Nicole Georges’ “Calling Dr. Laura,” Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” Graphic Memoir, and Something Strange About Time
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007) and Nicole Georges’ Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir (published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2013) share some important similarities: they’re both graphic memoir texts that feature family dramas, and they both use the comics form to do interesting things with time. The similarities don’t end there: Emily Temple, at Flavourwire, named Georges one of eight “Worthy Successors to Alison Bechdel” in 2013, and Alison Bechdel herself blurbed Georges’s book, stating that “there’s a powerful chemistry going on between [Georges’] delicate drawings and the probing honesty of her investigations.” Part of my justification for comparing these two texts is, quite honestly, that I don’t think either Bechdel or Georges mind each other’s company. Both women have produced compelling comics memoirs that explore the intertwined nature of queerness, coming out, and family dynamics and, in what seems almost seems like an impossible coincidence, both Fun Home and Calling Dr. Laura center around the search for an absent father.
To write memoir is to try to render the dynamic, elastic components of lived experience in an inherently still, two-dimensional medium.1 Memoir writers have been making do, and quite well, with the still medium of text for as long as memoir has been around. However, the introduction of images, as in comics texts, lends a certain minimum amount of motion to any memoir text: all images have a variety of points over which the eye must travel, and many capture, or in the case of drawn images produce a sense of motion internal to the image by virtue of their use of shapes, shading, and line. Comics, further, represent time on the page, and in doing so suggest a link between motion on the page- the movement of the reader’s eye from one panel to the next, but also across images within panels- and time in the historical sense; there is a certain ease with which the comics medium represents the passing of time, and it is this same ease that enables comics texts to represent a smooth passing of time even as timelines themselves are interwoven, or chronology is inverted. Fun Home and Calling Dr. Laura are both memoir comics texts that move backward and forward fairly seamlessly through time, and are enabled to do so partially because of this inherent relationship between the comics form and the operation of time in the visual register, and partially because of individual stylistic choices on part of each author.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home enacts a relationship to time that is sometimes described as similar to a spiral: the text moves between its present and Alison’s past, but always in the service of a larger narrative about relationality, family, queerness, and (community, national) belonging that “tightens up,” or becomes more specific as the text progresses. A main through-line, or part of that bigger narrative thrust, is that Bechdel is looking to figure out her father, whose death may have been a suicide, and may further have been linked to both his failing marriage and closeted homosexuality, and in doing so also tries to figure her own gay self out. In order to fully explore her father’s death, and life, alongside her own current moment, her narrative moves between key moments in her childhood and the text’s present, oscillating backward and forward at the same time that the narrative arch builds in tension: time in this text is complex, and in its inconsistency in movement and flashbacks seems to subvert the norm for memoir based texts. However, there is one simple marker of the building of narrative that aligns with common concepts of the narrative arc 2, and it is linked directly to the comics medium’s spatial depiction of time. In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, the opening chapters include pages that are laid out in a generous, spacious manner, with only three or four panels on most pages. By the end of chapter five, six panels per page is the norm, which gives the text a sense of rising action, right up to the climax point. Seven pages from the end (page 219 in my copy), there’s a 2/3 page frame depicting Bruce Bechdel derisively snorting in response to learning that the gay group at Alison’s college are planning on picketing an upcoming film (William Friedkin’s Cruising) due to “bad stereotypes” (218). A roundish shape in the background of the frame, behind Bruce’s head, is washed out, and the panel contains no other background detail, the combined effect of which is that the overall feel is one of slowing down, or even giving pause. Flip the page, and you’ll find the elongated scene in which Alison and Bruce have a conversation en route to a viewing of The Coal Miner’s DaughterFrames on these two pages are thesmallest, and mostcondensed in the whole text: these are the only pages with the familiar three-by-four, twelve panels per page layout. In the spread, readers view Alison and Bruce through the passenger side window of a car, which compounds the overall effect: tensions are high, and thescene feels claustrophobic (the view offered by the window and the size of frames, equally, give a sense of squeezing, or of tightness) Time seems split here: the high number of discreet panels makes the page feel slow, but, conversely, the density of detail gives a sense of urgency often associated with haste.
While this moment satisfies the reader’s desire for a conventional narrative arch in one sense, it also says something about Bechdel’s queering of both the coming-of-age novel and memoir. The moment represented as the “climax” is thoroughly anti-climactic in the sense that it is neither a peak of narrative action, and nor does it lead to any resolution of Alison’s internal conflict. It does, however, highlight Bechdel’s resistance to the normative form of memoir text, and in a way that is particular to the comics form.
