Fetch Cartoonist Nicole Georges on the Thriving State of Queer, Female Comics & Teaching Sequential Art

Comics Features Nicole Georges
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<i>Fetch</i> Cartoonist Nicole Georges on the Thriving State of Queer, Female Comics & Teaching Sequential Art

If you’re not a dog person, you may not think that Nicole J. Georges’ new graphic novel, Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, has a place in your library. You’re wrong. Georges has the wonderful ability to unpack her life, lending it a tightly curated structure while letting it connect with your own—probably very different—autobiography. I think dogs are okay; I grew up in a pretty square environment, eat meat, pursued a normal educational path and have two children. My life path runs contrary to that of Georges, but this book speaks to me nonetheless.

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Fetch addresses her relationship with Beija, a strong-willed pooch who despises men and children, but offers a loyalty and unconditional love rare even for woman’s best friend. The panels zoom out to show how critters served as a focal point of affection and aid for Georges throughout her life.

She bridges her experience to the reader and provides crystalline vision inside her head, partially conveyed through her organization of events, combining specifics and generalities in the right proportion. She shows us her flaws without whining and her strengths without bragging, and she opens our hearts in the process.

The cartoonist responded to our emailed questions below, discussing her artistic process, teaching career, the importance of handmade things and what she’s doing to open up comics to new voices.
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Paste: It’s been four years since your last book [Calling Dr. Laura]. What’s your usual pace of production? You seem like a fairly deliberate artist/writer. Is that a fair characterization? Or have you just been busy with other things?

Nicole Georges: It takes a very long time to draw 300 pages. I think it’s fair to say I am fairly deliberate. Here’s the breakdown: I conceived of, outlined and pitched this book in 2013, after my Calling Dr. Laura tour. I drew and wrote the story in 2014, redrew and edited it three to six months later, got edits from my publisher and started penciling and inking it in 2015. After the initial writing and editing was done, I drew the whole thing over the course of about two years. If I had to do it again, I would have given myself a little more time, because drawing a comic is very isolating, and to do two pages (either penciled or inked) a day every day means saying no to a lot of human interaction. I always have other side projects going to keep my mind active, and to pay bills, but I have stayed pretty focused and honed-in on finishing Fetch.

Paste: How long does lettering take you? You do your own, right? Is that important to you?

Georges: I do my own lettering! I don’t know how long it takes individually, because I do it all at the same time. Each page takes me between six and eight hours, I think. My publisher had a professional font-making-firm create an NJG [Nicole J. Georges] handwriting font that is pretty passable, so I’m looking into using that in the future. My hands demand it!

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Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home Interior Art by Nicole Georges

Paste: I was re-reading my review of Calling Dr. Laura;, and I was amused to see that I mentioned The Dog Whisperer, as a similar kind of nonfiction entertainment that creates order out of disorder. It seems like repeated attempts to create stability are a thread in your life, yes? Do you think they also affect the kind of entertainment you appreciate?

Georges: Maybe so! I grew up with enough chaos for a lifetime, so now I get really excited when I encounter entertainment that includes rigidity and order. Judge me, Judy! Give me some rules to live by!

Paste: Fetch is also an extremely structured book, with each of its chapter titles constituting a command to a dog, but also a theme for that chapter. How much outlining do you do ahead of time?

Georges: I wrote out a giant timeline of what events felt necessary to the book first, and then filled in the spaces with every anecdote I could think of that went along with those events. This was all on paper. Little scraps with the titles of the anecdotes written down. Then I wrote down the command headers (“Sit,” “Go Lay Down,” etc) and tried to see what fit where. It’s like a giant puzzle, really.

Paste: That kind of carefulness would seem to be at odds with the punk/zine culture your work comes out of. Yes? No?

Georges: Possibly! Except I come from more of a straight-edge punk culture full of control freaks and uptight people whose aesthetics and work ethic are different from kind of sloppy, ‘77 drunk punk style. And I was largely influenced by riot grrl zines. Zines may seem sloppy, but they still take forever and have a lot of painstaking, small detail.

Paste: Could you describe your working process, in detail?

