My essay, “Servants to What Cause: Illustrating Queer Movement Culture through Grassroots Periodicals,” has been published in the collection, The Comics of Alison Bechdel: From the Outside In (University Press of Mississippi, 2020).
Today, lesbian comics artist Alison Bechdel is widely celebrated, having been awarded Guggenheim (2012) and MacArthur (2014) Fellowships in addition to the five Tony Awards won last year by the musical based on her celebrated graphic memoir, Fun Home. This renown has been building since the runaway success of her 2006 publication of Fun Home rocketed her from a cartoonist beloved by lesbians to a more broadly known figure. While her meteoric rise has attracted ample academic attention to her work, critics focus on Fun Home and subsequent work, largely ignoring her early comics. While her long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008), earns some consideration from scholars, her work within LGBT periodicals and her strip about these publications, Servants to the Cause (1988-1990), has received virtually no attention at all. By focusing on this all-but-forgotten strip and the grassroots context through which it came to be, this essay demonstrates how Bechdel’s participation in grassroots periodicals shapes not only this early work, but directs the course of her career and the shape of her later work.
Published in the pages of the national LGBT magazine, The Advocate, Bechdel’s Servants to the Cause (1988-1990) appeared alongside Howard Cruse’s critically-acclaimed Wendel (1983-1989), which has recently been recollected as The Complete Wendel (2011). In addition to its publication in The Advocate, all of the Servants to the Cause strips were reprinted within Gay Comics #19 (1993), an issue solely devoted to the non-DTWOF work of Bechdel. Servants to the Cause follows a diverse cast of characters who work together on a fictitious queer periodical, and the plot intersects generational debates and identity politics. In this essay, I will unfurl how Bechdel’s queer visual politics in this strip derive from her closeness to grassroots networks, including her direct participation in the New York City feminist periodical, WomaNews (1983-1985), and work as Production Coordinator of the Minneapolis gay and lesbian newspaper, Equal Time (1986-1990). In addition to these commitments, Bechdel self-syndicated her DTWOF strip in over 200 grassroots periodicals over two decades, receiving copies of the periodicals themselves and news about the inner workings of the various collectives through correspondence that Bechdel exchanged with these publications. Just as she funnels insights about lesbian experience across the nation into DTWOF, she channels this information about the periodicals themselves into Servants to the Cause, creating a cast of characters that reflect different subject positions within the LGBT movement more broadly—from lesbian feminist to radical faerie.
Through these characters and the broad range of The Advocate’s intended audience, Bechdel is able to reflect on subject matter of relevance to the gay community at large—like AIDS and associated activism—that often doesn’t make it into the strips of the fairly idyllic world of DTWOF. In analyzing this strip, I will not only unravel its narrative structure and grassroots contexts, but I will examine the production of the strip itself through drafts of the comic and letters that Bechdel exchanged with her editor at The Advocate. In this analysis and in research across the essay, I will draw upon grant-funded archival research of Alison Bechdel’s papers held in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, Firebrand Book Records held in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University, and periodicals collections at the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. To connect Bechdel to the larger world of queer comics culture, I will consider the significance of The Advocate’s support of the field of queer comics, juxtaposed against large feminist publications like Ms., which often spurned women’s comics. This positive attitude creates a set of conditions through which not only Bechdel but other queer cartoonists flourish, particularly in the 90s, allowing them to make a living outside of the more conservative comics publishing world through self-syndication in queer periodicals.