Nicole J. Georges’ followup to 2013's Calling Dr. Laura continues her coming-of-age graphic memoir, this time focusing on Georges’ relationship with her dog, Beija. A unique mix of Shar-pei and Dachshund, Beija has a very difficult personality, which includes hating almost all males on sight and lunging at children. But Georges loves her unconditionally. It’s a love that sustains them both through housing problems, bad relationships, and the general life upheavals that punctuate Georges’ maturation from teenager to adult. During her years with Beija, Georges learns to hone her strengths and recognize her weaknesses, eventually learning to live life on her own terms, eschewing templates. With its theme of the deep relationships between people and their pets, Fetch has obvious appeal for animal and dog lovers. But this bildungsroman should also interest a broader audience.
Fetch takes us back to Georges’ teenage years, with occasional, further flashbacks to her as a young child. Raised by a loving-but-dysfunctional, frequently absent mother, and an aggressively “manly” stepfather, Georges learns to channel her loneliness, energy, and affections towards animals. At sixteen, she acquires Beija from the dog pound as a gift to her boyfriend, Tom. But Beija proves to be a handful from the beginning, a “bad dog” who repulses both Tom’s parents and Georges’, and she is ultimately the catalyst for the young couple to move away to Portland, Oregon. Both take to Portland right away: “Dirty and quirky. It felt like home.”
When Georges refers to Beija as “very much a work in progress,” she could be describing her younger self. She and Beija are inextricably linked, much more so than Georges and Tom, who break up after just six months. During that time, Georges discovers DIY and "alternative" culture, which prove to be life-changing. It's fun spotting the little tributes to some of her early-'90s zine and music forbears in Fetch, including Carrie McNinch's classic diary comic The Assassin and the Whiner and lyrics from the song "Freewheel", by the great Dyke/Homocore band, Team Dresch.
The DIY ethos is an important element of Fetch. Creating her own zines and comics in Portland’s rich alternative scene, Georges finds her true creative voice. DIY not only informs her work but, in fact, becomes her very lifestyle, her raison d'être. Early in the narrative, Georges describes how a chance encounter with an acquaintance leads her to begin painting pet portraits on commission, which soon enables her to become a self-supporting artist, with Beija serving as her muse. To this day, Georges, a self-taught artist, has fashioned a good cartoonist/educator career for herself by dint of her grit and determination—and most impressively, by following her own creative instincts.
Involvement in the Portland scene also aids Georges in coming to terms with her sexuality. She comes out, first by announcing it in the pages of her zine, and then to friends and crush objects. She enters a relationship with a woman named Avery who, along with her “penchant for problematic pets,” provides Georges with some keen insights and support. But things ultimately don’t work out; another relationship with a woman named Kit fares even worse, sending Georges into a dark emotional tailspin. Beija is always there, through the pain and heartache, needing Georges’ watchful care: “my homemade external organ […] a flag representing my ability to love and grow, take care and be defended.”
Georges’ art in Fetch is as idiosyncratic as ever: a blend of straightforward representation and zine-like improvisation, with more than a dash of playful whimsy. One of the best animal renderers in the business, she draws Beija with tenderness, fully capturing her oddly charming, rough-hewn personality. I particularly like the drawings that announce each section of the book in which Beija is cast as Disney's beleaguered Dumbo.
Fetch’s storytelling rhythm and visual sense are of a piece: like Calling Dr. Laura, the book is long and agreeably rambling. The panels tend to be horizontal and rectangular, with the characters often dwarfed in large, airy, sparsely furnished interior spaces that hint at possibilities. Georges is one of those cartoonists whose work is instantly recognizable. It’s singular. And she has a light touch. Even when the narrative occasionally goes down some gloomy tunnels, there’s the sense that the resilient Georges will pull through— especially with Beija always waiting at home. The final portion of the book, a tribute to Beija’s life, is a heartfelt, moving elegy. The epilogue moves forward with hope for happiness under new circumstances and new companionship. Fetch is a lovely book for dog lovers, and an inspiring testimonial for making and owning life on one’s own terms.