Georges: I put on a smock and set up my station with fresh water and paper towels. I have a work playlist set up on the iPod Beth Ditto gave me 10 years ago. It has, like, Elliott Smith and Nina Simone and The B-52’s and Erik Satie on it. I can listen to that because I know the songs so well they fade in the background and denote work time. If I’m just inking, and I’ve already drawn the faces and done the lettering, I can watch TV while I work. I watched the entirety of Sex and the City for the fifth time while doing Fetch, and Empire and RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Golden Girls.

I’ve learned to go with my own biorhythm instead of beating myself up over getting to work in the morning, so I roll into the studio, or “clock in” to my desk around 4 or 6 p.m. and work until 11 or 12. I’m not allowed to do any inking after 11, because while I still have the will, after a certain hour I no longer have the way. As for writing the book, I sequestered myself in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Washington coast at a place called the Sou’Wester and unplugged for 10 days so I could get some serious writing done.

Writing a book like this includes doing writing exercises with myself about different topics and people, and then synthesizing that written information into thumbnails, which are like very simple, storyboard sketches of how everything will look and what it will say. I thumbnailed the book twice. Once for myself, then an edited, cleaned-up version for my editor. She edited from those, then I penciled, she did another round, I showed it to a couple of other editor friends, and I inked from there.

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Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home Interior Art by Nicole Georges

Paste: Is it important to you that your work looks handmade, rather than completely polished?

Georges: I like for there to be some movement in my work. I want it to look like a human being was involved. There is something I like about seeing a person’s actual handwriting, and seeing how they did things. It’s instructive and humanizing. I think that is a very riot grrl value: making work accessible by letting people get close and seeing how you’re doing it. Life isn’t that mysterious or hard, it just takes time.

Paste: What does your workspace look like?

Georges: I made Fetch in 10 different places over the past four years. My main studio is in Portland, with giant windows overlooking the Willamette River. There is a little shelf for books and a place underneath for Ponyo’s dog bed. I have a special ergonomic chair to save my back and body, and I have another desk to my right for laptop or ink or water or whatever I need. I have supportive notes and letters from cartoonists and people I admire taped to the walls, a giant portrait of a Pomeranian, and a tattoo-style art print of Susan B. Anthony that says “Independence is Happiness. Failure is Impossible.”

The constant, the thing in the middle of the window in Portland, or propped on the table of any apartment or farm I visit, is a drafting table. Be it my reliable, squeaky, free-standing one or a portable tabletop version. My second-favorite place to work is a farm on the outskirts of Portland, in Tualatin.

Paste: You teach a lot, right? What are your students like? What are you trying to communicate to them, and how?

Georges: I do! Teaching is my day job. I currently teach MFA students at California College of the Arts. They are people who are deeply dedicated to comics, building a community and learning the art form. It’s not easy. There are a million things to learn! It’s part art school, part trade school. One of my mission statements in life is helping people find empowerment through representation and self-expression. That is one of my guiding principles in teaching. How can I teach them everything I know, and help them convey the ideas they want to convey, represent their stories and experiences, in a clear way that readers can connect with?

What it feels like I do, beyond writing/drawing exercises and supportive group workshops, is I try to tell them as much as I physically can when the bell rings and keep talking and making notes until class it over. That may not be accurate to how my classes are laid out, but that’s how it feels.

I have a podcast called Sagittarian Matters, where I interview cartoonists and artists about their lives and about their advice for young artists and cartoonists. This is a way of me trying to share valuable, informative conversations I’ve had with people in the industry to anyone who wants to get in there and make their own stuff.

Paste: As a queer vegan, do you feel a lot of pressure to be a spokesperson for certain issues? How do you handle it?

Georges: I feel great about being a spokesperson. No one person can accurately represent a whole group, but I’m happy to tell people my perspective. I hope in my books people feel like they are getting to know a queer person, a vegan person and a Syrian-American person. I hope that then, when they have the opportunity to talk about or vote on things that matter to those groups, they consider their new friend/acquaintance, and how my humanity may be impacted by these things. (As for the vegan part, I hope they see that I’m not a total maniac, just a food lover who happens to love animals and helps them in this small daily way, while simultaneously enjoying delicious pantry items).

