Over the past few weeks, Mallory Pearson, a 26-year-old writer and graphic designer living in Brooklyn, and her roommate, a tattoo artist, have been reading through Alison Bechdel’s beloved comic “Dykes to Watch Out For.” The series, which ran from 1983 to 2008, rings true as ever to the pair.
“We read something together, literally the other day, and were laughing about how accurate it is,” Ms. Pearson said. They read jokes about feeling unprepared for a date, and story lines about the insularity of lesbian friend groups. “Seeing how that hasn’t changed at all is hilarious to me,” she added.
On Thursday, “Dykes to Watch Out For” was reborn in a surprising medium: an audio series from Audible, adapted by the playwright Madeleine George. Carrie Brownstein plays the verbose polemicist Mo, and Roberta Colindrez voices Lois, a full-time flirt. They’re joined by others, including Roxane Gay, as Jezanna, and Jane Lynch, who narrates the series.
This month marks 40 years since Ms. Bechdel published the first “Dykes to Watch Out For” strip in Woman News. It ran weekly and was famous for its characters’ political engagement and outraged responses to the news of the day. Ms. Bechdel has called her strip “half op-ed column and half endless, serialized Victorian novel.” Social commentary and political analysis are, by nature, products of their time. So how does “Dykes to Watch Out For” speak to contemporary queer culture decades later? And who wants to listen?
Fans of the comic when it first emerged are curious to revisit a work that they felt so astutely captured their lives. Lisa Casey, 50, a marketing agency project manager in Portland, Ore., was living in San Francisco when she read the comic as it was published. “My friends and I would grab the newspaper and read it in the back of bookstores,” Ms. Casey said. “My memory of it was really looking at it as a vision of what my life might become. It was a more grown-up vision of queer life.”
When Ms. Casey first started dating her partner, Brie Stoianoff, in 2017, she gave Ms. Stoianoff a copy of “Dykes to Watch Out For” as an early gift. Ms. Stoianoff, 45, an account executive at a medical-device company, came out in her late 30s. “I just wish I had found ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ in my 20s,” Ms. Stoianoff said. “It probably would have changed the whole trajectory of my life, by normalizing gay relationships.”
When she and Ms. Casey heard about the audio version, they were immediately interested. “I’m incredibly excited because I’m just curious about how they do it,” Ms. Stoianoff said. “What are their voices going to be like?”
Others resist the new format. Avery Rose, 31, a handyman passing through Brooklyn for a few weeks, has always had an interest in reading the comics but is skeptical about the new medium. “I like audiobooks, but I find the fiction audio really cheesy,” Mx. Rose said. “It’s hard for it not to be cringey.”
In adapting the series — which Ms. George first read on the recommendation of a college boyfriend who thought she might like it — the playwright aimed to retain Ms. Bechdel’s dialogue over all else.
“My first Hippocratic oath was: Do no harm to the strip,” she said. After retaining the spirit of the characters, Ms. George went on a hunt for audio cues. She gathered music by Joan Jett and Cris Williamson, as well as audio from protests featured in the comic, including sound from the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, where the AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed. “I think it’s a highlight of this series that we got actual audio footage,” Ms. George said.
The success of the musical adaptation of Ms. Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home” has opened other fans’ eyes to the living, breathing qualities of her other work. KD Diamond, 38, is a tattoo artist and illustrator in Los Angeles who has even done Bechdel-themed tattoos. Ms. Diamond grew up hiding Ms. Bechdel’s comics inside other books while at Barnes & Noble with her family. She was unbothered about the jump from page to headphones, saying the comic’s “rich characters” would be able to sustain an audio series. “The cast is going to be amazing,” she said.
Grace Burke, 23, the manager of Little District Books in Washington, D.C., said that they liked “the accessibility aspect,” noting that an audio adaptation would bring the work to people who couldn’t interact with visuals. But Mx. Burke has other concerns about the adaptation. “Audible is owned by Amazon,” they said. “I don’t really mess with Amazon. I think that a lot of queer people relate to that. The types of people who likely engage with Alison Bechdel aren’t the types of people who love Amazon and support it unless they have to.”
Madden Aleia, 24, also runs a bookstore: Bookends in Northampton, Mass., which hosts a regular queer gathering called Dykes to Hang Out With. “As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time overhearing lesbian conversations, I think that there’s something very valuable about representing the conversations of queers,” Ms. Aleia said of the audio adaptation.
Ms. Aleia said she appreciated “Dykes to Watch Out For” as a rare work about queer people that doesn’t feel a need to explain itself to a heteronormative world. Instead, it spends its time making jokes about psychotherapy, lusting after crushes and rigorously engaging in politics. As Ms. Aleia described it: “We’re here, we’re queer and we’re neurotic about it!”
Ms. Aleia said she regularly sells the comic to people in their early 20s to people in their 50s. According to Mx. Burke, the Little District Books manager, Ms. Bechdel’s work is some of the most popular in the store.
For her part, Ms. Bechdel said she was initially both skeptical about and eager to hear the audio translation. But sitting in the audio booth when the actors came to record, she said, she was immediately thrilled. “To hear Carrie Brownstein really nail the most lengthy, polysyllabic rants was very satisfying,” Ms. Bechdel said. “And Roberta Colindrez as Lois is just a dream. I feel almost like I was channeling her from the future, when I wrote that character 40 years ago.”
Ms. Bechdel said she was amazed that the strip appeals to so many younger readers. “I’m really grateful,” she said. Still, it’s a bittersweet alliance, hearing from readers who are dealing with the same issues and aggravations that her generation faced.
“In some ways,” she added, “it’s sort of sad that with all the progress we’ve had, some things are still the same.”