It feels like you’re running in circles, sometimes, spending so much time asking questions of people about similar facets of a medium. Even amongst a broad array of artists, there’s bound to be overlap in answers—commonalities in the human and artistic experience, which, after a while, can feel a bit repetitious.
But then you have a conversation with someone like Vanessa Davis, someone who brings as unique a perspective on process as she does the comics she makes, a veritable necessity in both my field and hers, where autobiographical comics have very nearly become the default storytelling mode.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Davis at SPX, where she was promoting her new Drawn and Quarterly book, Make Me a Woman. It was the first time I had ever spoken to (and to the best of my knowledge, met) the cartoonist behind the mini, Spaniel Rage. We swapped coasts at roughly the same time, she to that Schulz stronghold, Santa Rosa, CA from New York, and me to New York from about two and a half hours south of where she ultimately landed.
New York and California alike form the setting for Make Me a Woman‘s vignettes. There’s also some of her birthplace, Florida, in there as well—a natural, perhaps, given the theme of growing up that permeates in so much of the book, even when it’s not right out in the open.
Do you feel like you ever put too much of yourself into your work?
Um [laughs]. That’s a weird question.
Well, it’s not a weird question. It’s just, on the one hand, it’s very self-based, but on the other hand, I do feel like I think about it a lot—how much I’m putting in. I don’t think it’s an outpouring. I don’t work in a very cathartic way. It’s very considered.
Does it wind up being cathartic, though?
No [laughs]. It’s really agonizing—I mean, it’s fun, too.
The process is agonizing, but once it’s out…
Once it’s out, there’s a weird dissociative thing that happens. It’s kind of like it’s been said, and now I don’t have to say it, which is a good feeling. It’s weird when you talk to people about your work, because there’s a disconnection.
It all happened a long time ago, too.
Do you have trouble reading your own work?
No–it depends. Sometimes. When my new book came out, I had a lot of anxiety, but I think that was just because it a big thing. If I’m in an anxious mood, it all looks horrible. But there other times when I love it, and I need to stop reading it and start reading other people’s work [laughs].
Just sitting there, laughing out loud.
Is it that it’s bringing back those original memories that are associated with it?
Yeah. I was just visiting my mom in Florida last week, and I really miss my boyfriend, Trevor. I was looking at the book, and there are all of these comics of me and Trevor, and I was just like “awwwww.” That is one of the things I love so much about it. It’s a really great way to access all of that information, and I’m a really nostalgic person, so I like to have that entry. I like to have it down.
Is that why you started drawing these?
I think I’ve always had a very documentary-like instinct.
You always walk around framing shots.
Yeah, and interviewing people [laughs].
I actually find myself doing that a lot, when I’m having conversations with people at parties. They’ll turn into interviews.
Well, your job—I have this friend who’s a teen counselor, and we’ll just be hanging out, being normal, 30-something friends, and all of the sudden, she’ll be like, “what do you think is the difference between religion and spirituality?”
I guess there’s a reason we fall into these jobs. This is what our instincts are.
Yeah. Way before I ever did comics, I think it started with adolescent diary-keeping. I went to an art high school, so I had a very diaristic sketchbook. I drew and wrote a lot about my life from then, and I never grew out of it.
I had a very influential teacher who did the same thing. He did a painting a day as a diary entry. My father was a photojournalist. He was documenting a lot things about people’s lives. It wasn’t anything I ever thought about. It’s just kind of my mode.
So you would be doing this if no one was reading it, if you weren’t putting it out there for people.
Yeah. I think so, in some way. People reading it and giving feedback has definitely been a lot of my motivation. Before I did comics, I was trying to figure out my niche. I had been going to art school forever. I went to an art middle school, high school, and college.
After college, I was like, “what is my thing?” I did painting and textiles and stuff.
You knew you were an artistic person.
Yeah, I knew I was an artistic person, but I didn’t know what kind I was. I wasn’t really a painter… When I started doing comics and thinking about it more, I realized that I’ve always done autobio, even though…you don’t think of your topics that way when you’re a painter or another kind of artist.
How abstract was your work?
It wasn’t. It was very figurative. It actually looked a lot like comics, only with one panel and no words. But they were all very narrative.
It was a real event from your life.
All of my stuff was.
What’s an example of something you would have painted?
I did a drawing of me and my boyfriend in the car, and he found an eyelash on my cheek and was holding it out for me to make a wish. I was in college when I drew that. You didn’t know from the drawing what was going on. And it’s really not that big of a deal, but for it was because [whimsical voice] we were in love, and we were breaking up, and it was so ironic that he was holding out to make a wish and of course the only thing I would wish for is for us to get back together.
It’s dumb, but the drawing came out well. That’s where the strength of my work lies, in that mystery. I’m obscuring mundanity of my life by putting them in these well-crafted drawings.
That’s kind of ironic though, right? You ended up adding more context to your work later.
Yeah, right, but there was only that drawing for that story. I didn’t think I should do comics, because I thought that, if I did flesh out the story more, it wouldn’t be interesting anymore. So I really held off from even considering doing comics for a long time, because of that. But the stuff that I wanted to draw was really autobio-based.
What was the question, again?
If it wasn’t out there for people to read, would you still be doing it?
Yeah. In my sketchbook I always do it. I always thought of that as my sketchbook work. It was never what I was supposed to “do” as an artist. I had this one class in college where we had to do a large drawing. It could be anything—just large. It was a formative moment. I thought I was going to do a big drawing of orchid, because I was taking botany and I was living in Florida and I was really into orchids and my mom needing a drawing for her wall.
But at the same time, I had just gone on a trip to California with my mom, and I was doing all of these—what I call—”memory” drawings in my sketchbook. They look just like comics, but without words. But they were just my memory drawings. They were just what I was into. They weren’t artwork.
So I started sketching out these orchids, and my teacher was like, “what are you doing? This seems like an old ladyish, boring drawing. Obviously [diary comics] are what you’re more interested in. You’re doing more interesting drawings in these.” I was like, “really?” They weren’t good drawing. They were cartoony.
You were sharing the drawings?
I was sharing the sketchbook with my ideas in it, and she just saw them. And she was like “what are these?” I thought they would immediately be dismissed, because when you’re in art school, you’re supposed to be drafting and shading and modeling, and these were just pen line drawings.
So it wasn’t until she looked at that that I felt I was allowed to think that that way of drawing had any merit. But that was the way I normally drew. But I just agonized and slogged through drawing classes, because I thought I had to draw in this other way.
[Continued in Part Two]