Paste: Who’s easier to draw: dogs or people?

Georges: Definitely dogs. I actually think I’m on a streak of disappointing humans by drawing versions of them they don’t agree with. Give me more dogs!

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Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home Interior Art by Nicole Georges

Paste: What comics have you read lately?

Georges: I just finished Boundless by Jillian Tamaki and My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris. A comic I just added to my syllabus is BDSM by Eleanor Davis. I am looking forward to reading Davis’ bicycle travelog and Keiler Roberts’ new book, Sunburning.

Paste: In some ways, you could say independent comics have always made room for folks outside the mainstream, but in other ways the past 10 or 15 years have been an amazing flowering of different voices. It seems to keep developing greater complexity, like a fractal. What role do you think you, personally, have played in opening up the comics world for new voices?

Georges: Holy wow. I hope I’ve played a role in opening up comics for new voices. That would be a total honor. I like considering the classic, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I was lucky to have found a safe space at such a young age (Portland, Oregon), from which to come out and be visible as a queer, feminine person in comics. I hope that showed other girls, queers and femme people that there was a space for them.

Over the past 15 years I’ve taught over 12,000 students of all ages, through non-profits and schools. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, and I hope that my presence in their classrooms, giving them the means of production, helps to influence a new generation of artists and writers. The Portland Zine Symposium, the Independent Publishing Resource Center, Young Audiences and the Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls are all close to my heart.

Paste: Do you have artistic influences who aren’t from comics (especially as someone who kind of came to comics through zines)?

Georges: The illustrator Sue Coe, Disney painter Eyvind Earle, Spirited Away creator [Hayao] Miyazaki, the author Lois-Ann Yamanaka and the poet Eileen Myles are a few. Also Ian MacKaye and Kathleen Hanna, regarding longevity and ethics in a punk artist’s life.

Paste: What kinds of concrete advice do you try to give your students? Do you think there’s anything you try to communicate about comics that’s different from the way most teachers approach the field?

Georges: ALWAYS WRITE YOUR WORDS BEFORE YOU DRAW YOUR SPEECH BUBBLES.

- There is no wrong way to draw comics. It is an art form. Express your damn self.

- If you are working toward clarity, that is something we as a group can help you with, but you don’t have to draw like anyone else.

- No self-deprecation allowed. When you’re a new cartoonist, your work is just coming forward and getting figured out. It’s like a newborn fawn learning to walk. It’s not going to get better if you yell at it.

- The wobbly parts are just the actual process of learning and trying something new so it can get stronger.

- Do not try to draw a graphic novel before you have learned to draw a successful (story-wise) four-page, eight-page, 12-page, 24-page comic. TRUST ME.

I also focus on representation. Both in our own work moving forward, and in making sure we are aware of the past. Every year I give a slideshow presentation called “Nicole’s favorite women and queers in comics.” This was born out of necessity after attending comics history lectures where women seemed rare and queers nonexistent. Many, many, many comics programs focus on men talking to men about men. Ours embraces a diversity of voices and perspectives.

Paste: Can you give us that list?

Georges: Alright! Here are the people included in my slideshow. From the 1940s through today!

(in no particular order)

Ariel Schrag
Renee French
Dame Darcy
Diane DiMassa
Debbie Drechsler
Phoebe Gloeckner
Carrie McNinch
Ariel Bordeaux
Julie Doucet
Mine Okubo
Cristy Road
Genevieve Castree
Amanda Vahamaki
Lilli Carre
Edie Fake
Hellen Jo
Amandine Urruty
Lisa Hanawalt
Eleanor Davis
Keiler Roberts
Gina Wynbrandt
Aline Kominsky Crumb
Vanessa Davis
Liz Prince
Julia Wertz

Special notes:
Short Run Comics Fest! (A nonprofit comic arts festival in Seattle run by all women. They also host an inclusive women artists retreat at the vintage airstream park I love, called Trailer Blaze. I helped cofound the retreat, but they do all the work.)

Emily Larned is now a book artist, but her zines were HUGELY influential to me.

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