Nicole Georges grew up believing she became a half-orphan when her father died in his 30s, but when a palm reader suggested that her father — the one her mother had told her died of colon cancer — might still be alive, she began to look more closely at the whole of her unexamined life. This personal reconsideration is the heart of Calling Dr. Laura, an inventive graphic memoir that recounts this quest, as well as Nicole Georges’ coming into her own as an artist and daughter.
The book begins with Georges living in Portland, Ore, raising chickens, working as a karaoke deejay and comic-book artist and going on awkward dates with girls. In the book’s first scene, Georges invites a crush over to her house to make the only decent-tasting dessert in a Canadian vegan cookbook (chocolate peanut butter cups). This crush is the one who, as a birthday present, gives Georges the meeting with the psychic that leads her to re-examine her childhood. While Georges’ romantic and professional lives evolve, she’s also hard at work attempting to connect herself more deeply with the story of this now possibly living father. In doing so, she untangles many of the elements that came to define her past, particularly the physical ailments that plagued her.
As a child, Georges suffers from a stomach malady that complicates her thorny relationships with her mother and her stepfather. Her mother — opinionated, funny and self-involved — tries to be helpful but is also embroiled in marital dramas that often affect Georges. Mother and daughter conspire, argue and love intensely, and the depth of this connection becomes the real object of Georges’ pursuit.
The book is unflinching in its honesty when it chronicles the indignities of a body in revolt, but those pathologies aren’t examined in relation to family history, except in passing. Early on Georges asks as an aside, “Is it TMI to tell you that there was always some tension?” The book as a whole is dogged by that concern — of giving too much information — so that it vacillates between frank admission and superficial reference. Why does she check out when things get tough? What’s behind her love of advice columns, particularly the assuredly nonvegan Dr. Laura? The memoir has such an evocative complexity, yet that complexity never gets fully unpacked. Perhaps the book’s most compelling risk is that her search for her father ends up being a minor thread after all; Georges’ real theme has to do with the versions of our stories we create for the people we love — to protect them or to protect ourselves.
Although Dr. Laura plays a short but hilarious part in the book, Calling Dr. Laura is really a chronicle of Georges getting untangled from the complex web of her family history and making a history of her own. Nicole Georges started up the zine Invincible Summer in 2000 and toured with the poetry road show Sister Spit; her work has the DIY sensibility and evokes that period — the infancy of the 21st century — with perfect pitch. Georges’ drawing style is sumptuous and distinctive: a little bit Pettibon, a little bit Tomine. Most of the book is Xerox-gray and black, except when she reaches into her childhood; those illustrations have a more comic-strip look, rounder and brighter, but also starker.
Like many of the best graphic memoirists, Georges is able to pluck the funniest and most compelling bits out of a life story, and this is one of the book’s great strengths (the gorgeous and strange art is another). Although Calling Dr. Laura might not mine the depths of family history as deeply as a conventional memoir, it’s a beautiful and innovative portrait of a young adult who’s moving away from old family stories toward creating new ones of her own. [Copyright 2013 NPR]