Friday, January 16, 2015

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges

One of the many genres of comics -- and one that isn't as talked about as others, like superheroes -- is the why-I'm-like-this memoir. The modern cluster mostly derives from the contemporary sections of Art Spiegelman's Maus -- that's my theory, at least -- but progenitors go back further than that, to at least Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. It's a form that attracts a lot of women, unlike more comic-shoppy genres, from Ariel Schrag to Phoebe Gloeckner to Ellen Forney to (of course) Alison Bechdel.

And add to that list Nicole J. Georges, a youngish (now in her mid-thirties, telling a story of when she was twenty-three) lesbian cartoonist who presents herself as being almost stereotypically young and hip: living in Portland in an old house, raising chickens and dogs, making 'zines and music and comics, wearing old glasses apparently just as a fashion statement. [1] Her book Calling Dr. Laura, which I think is her first book-length story, collects and recasts work from her 'zines from the past several years to tell the story of her complicated relationships with her parents, her then-girlfriend, and herself.

Nicole thought her father was dead: her mother and her two decade-older half-sisters told her that he died, very tragically, of colon cancer when she was an infant. But they never actually used his name, which would be a red flag in a more typical home. (She only heard his name once, from a somewhat dotty older relative at a party.) Her mother was a drama queen who took up with what seems to be a succession of inappropriate men until she finally fell into a stable and oppressively Catholic relationship in Nicole's teens. (The stepfather for most of her first decade is depicted here as cruel, violent, and abusive pretty much all of the time.) There also don't seem to have ever been any pictures of the supposedly dead father, which is weird to me -- but Nicole's mother clearly changes the subject and attacks loudly whenever the conversation comes anywhere near her own massive flaws, so everything might have seemed normal in that house.

Both of her older sisters grew up and moved away -- Georges doesn't say this, but they're absent for a lot of the childhood flashbacks, so the reader picks up on it quickly -- and one of them, Liz, came out to their mother as a lesbian and was so badly treated she cut off their mother entirely from that point. Nicole is also a lesbian, but she never actually told her mother so, since she saw what that led to. It looks like the kind of family where lies and pretending and getting angry are the primary coping strategies: it can't have been easy to grow up that way.

That's the backstory, which we learn in parallel as we follow early-twenties Nicole (in about 2003-2004) and her relationship travails in Portland. She's seeing one woman, Verona Mauss, when the book opens, but she wants commitment and Verona doesn't. Then she falls for the charismatic guitar player Radar Jarone, and eventually they move in together, with the aforementioned multiple dogs and chickens. The two form a band: Radar writes songs and plays guitar, Nicole sings (badly, she admits) and does the back-office stuff. But Radar is a little jealous that Nicole stays in touch with Verona, and Nicole gets hugely jealous that Radar starts spending a lot of time with Eve, a much better singer who Radar wants to make music with. Georges also shows us, later in the book, that she was a neurotic mess at the time: clingy, demanding, with hair-trigger emotions -- much like her mother, in fact, which Georges doesn't draw attention to.

Calling Dr. Laura is about how that all comes to a head: how she finally confronts her mother about her father, how she tells her mother she's gay, and what happens to her relationship with Radar along the way. Georges tells that story in a mixture of two art styles: grown-up Nicole's world has an indy-comics look, with closely-viewed details of faces and surroundings, and a lot of grey washes for texture. Child Nicole's world is starker: all blacks and whites, with a simplified drawing style in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi and backgrounds that only show the most important elements.

Dr. Laura -- the radio host with the tough-love advice that Nicole listens to a lot while doing art or craft work -- only comes in a bit at the end, but Nicole did call into the show, and got advice, so that's legitimate for anyone who cares. But her advice wasn't actually all that great.

Georges hasn't entirely assimilated all of the lessons of this story: Calling Dr. Laura has something of the sense of being made during events, or in the immediate aftermath, so there isn't as much distance as you'd expect from an event about a decade ago. It's a book with a lot of truth and heart in it, and it's a story that will resonate for millions of people with problematic family relationships or badly buried family secrets. But I do wish Georges had been able to get just a little more distance before she started telling it -- Calling Dr. Laura has a lot of good things about it, but the ending has more and-then-one-more-thing segments than Return of the King. (In both cases, all of the bits are good, but the structure is the problem.)

[1] There's a scene where Nicole's glasses are broken by a dog while she's on tour for her first book. As a glasses-wearer myself, I was at first hugely sympathetic for her, and then a bit peeved when her complaints were around the fact that the glasses were old and hard to replace. Glasses are to help you see, not be seen!

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