Sound & Vision: Nicole Georges

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those whose work connects to music. This month The Rumpus has been focusing on patriotism, and what that means in our current political climate. Right after Trump’s election I remember hearing people say that they were “unfriending” others who had different political viewpoints. It’s a completely understandable impulse, but in today’s installment I’m talking with Nicole Georges, whose work suggests that compassion is ultimately more healing than disengagement.

Georges is an acclaimed graphic memoirist who has published her own zines and comics for over twenty years. Her first graphic memoir, Calling Dr. Laura, won a Lambda Award and was an Official Selection at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Georges’s new book, Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, chronicles her fifteen-plus year relationship with her imperfect, yet beloved, dog Beija. As a love letter to pets, punk, and Portland, it’s a deeply moving investigation of what it means to care for another living thing, and ultimately how we can learn to care for ourselves.

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The Rumpus: Have you always kept diaries, and if so, have they always been illustrated?

Nicole Georges: I have been keeping diaries since I was in the fourth grade, and they’ve always been illustrated a little, but I thought of writing and illustrating mostly as separate activities. As a kid, I wanted to be an animator, but you have to draw the same thing over and over so many times—there was no way I was going to do that. So then I thought maybe I’d be a cartoonist or a comic book artist. When I was in high school, I started getting really into zines and autobiographical comics, stuff like John Porcellino’s King Cat, and that’s when I realized I could write and illustrate at the same time.

Rumpus: You started your first zine at fourteen. What were some of your early inspirations and influences?

Georges: We were living in the suburbs but I started going to grunge and punk shows in Kansas City, and I’d heard from people there about some record stores. I remember driving by them and thinking they were a little scary but I needed to go. My mom would make me go on forced bonding days with my stepdad, so one day I made him take me to a couple of places and buy me a ska demo tape by a local band called The Gadjits. That was my entry to Kansas City’s underground music scene, where I met other zinesters who were tabling at shows and stuff. I started going to more stores like Recycled Sounds and Spiny Norman’s, the kinds of places where you could get Manic Panic hair dye, actual vinyl, demo tapes, zines, and stuff like that. I also realized that I could mail order great stuff, like Outpunk, a book about zines by V. Vale, and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World.

Rumpus: Did you adopt your dog Beija around this time?

Georges: Yes! I adopted her when I was sixteen. I actually got her for my high school boyfriend. I think I met him at a Food Not Bombs meeting, and then I drove him to a Weezer show because I had a car. We were basically like twins. He had always wanted his own dog. He had a wiener dog puppy as a child and his abusive stepdad made him get rid of it, and I was like, “Oh that’s so awful! Let me heal your whole wounded childhood!” So I got a job at Toys R Us so that I could afford to get him a dog.

Rumpus: Can you tell me more about adopting her?

Georges: My mom and I went together to this horrible shelter. It was smelly and there were cages stacked on top of cages, and I picked out the shiest dog in the back, the one that no one was supposed to adopt. But then I started talking to her and her tail started wagging. We took her for a walk and her ears started to inflate—she was part Corgi. She had these giant ears like wings! My mom totally lied on the application and said it was for our family. His family decided they didn’t want a dog, so to keep her we had to move out of our parents’ houses the following year. We moved to Portland with Beija when I was nineteen.

Rumpus: When you moved to Portland were you consciously looking for a creative community?

Georges: No! I wanted to move to Columbus, Ohio because I thought there were cool hardcore kids there. But my friends wanted to go to the Pacific Northwest so we ended up choosing Portland just because Olympia seemed the place to go if you were a musician and we weren’t musicians at the time. We moved here more or less sight unseen. I knew some punks who were moving to Portland who were into animal activism, and environmental activism, so I thought maybe I’d go and chain myself to a tree like Julia Butterfly. I thought I was going to take down Oregon Health & Science University because they had chimp research… but that didn’t happen.

Rumpus: Instead in 2000 you started writing the zine Invincible Summer, a chronicle of your day-to-day life. When did you decide to write specifically about your upbringing, and why did you choose to tell that story more in a traditional book structure versus, let’s say, a serialized zine?

