Vanessa Davis

A Female Life in Comics

Vanessa Davis is a U.S. based comic artist and humorist best known for her autobiographical works, ‘Spaniel Rage’ and ‘Make Me a Woman’ which was praised by Bust and Vice magazines. Both books have been published by Drawn & Quarterly with Spaniel Rage seeing a new edition in 2017. 

In Spaniel Rage, viewers are given an intimate and personal view  into the life of the then twenty year old Davis, with her work in black and white pencil with stories about love, friendships and loss.

* click the image to get a bigger view of the comics!

Later, we see her style and subject matter move into a more mature realm when we look at the work from her serial for Tablet magazine, many of  which were later adapted into ‘Make Me a Woman’ and focus on her Jewish female identity.

Vanessa’s  comics have been featured in Kramers Ergot, Best American Comics, Stuck in the Middle, Papercutter, and An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories.  Most recently she has been drawing a serial for the Paris Review.

Your​ ​father​ ​was​ ​a​ ​commercial​ ​artist​ ​and​ ​photo-journalist.​ ​Can​ ​you​ ​see​ ​any​ ​of​ ​his work​ ​in​ ​your​ ​own?​ ​How​ ​did​ ​your​ ​childhood​ ​affect​ ​your​ ​career?

It feels natural (if not always easy) for me to live and work within an uncertain freelance lifestyle. The humility of struggle and uncertainty mixed with the rush of work and money… that’s always been sort of central to my experience, but both my mom and dad worked doing what they loved, so that’s just paramount, by any means necessary, to me. It is a high-maintenance lifestyle, but it feels almost just cultural or religious or something–I can’t get away from it. My dad definitely had an eye for the absurd and could criticize hissubjects by merely portraying them. But he also maintained a sort of joy for the chaos of this world. That’s definitely something I aspire to in my work and in my own viewpoint.

Early work from Spaniel Rage

While you grew up reading comics, you’ve mentioned you were encouraged to leave behind anything comics or illustration-influenced in art school, until college. How did you tune in to hone your voice and perspective during these years?

In a way, I think it helped me hone my own voice when I was pressured to ignore comics. While I think it was wrongheaded of my fine art teachers to dismiss the potential and capacity of comics as an art form, the philosophy behind fine art training is to look at everything anew, to start from scratch to access your own eye. You draw the shape in front of you, not “Steve” or “a cat sitting in a basket” or whatever else. Which is the opposite of comics, where everything is symbols. I think learning that way helped me with comics, because I was able to approach my own work as just my own work, not necessarily in the context of comics’ legacy or form.

What’s the most important lesson you learnt from college?

The most important thing I learned in college was to just be real about myself. I transferred twice in college, and ended up at a state school after trying two prestigious and expensive private schools. My transition to college life was rocky, and my dad died when I was a sophomore. After I “gave up” this dream of the perfect college experience and went home to Florida, I was much more open to all that college had to offer. I got into studying botany, I had a cute boyfriend, I learned to love Florida which I’d always taken for granted. Then as a senior, I had an instructor who noticed my scribbly “not serious” proto-comics drawings in my sketchbook. She told me, “This is where your work really is.” She kind of allowed me to “arrive” as an artist and transition from someone who was still learning to draw to someone who knew, however much I still had (have!) to learn.

I had never wanted to write about being Jewish. Growing up in a Jewish community, it was one of the least distinguishing parts of my identity, and I wanted to get away from a group, closer to being an individual.

I learned [later] that my Jewishness was a big part of who I was, especially as I’d moved far from home.

End pages from ‘Make Me a Woman’

Spaniel​ ​Rage​ ​was​ ​re-published​ ​in​ ​March​ ​this​ ​year​ ​by​ ​Drawn​ ​&​ ​Quarterly,​ ​along with​ ​an​ ​introduction.​ ​How​ ​does​ ​it​ ​feel​ ​to​ ​see​ ​it​ ​out​ ​there?​ ​Do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​it​ ​will​ ​be received​ ​differently​ ​this​ ​time?

It was wonderful and weird to see Spaniel Rage re-released! I felt very wistful for and grateful to Spaniel Rage-me. It is wild to see how differently I drew and wrote and contextualized things. There are choices I made then that I wouldn’t make now, but that separation–what happens when you draw something and put it out in the world, it feels good, the simultaneous connection and dissociation I feel from it. I know it sounds funny, but immortalizing my idle thoughts from 15 years ago in a book made me take my new thoughts and my own place in my life in stride.
As for how it’s received now–it’s hard to say. There are so many more comics now, so many diary comics and diaristic media in general. I think it might be hard to see it out of context, but then also I think people probably can still relate to it. It’s fascinating how people in different generations can be so different and the same in so many ways.

Make​ ​Me​ ​a​ ​Woman​ ​was​ ​published​ ​in​ ​2010​ ​by​ ​Drawn​ ​&​ ​Quarterly.​ ​You​ ​worked closely​ ​with​ ​Tom​ ​Devlin​ ​-​ ​what​ ​was​ ​the​ ​experience​ ​like,​ ​and​ ​how​ ​did​ ​your​ ​writing approach​ ​differ​ ​from​ ​Spaniel​ ​Rage​?

Spaniel Rage and Make Me a Woman were similar in that they were turned into books after the comics within them were made on their own terms. Make Me a Woman collected all of these comics I’d drawn in the years that had passed since Spaniel Rage and Tom Devlin helped corral their themes by editing their order. Working with Tom was delicate and rewarding–he understood the scope of my project in a way I had a hard time getting a grip on. I felt like one of the underlying themes of that book was responsibility–how much do you take on, what’s the difference between being open and being irresponsible. Sometimes things magically become a story and sometimes you need to enforce some more crafting. How much do I want to do?

In​ ​Make Me A Woman, ​you​ ​explore​ ​your​ ​Jewish​ ​identity​ ​-​ ​what​ ​inspired​ ​this​ ​theme?​ ​Is​ ​there anything​ ​you​ ​uncovered​ ​about​ ​yourself,​ ​that​ ​you​ ​perhaps​ ​hadn’t​ ​previously realised?

I had never wanted to write about being Jewish. Growing up in a Jewish community, it was one of the least distinguishing parts of my identity, and I wanted to get away from a group, closer to being an individual. Tom actually encouraged me to write about my bat mitzvah, and then I got this recurring assignment at Tablet, a Jewish magazine. I learned that my Jewishness was a big part of who I was, especially as I’d moved far from home.


‘Bad Shoes & the Women Who Love Them’

What advice would you give to artists just starting out?

My two points of advice for artists starting out sound like they contradict each other, but: 1. Join your community–go to art shows, comics shows, follow people online and befriend people whose work you like. And 2. Don’t worry about the work other people are doing–just do your own work. The most distinguishing feature your work has is being made by you. It’s the same as in love–your audience will love you for being you, flaws and all. If they don’t, they’re not your audience.

What do you hope your readers take away from your work?

I hope readers enjoy my perspective, I hope my work gives readers a glimpse into another person’s life; maybe it can illuminate something they’re going through or went through, or they can just relate to experiences I depict. I think people are more and more alone nowadays–each household is almost its own country with its own culture. I think personal stories help bridge these widening gaps between us.

Berlin, Bears and Refugees