphones Award and was named a "hilarious, heartfelt, and utterly compelling adaptation of a lesbian classic."
Like the original comicwhich was published in newspapers, online, and in a handful of bound collectionsthe Audible series follows Mo, a moralizing (though well-intentioned) "left of left" lesbian feminist, and her rag-tag group of friends and lovers. Together they navigate the ups and downs of love, work, friendship, and the 1980s gay rights movement.
"I tell straight people it's like Doonesbury, but better," said Bright, who discovered the comic strip in its early days when she was "a young dyke about town" in San Francisco.
"Alison Bechdel had this brilliant, satirical view on what was inside the inner lesbian anarchist, granola-making, separatist, quarrelsome, dyke drama-riddled commune," Bright said. "It was clear that her politics were to the leftus against the man, dykes against heterosexist hegemony. She was clearly one of us, but at the same time, she made fun of our inner foibles and flaws and silliness in a way that was so right. She brought us all together."
Bright saw herself reflected in the Dykes to Watch Out For comicssometimes literally. Characters' bookshelves occasionally featured issues of On Our Backs, the first women-produced sex magazine, which Bright co-founded and edited from 1984 to 1991.
In 2008, after a 25-year run, Dykes to Watch Out For stalled while Bechdel completed Are You My Mother?, her second graphic memoir. Eight years later, the 2016 presidential election necessitated the dykes' return in three, brand new strips published in Seven Days. Then Mo and her pals went silent again, but that wasn't the end for Bechdel's beloved renegades.
In 2019, while working as an acquiring editor at Audible, Bright called Bechdel with a pitch: An audio series based on the early Dykes to Watch Out For comics. Alison said, 'Oh, it's not going to work. No way,'" Bright recalled.
Then Bright and Bechdel read some dialogue aloud over the phone. "We both started giggling, because it really is funny," Bright said. "I thought about all the early Dykes to Watch Out For readers who probably quoted the comics out loud." Once Bright secured playwright, screenwriter, and Pulitzer-Prize finalist Madeleine George (Only Murders in the Building) as the series' script writer, the project was officially in motion.
Bright took the reins as producer. "I said, 'We're going to do this, and we're going to cast our favorite people."
The Audible series cast is a star-studded who's who of today's queer pop culture milieu, including Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia), who expertly captures Mo's fervor and neuroses; Roberta Colindrez (A League of Their Own), whose swoon-worthy voice brings Lois to life; Roxane Gay (author of the New York Times best-seller Bad Feminist), who shines as the serious, yet compassionate Madwimmin Bookstore owner Jezanna; and more. Jane Lynch (Glee) elegantly propels the story with an affect that's part fairytale narrator, part host of a wildlife special.
Dykes to Watch Out For was directed by Obie-winner and Tony nominee Leigh Silverman (Violet) and features original music by Faith Soloway, Bitch and Alana David. Its soundtrack includes hits by Ferron, Holly Near, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Cris Williamson and Joan Jett, plus 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.
Much of the dialogue in the Audible series was ripped directly from the early comics, and the deft voice acting, narration and sound design give the text a life beyond its original pages. Despite making its way onto a mainstream audiobook platform, the series never shrinks back from its source material.
"We weren't going to get fans by dumbing ourselves down," Bright said. "Yes, we faced battles along the way, but that's what happens when the work you're creating is intellectually and politically acute."
Removing the word "dyke" from the series was never even a question.
"People think, 'Isn't ['dyke'] an epithet?' And sure, if the wrong person says it in the wrong tone of voice, they'll get punched in the nose," Bright said. "But for us, it's how we show our love for one another and how we show each other we're comrades."
You can listen to Dykes to Watch Out for on Audible.