Interview: Vanessa Davis Pt. 3 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

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Some finally thoughts about the differences between the worlds of fine art and comics in this third part of our interview with the Make Me a Woman author. Also, why graphic novels don’t work for Vanessa Davis and what the whole making her a woman thing is really about.

[Part One][Part Two]

Were you were interested in the fine art world when you were in school?

Yeah, because I was just a little baby when I started going to art school. I didn’t know anything about the art world, but I was always being trained to be a fine artist. And it wasn’t until I got older that I realized what was actually involved in being an artist in the fine art world. I found out that it had nothing to do with what I wanted to do, art-wise.

I know you had a connection to Harvey [Pekar]. You did a strip with him and then another after he died.

Yeah.

One of the things about his work that appealed to so many people is that he was so…normal…

Yeah, he was an “everyman.”

Is that what makes comics work for you? That you can be a regular person while you make them?

Yeah. Basically it just seemed so much more pure, artistically. I didn’t really have a very strong comics background. We were really dissuaded from thinking about comics in art school at the time. I know there are a lot of people who come to comics with pre-conceived notions about what they’re supposed to look like, because they can be very formatted. But for someone like me, they were this form of art that everyone that I had ever encountered had totally ignored. So you could do anything.

You didn’t have to put yourself in a certain context in the way you do in the fine art world, in order to be considered worthwhile. That just seemed a lot edgier and a lot more artists.

I didn’t start doing comics until recently, relative to a lot of my peers.

You were something like 23 when you started?

Yeah. It was in 2002 or 2003. It was before this publishing boom, and the most I could hope for was to have a lot of people reading my mini-comic. It was way before a lot of people were making any money doing comics.

I had some anxiety and Tom Hart talked to me.

Were you at SVA?

No, but he was my friend in New York. I met him through other cartoonists. He would be like, “just remember, nobody’s looking and nobody cares.” Which isn’t really the case anymore.

Do you think it’s a problem that comics are the subject of academic criticism and are taught so formally?

I don’t know. It still in the process of developing. It’s hard to know for me, because I’m not in the thick of it. I would imagine that it would be. I was talking about the form of the graphic novel and how that they’re marketable. People were really pushing them for a long time. That was also part of my beef—we’re supposed to do a graphic novel and not just these little three-page diary comics.

And I was like, “the only reason anyone likes the graphic novel format is because that’s what sells at Barnes & Noble.” On the one hand, this obsession with the graphic novel is really good for certain artists. My boyfriend, Trevor Alixopulos, his publisher said, “you should do a graphic novel.” He’d never done one before, and it ended up being a really great format for him. It was a way to unlock that potential.

On the other hand, there are people who are like, “oh, I have to do a graphic novel,” and it’s totally not the right format for them?”

You’re doing longer work now. Is it the right format for you?

Sort of longer work. Not really. My longest story is like nine pages. They’re not really that long.

In a sense, it’s all one long story.

In the sense that it’s all me and my life is continuing. That’s very convenient. But I’m not creating it as though it’s part of a graphic novel. I’m doing it in pieces, and they happen to all work together. Because nobody was looking and nobody cared, it worked. And now there’s room for it.

I think that it’s important for people to try to be realistic and not strive to fit some template of what works or what sells or what’s popular or what’s considered legitimate. I think people should just do what works for them and see where that takes them.

Would it be difficult to weave those stories together in a way that formed a cohesive narrative?

I don’t know that it necessarily would. I could pick a theme, but it would something that I had to do deliberately. Which is fine… I don’t know that I won’t do that in the future. It just so happened that all of these stories that I’ve done over the last five years worked thematically.

What’s the theme of [Make Me a Woman], if you had to pinpoint one?

I don’t know, there’s a lot… It’s growth and connections and alienation, memory.

Is the title indicative of the theme?

I think so. It’s funny, because that wasn’t my original idea for the title. Drawn & Quarterly suggested it. It’s the name of a strip in the book. I did it for Arthur Magazine, which is a cool magazine that let’s you write whatever you want.

[The strip] is about my Bat Mitzvah, so I was like, “I don’t know about that title for my whole book.” It’s like a dare.

You’re threatening someone, almost.

It’s weird. What does it mean? Which I think is probably why they were so excited about it. It’s a daring title. But now it’s the most obvious choice for the name of the book, because it’s about me figuring all of that stuff out.

[Concluded in Part Four].

–Brian Heater