Georges: When you live in a family that’s so weird you just kind of think of it as life—not necessarily as an interesting story. I thought that it was funny that I’d once called Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice, but I’d never written about my family life. In 2007 I was touring and telling parts of that story, and Holly, my agent, asked me why I had this family secret, why my mom didn’t tell me that my dad was alive. All of a sudden it clicked. I had this deep well of family dysfunction, and I realized that reaching into it could bring about the graphic novel I’d always wanted to write.

Rumpus: Early on in that book, Calling Dr. Laura, you talk about having a feeling that maybe you’d been adopted, and you notice that your sisters look more like your mom than you do. You have a deep sense of alienation that you can’t quite name, but when a psychic suggests it’s because your biological father is out there somewhere, you accept it immediately even as you discount almost everything else she tells you. Why?

Georges: It just felt right.

Rumpus: The first person you shared this story with was Radar, who goes on to be your girlfriend and a significant person in your story. But at the time you didn’t know each other very well. Did that make it easier for you to talk to her?

Georges: Yes. Pulling on the stray yarn in the family sweater and watching it unravel was more than I was ready for, so by talking about it with a stranger I could selectively bullet point it, tell the funny parts, somehow bond with her without actually going all the way there.

Rumpus: But family secrets are always open secrets in a way, like the thing everyone knows and decides on some level not to address. At some point you decide to talk to your sister.

Georges: Yes, it’s crazy to think about how much someone else can sculpt your reality. Probably a year went by between telling Radar and asking my sister about my dad. And then maybe it was another six months to a year before I talked to my mom.

Rumpus: The standard narrative would be that you mom hid this from you because your dad wasn’t such a wonderful person. Without too many spoilers, the truth you discover is a lot more complicated than that.

Georges: In some ways it made it more devastating, too. It would have been easier if I had been able to somehow insulate myself with low expectations about my father, but then again low expectations never really works as a guard against disappointment, and it prevented me from ever really knowing him at all.

Rumpus: But you also make a conscious decision to continue to have a relationship with your mother after you learn the truth about your dad, and after you experience some negative insights about her.

Georges: I just don’t think that being unable to forgive someone is the most healing move. It can be, and I’ve had times in my life when I thought I would be better off without the drama that another person was bringing to me, but cutting someone out isn’t always the answer. I know someone who cut her mother out and it didn’t magically heal her. She’s still haunted. It’s not as if you can wipe clean all of your memories of having a mother, or wanting or needing one.

Rumpus: That’s very true. Absolutely. Even if your goal is really just to stop the bleeding, you still have to come to terms with the loss.

Georges: People who choose to cut their parents out completely are super brave, but it’s complicated and for me, I’d rather give the relationship a little bit of a try, however imperfect it is.

Rumpus: Is that the connection between Calling Dr. Laura and Fetch? That loving someone (or something) that we recognize as imperfect is what gives us the capacity for compassion?

Georges: Yes—I think for better and worse. For example, at one place in Fetch I find myself in a pretty bad relationship. Once I realize that my relationship with my dog might also be less than healthy, I realize that my capacity to withstand discomfort or dysfunction isn’t my greatest quality. At the time I saw it as a badge of honor, like “Give me the craziest girlfriend you’ve got! Give me the craziest dog you’ve got! I can white knuckle through anything!” But life can be easier. I can’t change others, but I can change the way I am around them.

Rumpus: Music is also a central character in your process of self-discovery and self-care. It’s not just a part of your creative life, but also a source of community.

Georges: Yes, in the book I write about a band I started in my twenties called the Sour Grapes. I kind of use the band and the music as a way to stick up for myself after being wronged by some punk guy. Through zines, music, and the whole culture, I learned as a woman how to take up space and reclaim my voice.

Rumpus: You’ve also emphasized that creativity can be a means to self-sufficiency. For example, you’ve done illustration work such as calendars and pet portraits, taught classes, etc. to supplement your income, but these activities aren’t separate and apart from your creative work.