Nicole George’s Calling Dr. Laura also signals a complex relationship to memory and history by way of its representation of time on the page. Stylistically, Georges and Bechdel are quite different: Bechdel’s characters are more realistic, owing partially to her penchant for the documentary mode, while Georges’ tend to be more stylized. One stylistic factor that these texts have in common is their use of a simplified colour palette- green-gray and black for Bechdel, and gray and black for Georges- which they use in a variety of saturations to give depth to their frames. Like Fun Home, Calling Dr. Laura moves between moments in the present and the past. Unlike Fun Home, however, Calling Dr. Laura uses a varied style to visually signal these movements into memory: the past is represented in a more cartoon-y, simplified drawing style, the effect of which is compounded by a further switch into a strictly black-and-white colour palette which is absent any background coloring, and so appears both simpler and “flatter.”
These memory moments occupy an ironic position in the text: they are depicted as much flatter than the present of the text, but they predominantly serve the narrative by offering depth and complexity to Nicole’s character and history, and so enact a bit of a double function that eventually does something similar to the spatial arrangement of time in Fun Home. For the majority of the text, this stylistic difference holds the parallel timelines apart from one another, and so allows the past to fill in details that deepen the present moment- mainly by offering anecdotes about Nicole’s mother- without taking it over. As with Fun Home, this spatial separation mirrors the developments at the core of text: Nicole’s story begins when a psychic informs her that her long-thought-dead father is actually alive, which propels her into the messiness of a past, including her relationship with her mother, to which she had previously closed herself off.
This clean separation between past and present, memory and moment, is an imagined thing, a narrative tool that, like Bechdel’s resistance to the expectation of chronology in memoir, is enabled by the comics form: it is a product of comics’ ability to signify time in the visual register. It is also a separation that cannot hold: the past and the present must meet, and in fact do so continuously and in myriad ways. Georges’ text doesn’t ignore this, but rather seems to build towards this meeting (and muddling) as if it were inevitable. As in Fun Home, Nicole’s coming-out to her mother is eventually intertwined with her paternal search, and this collusion is signaled in both the register of narrative and the register of the visual. Calling Dr. Laura takes its name from a scene in the last third of the book in which Nicole makes the somewhat out of character decision to call Dr. Laura, a conservative radio talk-show host, for advice on how to handle an impending conversation regarding the truth about her father. It is this scene, reproduced in part in full colour on the cover, that acts as catalyst for the entwinement of the two narrative threads I’ve mentioned: Nicole opts to follow the advice that Dr. Laura gives her- namely that she should go home, have a good Christmas, and not bother her mother for information about her father- which in turn, and in a roundabout way, leads to her coming out to her mother.
After the call with Dr. Laura, Nicole plans to visit her mother over Christmas, and she and her girlfriend, Radar, make a loose plan for Nicole to come out over the break. When she returns without having done so, her relationship with Radar, who is hurt by Nicole’s hesitance to admit to their relationship, falls apart, which leads to the most symbolically rendered segment of the text. Georges represents her feelings of being untethered and left adrift in a scene that combines elements of the richer style used to this point to represent the present and the simpler style used to signal the past. A conversation between Nicole and Radar begins in their kitchen, but the house, and even the world seems to dissolve around Nicole as the conversation progresses until she is left literally afloat, pressing her knees into her chest as she sits in a small boat surrounded by sharks (220-221). Over three panels, Nicole herself appears to transform: in one panel, she sits in the little boat while wearing glasses, textured socks, a polka-dotted shirt, and two panels later her shirt and socks have lost their detailing, and not only are her glasses gone, but her facial features themselves have become simplified.
This moment is symbolic of the breakdown between timelines which has to do with the way that her various relationships have shifted. For Nicole, the relationships that sustain her, those with her queer friends and especially with her girlfriend, Radar, are garrisoned off from her difficult relationship she has with her mother- this is the crux of the double timeline structure. It is Radar, after all, who pushes Nicole to investigate the situation with her father, and it is Radar who insists that Nicole come out to her mother (at one point, Nicole jokingly drafts an email to her mother based on Radar’s advice: “I’m gay, who’s my dad?” (240)). Somewhat ironically, it is Nicole’s effort to keep these relationships separate from one another- her resistance to coming out, and specifically her refusal to come out to her mother over Christmas- that is the ultimate catalyst for the final dissolution of her relationship with Radar, which directly precedes the visual blending of the two styles. Without Radar, Nicole will have lost her primary relationship, but the loss of Radar is exactly what leads her to confront the messiness of her past. Eventually she comes out to her mother and launches a search for her father, which culminates in an email exchange with a half-sibling she’s never met, and a new degree of uncertainty about her mother: her father, it seems, was a much better man than her mother made him out to be (though we’re never really sure which of these two narratives is most accurate). The final third of the text is drawn in the same mixed style, and though the text lacks a full resolution, the reader is left with the distinct sense that Nicole will continue to work through some of the issues from her past, or that the breakdown in that sharp distinction will continue to reverberate in her life, not least because she has reached some closure about her father.
- Cinematic memoir is, obviously, a different beast altogether. Right now, I’m thinking about written memoir, specifically.
- Namely, that a narrative is built up of action that “rises” or grows in intensity up to a climax point, after which there is “falling” action, or a sense of the tension relaxing.