The Marriage of Pictures and Words

Humanities7 MIN READ

Graphic memoirist Nicole Georges named 2024 Jennifer ​Jahrling​ Forese Writer-in-Residence

Graphic memoirist Nicole Georges with her dog, Ponyo, will make Waterville home for the spring semester. Her work explores themes relating to identity, family secrets, the queer community, self-help strategies, and animals. Georges is a vegan who said one of her missions in life is to help animals.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
February 14, 2024

When Nicole Georges explains the power behind graphic novels, she recalls Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, director of the film The Boy and the Heron. The world, he said, is too complex to describe in just pictures or just words. 

“I think the marriage of those things together just tells the whole story,” said Georges, a writer and illustrator celebrated for her graphic memoirs Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home and Calling Dr. Laura. Georges has arrived from Los Angeles to serve as the 2024 Jennifer​ Jahrling ​Forese Writer-in-Residence in Creative Writing.

“It was such an honor to get chosen for this, and I’m so excited to learn more about Colby,” said Georges from her sunlit apartment overlooking the Kennebec River with her dog, Ponyo, nearby. The fellowship will grant her space and time to work on her latest books while teaching a course through the English Department. She will also give readings and offer public workshops.

Georges brings experience from California College of the Arts, where she’s taught in its M.F.A. in Comics program since 2014. She has also taught at Portland State University, the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Ore. In 2016 she was the Donaldson Writer in Residence at the College of William and Mary.

She also hosts a podcast, Sagittarian Matters, and offers custom pet portraits.

The Jennifer ​Jahrling​ Forese Writer-in-Residence Program in Creative Writing is designed to allow students and the public to engage over time with an accomplished author. The program was established in 2020 by Trustee Jamie Forese and Jennifer Forese.

Each year, the Creative Writing Program looks for a writer in a genre its faculty can’t teach themselves, said Adrian Blevins, professor of English and director of the program. Student interest in the genre fueled the decision to choose a graphic novelist, and Georges was selected specifically for her ability to be imaginative and courageous.

“Our best teachers teach us not to be afraid. To try. To play,” said Blevins. “We selected Nicole Georges because we felt certain that she was one of those artists who could share the joy of this way of being in the world.”

From teen zines to book deals

For all of Georges’s joy and playfulness, her personal story includes an abusive childhood and a debilitating family secret. She bravely explores these past traumas in her books and more than 20 years’ worth of comics and self-published zines.

Georges drew her first zine at 14 while working at Subway in Kansas City. She soon learned about Riot Grrrls, a 1990s movement that empowered young women to fight structural oppression through punk music and zines. The zines addressed issues she had never heard explicitly talked about, such as abuse, mental health, homophobia, and racism.

“All this stuff was very revolutionary, and having grown up in a rough household, it felt like a place where I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not crazy. The world’s crazy!’” She wanted to empower others and started doing her own confessional zines.

Nicole Georges
During her residency, writer and illustrator Nicole Georges will work on two book projects, including a middle grade graphic novel titled The Ballad of X-Ray and Coco.

Georges moved to Portland, Ore., and continued writing zines while organizing symposiums and teaching workshops. In 2007 the award-winning writer Michelle Tea took her on a Sister Spit literary tour, where Georges read an autobiographical story about calling conservative talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger regarding the fact that her mother kept her father’s existence a secret her entire life. The story caught the attention of a literary agent, who prompted her to delve deeper into her family’s dysfunction.

Calling Dr. Laura is Georges’s Lambda Literary Award-winning 2013 graphic memoir she’s adapted into an Edward R. Murrow-award-winning podcast series, Relative Fiction, with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rachel Maddow heralded the book as “engrossing, lovable, smart, and ultimately poignant.”

Her second graphic memoir, Fetch, is a queer coming-of-age story about Georges and Beija, a high-needs rescue dog she adopted when she was 16. Beija was a “troublesome combination of tiny and attack” who wore a bandana that said, “Don’t pet me.” For 15 years, Beija was there while Georges navigated depression, broken relationships, and an unmoored young adulthood. She wrote Fetch in the wake of his death when her grief was so great it was “coming out of her pores.”

Fetch, published in 2017, garnered two Oregon Book Awards and a Lambda nomination for best graphic novel. Currently, the book is in development for television with Sid Gentle Production.

Being brave

The courage Georges shows in both of her graphic memoirs is a trait she draws on while helping young people tell their own difficult stories.

“There is something nice about being able to stand by them,” said the writer. “I see it like I’m their ally. I’m with them, and I have their back.”

During her semester-long residency, Georges will teach 16 Colby students how to tell stories through comics. From day one, they’ll draw and make diary entries about details from past experiences. But no feelings, she insists. It’s a process akin to time traveling, she said. “Going into a memory, looking around, gathering all the details, and then telling the story from there.”

Blevins sees Georges as a permission-giver, as someone willing to be vulnerable in her work. “Students do need to learn to get in touch with the part of themselves they keep most hidden,” said Blevins. “The goal here should be connection with others. Otherwise, why write?”

Georges wants to share with students her means of production, which involves creating lots of comics. She had a “self-disclosure itch” as a teenager that served her well, but kids today are doing it on “corporate-owned platforms that are just harvesting their information and selling it back to them through advertisements,” she said. “I just want them to know other ways of expressing themselves, that they have ultimate control and power over that.”

To Georges, graphic novels embody intimacy from seeing someone’s handwriting and illustrations. Reading them brings an immediacy and closeness to the author. On the other hand, creating them requires surrendering to the full body process of drawing and writing. A process that can leave people feeling vulnerable.

That’s where Georges steps in. “I can help them be brave.”

Nicole Georges
Nicole Georges describes graphic novels as a cross section of poetry and graphic design. “You don’t have very much space, so you have to cut throat edit.”