Hey, look - another Portland comic artist! What are the odds?
Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir by Nicole J. Georges is a nice, thick comic, clocking in at 260 pages, for which you only pay $16.95. It's published by Mariner Books, and it's the first great graphic novel of 2013.
There are some issues with it, of course, but it's an amazingly powerful comic that is more impressive because it could easily go off the rails, but Georges never allows it to do so.
As this is an autobiographical comic, I shouldn't like it. We all know what happens when I read an autobiographical comic - I criticize it, and people yell at me because it's therapeutic for the writer and I shouldn't criticize it. Yet I keep buying them, don't I, because I am a sucker. However, every so often one comes along that not only has an intriguing hook, but the author does something good with it. So it is with this one - Georges tells the story of her father, whom she was told is dead. One day her girlfriend takes her to a psychic, who tells her that her father is actually not dead, and this begins to gnaw at Georges. A few years later, she finally talks to her older half-sister about it, and she tells Nicole that, indeed, her father did not die when she was two, but he did leave her mother and his two step-daughters. The sister, Liz, tells Nicole that her father was a con man, a bad businessman, and a jewel thief, and one day her mother simply throws him out of the house and moves on. This news, not surprisingly, shakes Nicole up a bit. But what can she do about it?
The most fascinating thing about the book is that it's only tangentially about Georges's dad. She visits the psychic early on, but does nothing about it for a long time. When she confronts her sisters about it, she learns more, but then doesn't say anything about it to her mother. Finally, she gets around to telling her mother, but it's a bit anticlimactic. The book is more about Georges's own quest for a sexual identity, coming out to her mother (which frightens her, as her sister's coming out didn't go very well), and her search for a family. Unlike a lot of autobiographical comics, Georges doesn't knock us over the head about these themes - she sneaks up on them pretty well, with the "hook" of her father's identity keeping us distracted.
When she does circle back around to her father and his story, it feels more real because it's part of her overall quest. Georges also writes very well, making sure that she finds the quiet and true moments inside her bigger themes while keeping her big ideas more subtle. She falls in love with a woman named Radar, and the two move in with each other. Early on, she hints that the relationship won't last, and a reader can see that it's really not that healthy, but Georges does a very good job not letting that color the entire romance. When it does start to break down, it's like a lot of failing relationships - more a slow-motion car crash than an explosion - and it's even worse because no one is really to blame. It's also clear that Georges is straining to create a family for herself because she feels hers is so woeful, but again, she never bangs us over the head with that. Georges comes across as very repressed in this book, something that becomes almost literal when, as a child, she forces herself to forgo using the bathroom and therefore experiences encopresis, which is involuntary bowel movements. The stress of her childhood - her mother is married to an abusive man - causes her to bottle everything up, and while the adult Georges is not - it seems - physically repressed, it's clear that she hasn't evolved emotionally and remains desperate for someone else's approval. If she can't have her mother's, she'll find it elsewhere. This warped idea of "family" gives the book its emotional core, as Georges can't move forward until she deals with her mother and, consequently, her father.
The tension of the book comes from the fact that nobody gives Georges good advice. She loves radio call-in shows, which is why she gets the idea to call Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who gives her typical "tough-love" advice for dealing with her mother. Radar gives her advice, too, but it's as wrong-headed as Dr. Laura's.
Georges is an interesting character - she has a solid personality, but she allows others to dictate to her quite often, and this gets back to her idea of family and what a family means. She can't trade her mother for Radar, because neither of them sees her as a person - they see her as something to be fixed. Both of the relationships she has feel more real than in many comics, because there's not a lot of grand gestures and florid speeches - her relationship with her mother is complicated and often beneath a veneer of politeness, while even the one with Radar is more about finding a common ground than a passionate romance (at least in the book; it could have been different in real life, of course). It gets back to what she wants from Radar, and it seems - for a long time - like she wants someone to tell her everything is going to be okay. Only when Georges decides to fix herself does she find the strength to confront her mother about her father and to come out as a lesbian to her. It is somewhat anticlimactic, but the wonderful thing about this comic is that it doesn't need a grand climax. Just the fact that Georges gained the strength to talk to her mother about these things is enough.
The art in the book is quite good but for a few things, and I can't really figure it out. Georges moves back and forth between her present and her childhood, and for the sections where she's a child, she employs a fairly simplistic line, viewing the world in far more stark tones and shapes.
Her character work in the present is excellent, as she creates unique and interesting people and gives us a good sense of who she is and who she hangs out with. The weird part of the book is in the misc-en-scene, which is often a bit less confident and assured - she doesn't draw cars particularly well, for instance, and her perspective is often off. I'm not sure if that's deliberate - although I don't know why it would be - because she's so good at a lot of the other stuff, but it can be distracting. She's quite inventive - at one point, when her mom is browbeating her, both of them transform into animals, her mother a lioness and Georges a meek hedgehog (at least I think she's a hedgehog). The book doesn't rely too much on the scenery, so the fact that it's a weak spot isn't too big a deal, especially because her character design is so strong.
I honestly wasn't sure that I would like Calling Dr. Laura, because of its autobiographical nature. Georges, however, is a lively storyteller who knows how to pare some of the self-absorption you can find in a lot of autobiographical comics, and the fact that she uses unreliable narrators (yes, plural) is always a plus, as it lends a sense of vertigo to the comic. This is a wonderful book, and I encourage you to track it down.