An essay on Nicole J. Georges, a prolific zinester and graphic novelist who writes, draws and sings her love for animals, humans and vegan food.
It’s common knowledge in the US that if you want to be President, you are more likely to win if you are white, male, married, ideally with children (to prove your prowess), and if you have a dog. As someone who is not American and not a dog-owner, dog-ownership in particular has always seemed to be a strange quality that the good people of America have looked for in their leader. It was only when I read Nicole J. Georges’ Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home (2017) that I finally began to comprehend the strong feelings that pets evoke in their respective owners.
At first glance, Nicole J. Georges may seem like she isn’t for everyone. Self-proclaimed “queer, vegan, feminist” Georges has clear alliances that she isn’t afraid to stand behind. She is, as I’ve heard politically correct people describe it, her own flavour. But it is a flavour that, despite its seeming narrowness, is surprisingly universal. By this I mean that her work, even though it may be on topics that trigger strong reactions in people, is still strongly rooted in the common but underrated values of friendship, trust, loyalty, and courage.
A self-taught comic artist, Georges dropped out of school at a young age to pursue an education of her own choosing. Her coming-of-age graphic memoir Calling Dr. Laura (2013), winner of the 2014 Lambda Literary Award in the Graphic Novel category, documents her adventures in coming out and coming into her own, as she finds her own path through zine-making to being a comic artist. It is evident that her adventures have paid off with full credits, because she has since not only published two graphic novels but has also been on the faculty at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Vermont and the California College of Arts. Georges also runs her own podcast, Sagittarian Matters, on which she reviews expired vegan food, interviews other comic artists, and doles out advice to the lovelorn and troubled at heart.
Giving advice is a theme that runs through all her work. Her first book Calling Dr. Laura is named after the radio-show host who would hand out strongly-worded, no-nonsense advice to listeners as they called in on her show. Georges’ brand of counsel, however, is a far cry from the tough-love school of advice currently in vogue. She won’t tell you to write or cook like a motherfucker. Instead, her advice series on Instagram, called “hashtag anonymousfurball,” features anthropomorphic animals sharing life lessons learnt in rehab with their modest following.
What is refreshing about Georges’ work is the delicious originality of her stories and her artwork. All her work has an admirable DIY punk rock ethic and consuming it makes you go “hell yeah, there really is no reason for us not to produce our own clothes, music, and entertainment.” Comics, self-publishing, and zine-making are a modern kind of Folk Art, and Georges’ work is a testament to the democratic nature of this movement. Where art school graduates take years to unschool themselves, Georges’ work instinctively has a simplicity of line and tone, an eye for details that are rendered lovingly and painstakingly with her brush pen.
Georges’ greatest gift, perhaps, is her knack for storytelling, encapsulating episodes of her life into perfect, bite-sized morsels for the reader to chew on long after you’ve finished reading her books. The stories she tells are not ones you are likely to have encountered: there are no superheroes in them, real or imagined, nor do they resemble the light, white-washed autobio comics that flood the market every year.
These are stories of someone who seemingly has lived her life entirely on instinct, dedicating her meagre resources, as a young person, to animals, zines, and friends. In her second graphic novel Fetch, for example, she writes of moving in with her high-school boyfriend at age seventeen, all for the sake of taking care of a rescue dog, who would go on to be her steady companion for the rest of its life. It is this formative relationship with her first dog, named Beija, that is chronicled in Fetch, appropriately subtitled How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home.
You don’t have to read too far into Fetch to understand just how bad Beija can be. The opening sentence of the book is enough:
This is followed by raucous scenes of a funny-looking dog chasing and tackling small children. Georges eventually succeeds in removing her dog from the scene of the crime, but where many others would have returned to the festivities, Georges chooses to remain in the basement with her offending dog instead. For her, the grieved party is her dog as much as it is the traumatised children. She writes:
I could have put Beija in her kennel, tuned out all the barking, and chosen to go upstairs without her. I could even have given this dog up at the first sign of her behaviour issues, her ‘badness’. But I would never do any of those things. As it was, I had owned and loved this decidedly bad dog from my childhood to adulthood and she was as much a part of me as I was of her.
This unfortunate episode sets the tone of the book, as it chronicles relationships that the young Georges develops, not just with Beija and the assorted house pets of her childhood, but also the varied cast of characters who come into her life as she makes her way though the world. These relationships are documented in all their glory and dysfunction, making for comedic yet touching moments throughout the book.
The book is testament, not only to Georges’ kinship with animals, but it is also a lesson in loving. Loving someone, animal or human, is not about what you want, but about what your loved one needs. And thus little Georges slowly learns to stop overhandling her pet rats, dressing up her dogs and teaching her turtle how to read. By the time she has Beija, she has learnt the lesson that loving someone doesn’t automatically mean that you are entitled to their love, even if that someone happens to be an animal.
What follows are a series of interactions in which she tries to drive home this lesson to the other people in her life, to varying degrees of success. Frustrated, she distributes flyers, which make a surprisingly clear-eyed case for animal rights, asking questions like “Why is it appropriate/acceptable to touch animals you’ve never met, but not people (based on their cuteness)?” The women in her life quickly catch on, calling it “feminism, but for dogs” but her men friends are slow to learn.
At its core, Fetch is love story between a woman and her dog. Long-time pet owners will find much they identify with, but for those of us deprived of animal-love, the book serves as a starting point to understanding what a relationship between a dog and her human looks like. Georges’ work, so far, in all its forms–podcasts, zines, graphic novels–allies strongly with those who traditionally tend to be undervalued by society such as like old people, the LGBT community and animals. Yet her “activism,” if we can call it that, is not loud and strident, but comedic and endearing. In standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves, Georges has developed her own voice, which is funny, brave and heart-breaking, all at the same time.