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Nationally, Portland, Oregon is known for being a rainy green city of bicyclists, 20-something hipsters, and enough log-jammed trends from the nineties to fill a whole season of Portlandia. One of the ancient trends that still thrives in the Pacific Northwest is the making of zines. And while the nation at large may have discovered PDX via Portlandia, it’s hard to imagine putting a bird on anything if Nicole Georges hadn’t imagined Portland first. Nicole Georges is one of the reigning queens of the Portland zine scene (sorry, I didn’t intend to rhyme so much), as well as quite the spectacle in her spectacles. Her zine Invisible Summer is both a classic perzine and an iconic record of the look of daily life in Portland, complete with chickens, dogs, and vegan cookery. Georges is also known as a participant of Sister Spit, along with Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles and Cristy C. Road.
Her graphic novel, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, bursts open a family secret, one that redefines Georges’ identity. As a child, Georges was told by her mother and family that her father was dead. But in her twenties, a psychic tells her the family story is a lie; her father is still alive. When pressed, Georges’ sister confesses to Nicole that it’s true, her father is still living and the whole family lied to her. Talk about a kid’s worst nightmare! Not only does Georges have to reinvent her identity to include a dad, she also has to confront a family that conspired to keep her in the dark, plus wrestle all the young adult issues of coming out to her family as well. It is no wonder she’d seek professional help, burdened with all these issues. But instead of seeking out a personal therapist, she calls a professional she idolizes, conservative radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger. It’s hard to imagine a worse person she could have turned to for advice.
Framing this larger issue is the attention to details that make Georges’ zine so popular, including everyday trials and tribulations like pet care, falling in and out of love, wrangling jobs, and kvetching with friends. We follow her adventures DJ-ing karaoke and falling in love with girlfriend Radar (and then getting shut out of their band when the relationship fails), interspersed with flashbacks of Georges’ difficult childhood. Georges struggles throughout her life with her mom’s lies and inability to fess up, at the same time Georges also lies and covers up her queerness to her mom.
As with most families, not everything is resolved by the end of the book, but Georges does manage to gain more insight into both parents. Although she never gets to meet her dad, she gets a better idea of what qualities she and he share. She confronts her mom about the family lies and comes out of the closet to her too. But she’s forced to conclude, “If I wanted to keep a parent, I needed to forgive and accept her as she was. A 60 year old woman with an enormous capacity to love in the present, but never reconcile the past.”
Georges’ artwork is detailed and charming, creating a feeling of preciousness that in her hand-sized zines makes you feel as if you are cupping something dear in your palms. Magnified in this larger comic book format, I felt at times the plot and pacing sputtered. For example, a two-paged spread of the facade of the Paragon Bar didn’t tell me much more than I would have got from one.
Readers may split on how well they think this all works in the graphic novel; there’s a thin line between what’s endearing, and what’s myopic. There is a Portland outside of band break-ups, raising chickens and co-op shopping; one that includes people of color, rednecks, immigrants, cowboys and Native Americans, and people not in their twenties. A bit more awareness of that other Portland would have broadened the book’s insights, and helped mitigate accusations of the narrowness and often self-centered focus of Portland’s hipster culture.
Georges as a character struggles with issues of new adulthood, trying concurrently to both assert her independence from and connect to her family. But Georges as an author and illustrator navigates the rocky world of near adulthood with insight and aplomb.
Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir
By Nicole J. Georges
Paperback, 978574615592, 288 pp.