Georges: I think coming up punk, I didn’t have any expectations for anything. You had a job, you spent money on like coffee, your bicycle, going to a vegan café, and photocopying your zine. Your goal was to break even. But then it grew for me. I could pay my rent if I did really well at a zine conference. Some of the punks around me would be like, “Oh, you’re a capitalist!” But for me getting paid for art is a class issue. I don’t have the luxury not to care. It’s great if your parents buy you a house and you can sell your 400-page book for $2. But for marginalized people it’s not as cool to martyr yourself.

Rumpus: You’re making an excellent and honest point.

Georges: A lot of young artists in particular think you can just do one great thing and then sit back and collect checks. Most artists, even people like Dan Clowes, who’s one of my heroes, don’t just do comics. He does paid illustration. He writes screenplays, and so forth, working and selling lots of different things. Same for musicians. The idea that someone could have records that I saw on TV or listened to on the radio and that they still needed a “day job” was really surprising to me. But it’s a very rare person who doesn’t need to do that, and it’s like winning the lottery.

Rumpus: I think it it’s also empowering to young artists to know they’re not a failure if they are unable to support themselves exclusively through their art.

Georges: For me I feel like it’s important to pull back the curtain. When they see someone like Alison Bechdel have huge success with a graphic novel, they don’t necessarily know that she worked in relative obscurity for like twenty-five years before Fun Home was a hit, faithfully drawing Dykes to Watch Out For strips for almost no money. If you want to be an artist, you have to know that art is an ongoing practice, that you’re part of a long line. Take this test: if someone offered you a billion dollars, but you could never draw another illustration or write another word, would you take it? If you reject it, you need to find another way to pay the bills, but you’re still an artist.

Rumpus: You’ve paid your experience forward to non-artists too, for example teaching senior citizens how to make their own zines. Did the seniors get it right away, having not grown up with zines or zine culture?

Georges: I thought I’d go to the senior center and tell people what a zine was and it would blow their minds and they would start self publishing right away. But they had been told for so long that their voices didn’t matter that it was kind of beyond their scope of reality, so if I wanted to publish their voices, I’d have to do the work for them. The seniors I work with have dementia, cognitive, and/or physical disabilities, are low-income, and a lot are women of color. These are tough seniors who have never seen themselves accurately represented in the media around them, and grew up in a time when women couldn’t even wear pants!

Rumpus: How did you reach out to them?

Georges: At first they just kind of tolerated my collaborator and me being around. We almost became like embedded reporters. We ended up making the zine for and about them. But when they read it, they were so proud they actually started crying. We made the zine into a book, and people were wheeling their wheelchairs and walking up in their walkers to get their books signed by other seniors.

Rumpus: I understand you also have an advice column, and give advice on your podcast as well. Tell me more about that.

Georges: I’ve been giving advice for a while. I first started doing this along with Radar when was I in my mid-twenties, I like hearing most from young people, and I’ll often get teenagers asking me things like how to live with abusive parents or survive being a young punk or a young queer person, and maybe living in an undesirable place. There are also a lot of questions about sex and boundaries. I’ll respond to almost anything. I love giving advice!

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BONUS MATERIAL

Nicole compiled two playlists of songs, which appear below. The first is music that was featured in Fetch. The second is a list of bands that were either in the book, or whose music was critical to her early 2000s upbringing in the Northwest.

Here are bands/songs in the book:
“Freewheel” by Team Dresch
“Cold Blooded Old Times” by Smog
“And I am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Dreamgirls (Jennifer Hudson version)
“End of the World” by Skeeter Davis
“Fifteen” by Taylor Swift
“Dedicated to the One I Love” by Mamas & the Papas

Music from Portland/Olympia that changed my life:
The Need Is Dead, the Need
“Dig Me Out” by Sleater Kinney
Transfused, The Transfused (Rock opera by the Need)
Arkansas Heat, Gossip
Personal Best, Team Dresch
Starlit Sunken Ship, Lovers
“1” by Johnny X & the Groadies (They were drawn playing the first show at our punk house)
Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (Owen from CTFPA was drawn as an extra in the breakfast show part of the book, carrying his keyboards after playing with the Sour Grapes)

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Feature photograph © Kelsey Wallace. All images provided courtesy of Nicole Georges.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →