Mid-sentence, Alison Bechdel stops herself, laughing. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I keep speaking so effusively, but it’s really exciting. I never dreamed this level of talent would get brought to this project.”
The MacArthur Genius grant recipient and author of autobiographical “tragicomic” Fun Home (which was adapted into a Tony-winning musical) is referring to the release of Dykes to Watch Out For. It’s a 10-episode Audible podcast series adapted from her seminal queer comic strip of the same name. Directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman with a script by Pulitzer finalist playwright Madeleine George, the podcast stars a veritable who’s who of lesbian icons: Carrie Brownstein, Jane Lynch, Roxane Gay, Roberta Colindrez, and Jenn Colella.
On Friday, June 23, Lauren Patten will join Colella and Colindrez for Dykes to Watch Out For—One Night Stand, a “Best Of” performance of excerpts from the podcast in celebration of Pride Month. The one-night-only event may be fans' singular opportunity to see the work live on stage (more on that in a minute).
First published in 1983, Dykes to Watch Out For reflected real people in Bechdel’s community, a method of making herself and her friends visible in print media. “I didn’t see images of people who looked like me,” Bechdel explains. “I liked to draw, so I decided I would start to draw myself.”
Taking inspiration from queer newspapers who published stories about Lisa Kron’s theatre troupe, Five Lesbian Brothers, and activist Sarah Schulman’s novels—alongside letters to the editor from lesbians advocating for more acceptance of trans women—Bechdel sought to reflect her community in the comic. Dykes to Watch Out For chronicled women who “worked together, depended on each other, argued through things, [and] evolved together,” says Bechdel. And in a cosmic twist of fate, Kron would later become the book-writer and lyricist of Fun Home the musical.
Over its 25 years of publication, the comic was able to reach women like Silverman and validate the way they saw themselves. Silverman, who has built a reputation for breathing life into new works, was introduced to the strip “like any good lesbian, secretly,” tucked in the back aisles of her local bookstore in Washington D.C. Struck by the political subversiveness, seriousness, and ironic humor embodied by the strip’s characters, Silverman saw the comic as a “portal into a gay bar you didn’t know existed or were too embarrassed to go to.” The characters spoke about AIDs, safe sex practices, marching on Washington, and the complexities of queer identity when sexual orientation was a hot-button American political stance.
Having discovered the strip at a time when being queer was inherently political, Silverman felt relief with every panel. “Oh, there are people out there somewhere,” she remembers thinking. “I just need to find them. Maybe someday, I’ll have a group of friends like Mo and Lois. That would be amazing.”
The project to turn Dykes to Watch Out For into a podcast is one that Silverman learned about from George, a frequent collaborator. It was an opportunity she found “unbelievably exciting.”
“I was just like, ‘Hmm,’” Silverman recalls. “‘I wonder what I need to do, because I will do it, in order to participate.’”
For Bechdel, Silverman brings a level of awareness of the source material to the podcast for which she is very grateful. As a cartoonist, someone who is used to working in solitude, the adaptation was an avenue to collaborate in community with the women she had inspired. “Here was Madeleine bringing her mind to the writing and Leigh, pulling out all this stuff I didn’t even know was there out of the story. What a gift to have all these people making the work so much better.”
The beloved piece of queer literature is compressed into just 10 episodes of “gem-like” and “intricately constructed” scripts from George. Transforming a narrative that is entirely visual to one that can communicate “internal monologue, external panic, [and] internal despair” without a single image presented new challenges for Bechdel, Silverman, and George, who spent a year producing the podcast. For Silverman, the process of “building a company, mounting a show, and capturing it” was unlike anything she had done before. She cultivated the ensemble’s closeness first in person, in one week of rehearsals, and then through different time zones over Zoom, layering sound cues, music, and effects with the Audible team. “It started feeling like theatre,” she says. “And then it morphed into feeling like television or film.”
“The best television ever,” adds Bechdel joyfully, explaining that the week seeing the story “coming alive” in the rehearsal room was “one of the high points of [her] life.”
Despite the delight Bechdel found in seeing her characters come to life, she has no current plans to bring Dykes to Watch Out For to the stage. “I don’t have anything like that on my horizon, no,” she says rather definitively.
“But now that you’ve mentioned it!” Silverman adds brightly, leaving a little bit of hope.
But during the podcast production, a surprise for Silverman came while watching “virgin eyes” in the cast take in the material for the first time. “You could just see people fucking fall in love with Alison,” Silverman says. “And these characters in the way that they should.” The love, and the “amazing ridiculousness” of the comic is evident in each episode. It’s massively funny.
“No one can polish a joke like Madeleine George,” Silverman asserts. “I just want people to laugh out loud, both with recognition and with cringey self-awareness, with the full spectrum of humanity that Alison and Madeleine have written and just delight in it.”
Introducing this world to a new generation also prompts reflection on the atmosphere in which the comic was originally published. “I find it really hard to convey to young people what it was 40 years ago when this started,” Bechdel says thoughtfully. She began writing in a time when most lesbians were not out, and this eloquent “piece of history,” as Silverman sees it, chronicled a shifting worldview towards LGBTQ people.
“I myself began to question,” Bechdel says of her mindset while she was writing, “‘Wow, do we even need this comic strip anymore?’ When I started it, it felt really vital.” But while working on the podcast, the modern resonances of her work began to reveal themselves.
While the series is very much “a period piece” in Bechdel’s mind, the parallels between 1983 and 2023 are not lost on the creators. Bechdel says her brain “shuts down” when reflecting on the unfortunate relevance of the material for young people today. “We’re living through this incredible, weird backlash,” she ponders. “It feels like we’re back in the early 1980s, if not the 1950s. I don’t know what to do with it.”
Adds Silverman, emphatically, “Who we are as queer people continues to be political. The focus this year is on getting people activated. We need to be political. We need to be doing and thinking all the time about . . . what we can all do in our own communities to keep each other inspired and ready to resist.”
Despite how “insane” legislation targeted at gay, lesbian, transgender, and nonbinary people seems to Bechdel, when asked to consider her hopes for contemporary audiences, she offers a directive.
“If people take anything away, it would be to look at how the world works,” Bechdel says. “Look at your part in it. See if you're making things better or not. These characters are all constantly doing that, and I think it's a useful way to live.”
By Bechdel’s definition, a modern-day dyke to watch out for is “anyone who is out there standing up for themselves or for all of us.”
The title, which Bechdel says simply popped into her head one day, came during a time when young queer women were “reclaiming” the word dyke, transforming it from a negative slur to a literal badge of honor. Bechdel and her friends wore buttons emblazoned with the term. It’s those women who watched the AIDs quilt unfurl, who Bechdel immortalized, that Silverman hopes contemporary queer people will meet through the podcast and realize that it's on the shoulders of those women they stand.
“This is a very important time to both remember where we've been, and to try and hold on to a sense of hope, determination, comedy, seriousness, all the things that these characters are holding,” Silverman says with certainty. “These are political people in this strip, and they take themselves and the world very seriously, but there's also something that is pretty fierce about them. [The title] Dykes to Watch Out For is a joke, but it's also like, watch the fuck out. That's the resistance.”
Bechdel agrees, “I liked the double meaning. Watch out for them because they're going to make trouble. Keep an eye on them, because they're amazing."