If there's a literal takeaway from Nicole J. Georges's new graphic memoir, Fetch, it's that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Especially when that dog is Beija, an anti-social, anxiety-ridden Dachshund/Shar-Pei shelter rescue. Luckily, the real story here is Georges herself, who is treated like a dog for much of her life by those who are supposed to love her, but manages—with the help of the adorably cute and quirky Beija—to discover that the only trick that matters is learning to accept yourself and others without judgment.
When we first meet dog and owner, they’re both damaged introverts, looking for acceptance, but dubious of any club that would have them as members. Beija has just tackled a toddler guest at her fifteenth birthday celebration, and party host Georges has retreated with her dog to the basement, in despair, unsure of how two misfits can assimilate into a society for which neither is prepared. From there, we skip back and forth through time, learning what brought them to where they are and following them in their attempts to move forward.
Georges, it turns out, is nearly as wild as the dog she adopts. If her first graphic novel Calling Dr. Laura tackled the trauma of growing up with a lie (she was told her estranged father was dead—he wasn't), this book proves that the truth can be just as harmful (her mother willfully neglects her to the point of endangering her safety). Without a stable family, Georges is raised by a revolving door of caretakers and older siblings, who find it easier to give in to her whims than to "train" her to be a functional adult. This leaves her desperate to both give and receive unhealthy forms of love and affection in every aspect of her world.
By the time she's twentysomething, she clings to chaos in the mistaken belief that choosing to be out of control is, itself, a form of control. She rejects solitude for the distraction of communal life, she represses her attraction to women out of fear, and gets bogged down in meaningless jobs instead of pursuing her art. A whirlwind of destruction, she hurts and, in turn, is hurt by those she encounters, never realizing that she can’t properly take care anyone (four-footed or otherwise) until she learns to take care of herself.
Carrying as much mental baggage as her owner, Beija only adds to the domestic disorder. She pees on every carpet she meets, barks incessantly whenever left alone, and sinks her teeth into most anyone who touches her. Georges tries repeatedly to find her a better forever home than the one she can provide, only to have her returned time and again. The two provide each other comfort, but also feed into each other's insecurities, creating a never-ending cycle of codependence.
George's visual style is ideal for her story. The black and white sketches and hand lettering perfectly capture the do-it-yourself philosophy and cutting edge zine lifestyle she embraces. It creates a delicate balance that allows the movement in her work to vividly convey turmoil, while using white space to keep even the lowest points in the story from feeling hopelessly dark. But all that pales in comparison to her renderings of Beija. Especially touching are the full-page drawings of Beija depicted as the always misunderstood, but eternally loveable Dumbo, which start off each section. But those found between are equally as endearing. From the detail of her scraggily, saggy skin, to the joy in her head tilts and tail wags, to ridiculous-but-adorable "inflatable ears," which make her look ready to take flight any given moment. There’s love in each an every line. When Georges states that Beija is her "external heart" there is no doubt that she speaks the truth.
When it occurs to her that she's enabling her dog's misdeeds, she quits making excuses and trying to change Beija's behavior. Instead, she teaches others to see her pup's perspective and why her very Beija-ness keeps her from conforming to society's good-dog standards. With that, she discovers that the folks willing to make the effort are the ones who learn to see Beija for the good dog she is under it all, and the ones truly worthy of the affection Beija so rarely offers.
It's a lesson Georges eventually internalizes, too, especially as she grows up and Beija grows old (keep those tissues handy). Once Georges stops trying to make herself into what others want her to be, once she stops trying to control every aspect of her environment, once she accepts that the very things that make her who she is—an introvert, a lesbian, an artist—are valuable, she finally becomes the alpha dog Beija needs, and the master of her own life.