In her second collection of autobiographical comics, Make Me A Woman, coming in October from Drawn & Quarterly, Davis creates an intimate portrait of a world you totally want to hang out in. Her chatty-charming personality, quirky memories, and oddball thoughts are all telegraphed in drawings that hum with life. Being a person is weird, Davis seems to be telling her reader, and it's a lot more interesting to examine that weirdness than to try to resolve it.
Whether she’s describing middle school games of spin-the-bottle, or noticing the places where her own ideology differs from that of Jewish and non-Jewish friends, she presents conflicting emotions and inconsistent ideas for what they are, and does it with an incredibly likable sense of humor. She talked to PW Comics Week from her home in Santa Rosa, California.
PW Comics Week: You’re from New York but you live in California. Are you conflicted about the East Coast/West Coast conundrum?
Vanessa Davis: I love Santa Rosa. It's a really beautiful, pleasant place to live but there’s a part of me that always sort of misses the East Coast mood. It's weird, it's like when I’m in New York, even if I'm having a bad time, which I often am in New York, it just feels more like what my life is supposed to be. That might be due to an attitude problem more than anything else, though.
PWCW: A lot of the pieces here come from the series you did for the online magazine Tablet. What was it like to produce those comics for Tablet over the course of a year?
VD: Usually there’s this split between your freelance work and your own work. With the freelance work you're not supposed to agonize over things so much and you have to power through and make compromises that you might not be comfortable with because it's for someone else and there’s a deadline. It was a really good balance with Tablet because there were deadlines and it was for someone else but they gave me a lot of freedom to write about things that I probably would have written about anyway. There's always stuff I can find to say about Judaism, and California, and my childhood. I still can't believe I got that assignment.
PWCW: Have you always done autobiographical comics?
VD: Autobio is definitely my thing but even though I liked autobiographical comics it took me a while to realize that's what I should do. Before I ever thought I would do comics I was an art student and I went to school for painting. I did illustrative paintings that were kind of like comics but there were no words. They were mysterious and you couldn’t understand what was happening in them. I thought that's where the power was, in how silent they were, because I tend to babble a lot, and I was afraid that if I did comics I'd just tell and not show.
PWCW: How’d you end up making the switch from paintings to personal stories?
VD: I had to do a really large drawing for a class, and I thought I should do a rendered drawing of orchids because I was studying botany, and my mom needed something for a wall in her house. My teacher was unimpressed with the orchids, which she said were old-ladyish. She looked at my sketchbook where I was doing a lot of diary stuff about my days, and she said, “Why aren't you doing this?”
PWCW: You write about R. Crumb’s work with some ambivalence in the book.
VD: I probably read Aline's work before I read his because I got Twisted Sisters II in high school. I love her work, it's really funny and cool, and it's so uncompromising. I'd read a lot of Crumb too and admired it but it was more of a technical admiration than that it really spoke to my sensibilities. There's something that annoys me about his perspective on things. I know intellectually that his work was really important and it's not like I think he's sexist and I'm offended or anything. His comics are complicated and that's a really important thing to do in comics, be complicated and not have a simple perspective. I owe a lot to him for that. We all do, I guess.
PWCW: What do you mean by “complicated”?
VD: I think comics are a really fantastic way to talk about nuanced and sharp topics. You can convey idiosyncrasies of personality and experiences so well with them. People are complicated and an experience can involve all kinds of complicated feelings. I think comics are a really good media for those feelings because you can meander and then get seriously into a topic and then pull it back and make a joke. Sometimes there is no conclusion, things are just the way they are. You're raising questions, you're not necessarily answering them. The comics form might not come up with a lot of answers, but it can really illuminate the questions.