by Nicole J. Georges (Mariner Books)
I once wrote to Nicole Georges for advice.
I was already a fan of her work, the sweet, meticulously detailed drawings, so often of herself and her friends in their nouveau-hippie Portland, Oregon paradise. Furthermore, I consider us to be part of the same community, the worldwide collection of DIY artists and writers who self-publish their work in zines and mini-comics. So when she launched an advice column on her blog, I felt brave enough to write and ask her how she thought I should handle strangers who gave me attitude (this being the more punk-rock Philly). Nicole gave me good advice. In a nutshell, she told me to forget ’em.
In Calling Dr. Laura, her self-aware memoir-in-comics, Georges is the one in need of advice. Though she has always been told that her biological father died when she was a baby, her mother acts cagey on the subject. So when a friend treats Nicole to a visit to a psychic and the woman tells her that her father is “very much alive,” she finds she kind of believes it.
Throughout much of the book Nicole feels too afraid to broach the topic with her mother, who gets emotional and leaves the room whenever it’s brought up. She turns instead to the unlikely (and gosh, awfully nasty) radio advice lady, “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger, and asks her whether she should try to track down her dad. Dr. Laura told Nicole to forget about her problem, too, only she said it in a mean way and made Nicole cry.
This is Georges’ first full-length book, not including two anthologies of her long-running zine, Invincible Summer. She makes her debut as a developed and skilled storyteller. Calling Dr. Laura juxtaposes the story of her childhood, which was fraught with anxiety and related health problems as her mother dated unlikable men and married an abusive one, with the stories of her own present-day love life and her drive to understand her history in order to move past it.
The book has incredible visual charm as well. The drawings are detailed and loving, each panel like a tiny postcard from Nicole’s life: Here she is hugging her pet chickens, here she is sitting on her hardwood floor and talking on her corded phone. Georges is one of those artists whose life seems indistinguishable from her work, and not only because that work is autobiographical; it’s more like the whole thing is a performance that we’ve invited to watch, and her permanent bouffant and cat eye glasses are her costume. It’s fun to watch her tool around town on her bike and play music in the band she formed with her girlfriend Radar, who she met at the bar where she works as a karaoke D.J.
Indeed, getting to know Nicole means getting to know her community of fellow queer, punk artists, which comes across as vibrant and supportive. This makes it all the weirder that she was drawn to Dr. Laura, who has railed against feminism and attacked gay people for being gay, but this kind of surprise is central to what’s irresistible about Georges’ work. Her honesty feels ego-less, and in revealing things like her guilty-pleasure radio habit she lets us know her intimately.
Romantic troubles are the other struggle depicted in this story. Nicole would like to be able to talk to her mother about her problems with Radar, who can act volatile and distant (and cagey), but her gayness feels like an off-limits topic, too. Instead she goes home for Christmas with a smile plastered on her face, and refers to Radar as her friend and roommate.
Eventually, happily, she looks this problem in the face, too. Psychoanalyzing memoirists seems tacky, but I can’t help but find it interesting—and heartening—that a family that functions by keeping secrets could produce someone as invested in honesty as this young artist. She’s not only telling the truth, she’s telling the whole world.
People who already admire Georges’ work will be pleased to see she has a full-length book; that the book is so well-realized is an even greater pleasure, and should help it transcend her indie fandom and reach a wider audience. If you want my advice, you should read it.