Interview with Vanessa Davis about her new graphic novel Make Me a Woman

Back in 2007 when I first started this blog, one of the first comics I wrote about was Vanessa Davis’s Spaniel Rage: “…It’s honest and personal and very refreshing to read about a normal woman in her twenties who eats pad kee moo in her underwear in front of an air-conditioner and shops at Marshall’s for discounts. I think if Vanessa and I met, we would be friends.” Three years later, I did get to meet Vanessa over drinks and snacks when she was visiting New York! Walking into the bar in bright colorful clothing with a big smile and adorable freckles, I recognized Vanessa immediately based on her cartoon self. From reading her comics over the years I felt like I knew her already. It was as if we were two old friends meeting to catch up. What I love so much about Vanessa’s work is I relate to it so easily. Her auto-biographical comics seem like they could be about my life. I thought feeling so connected to her work was a huge coincidence, like the two of us had some strange cosmic overlap. But then I see other people write about Vanessa’s work, or read other reviews about her comics, and I realize I’m not alone. It seems like everyone can compare their experiences with hers. Her stories are real lessons of life: happiness, humility, love, obsessions… told with personality and without editing. The title Make Me a Woman couldn’t have been better named. In these pages of everyday moments Vanessa learns who she is and as the readers we get to reflect on our own similar memories of growing up. This book collects all of her best work from 2004-2010 and includes published and (as of yet) un-published comics and her sketchbook diary pages. Buy the book here! I interviewed Vanessa about her work which you can see below:

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Your comics are so personal. What is it like sharing so much of your private life with the world? Have your family, friends, or boyfriend ever been upset about how you’ve portrayed them or what things you’ve chosen to share?

It doesn’t seem that weird for me to write about my private life, since a lot of it seems very common. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think writing about my personal life is another way to put out feelers, to find out if I’m messing up or doing okay. Like, in life, I tell the same story to friend after friend, to get their feedback and put it all together afterward. I know that probably sounds childish, but I find it’s also a way to have people open up to me in the same way. In any case, I feel a bit unsupervised in the world. Putting the comics out there helps me with that. And it’s one of my most important personal values to try to be real about myself. It drives me crazy when people won’t get real with themselves. I am constantly lamenting, “Why won’t this person just get real with themself!!” If I have to do it, everyone should have to do it.

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As for the people in my life, I try to treat them with discretion and respect. I will not draw something that’s not “my story” (unless I have permission, of course!). And I usually don’t write about people I really don’t like. (Yet, anyway.) But people are complicated and nobody (including me) comes off perfect. It’s so subjective. I’ll draw a comic about my mom being a pain, but she ends up looking adorable and loving and a great mom, which she is. I think that comes through because that’s my fundamental feeling about her. If anything, I look like a jerk in the strip for being such a brat.

Mostly, the people who’ve been aggravated about their portrayal in my comics are usually aggravated by something in our relationship, which is revealed in the comic. But they agree that at least the comic is truthful. But it doesn’t happen that often, I’m glad to say.
I did spend a gazillion more hours agonizing over how to describe people and situations delicately than actually drawing, though. Figuring all that out takes the most time. I’m actually thinking about easing up on that process.

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You are always using material from your past for your comics. It seems like it would be difficult to keep digging up old memories from years ago, especially such critical ones like conversations with your dad about dating, or going to fat camp. By making comics of these moments, you sort of have to re-live them in your head, and then again on paper many times. Do you find that it’s therapeutic to do this or is it a challenge to return to so many embarrassing or uncomfortable memories? Do you find you are often nostalgic?

I am definitely, constantly, relentlessly nostalgic! I’m like that Chris Eigeman character in Kicking and Screaming, who says, “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday.” I’m always wistful. So it’s not really obviously therapeutic nor that difficult to think about these things, since I’m thinking of them all the time. I think some people see time in their life as being so long, at least it seems that way. Like for them, say, 2003 was ages ago. But for me it’s a minute. All of these things are always under the surface, I feel close to so many old times. Or, maybe it’s just that all of these small memories exist as stories already in my mind somehow. The stuff I don’t remember can be painful. I was reading an old diary from high school recently, hoping to find some details for a story, and it was horrible to read about myself being so clueless and humiliating, and the ways my friends and I were so mean to each other. So I think the way I remember things can often obscure painful realities. Maybe if I had actual documentation to research for these comics, it’d be a different story.

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Because your work is so auto-biographical are you constantly looking for material as you live your life? Have you ever found yourself doing something intentionally because you know later it would make a good story for a comic?

Sometimes I’ll coax myself into doing something I don’t want to do, because it might be good material. But for the most part, not really.
Also, I don’t usually know what I’m going to write about before I start. Even the strips I did for Tablet, I only had the most general of topics that I pitched to them. Like, “I went to Jewish Day School.” But none of the specifics, or no idea beforehand of what the axis of the strip would be.
More often, things will happen and I’ll know immediately that I have to write about it. Even before I was a cartoonist this would happen. Many years ago, I was at a New Year’s party and my ex-boyfriend dragged me into the street and got down on the ground and clutched at my legs, moaning all of these crazy, drunken proclamations at me. And while it was happening, I was thinking, “I should draw this.” But he was performing! People are putting on a show all the time. It’s just a matter of getting it down. They write you the script more often than not.

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I really love the more loosely drawn diary entry comics you’ve included in this book. When do these get made? Are you carrying a little sketchbook around with you or do you make mental notes and go home later to add these in?

Both–I try to keep a sketchbook with me but to draw I usually need to concentrate, even doing the loose diary strips. So I often just write down notes. I used to draw them in an impromptu way more often. I wish I did them all the time, but I usually return to diary strips when I’m in between projects, or if I’ve been unproductive and I’m out of comics-making shape. When I’m lost, it gets me back on track.

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Do you approach your more finished comics the same way as the diary comics or is there a lot of sketching and preparing layouts for these? Specifically what kind of materials are you using to make these painted pieces?

Doing the strips for Tablet once a month helped me streamline the way I approached the colored strips. I pretty much outline the story in my sketchbook, usually as a bullet-point listing of chunks of text and the images I want to include. Then I move those all around, matching the text with the pictures, editing it to fit in the 3 pages, and then on each page, and then in each panel, etc. Then I pencil, often researching images at the same time. Then I ink, and then I watercolor. My materials include: Arches hot press watercolor block, a clear pica ruler, mechanical pencil with 2B lead, Winsor and Newton pan watercolors, Ph. Martin’s concentrated watercolors, Ph. Martin’s India ink, and I’ve realized that my favorite nibs are these manga nibs, N-G I think they’re called. I get them from New York Central. But I’ve used whatever nibs. I like big, pointy ones with a little flexibility but not too much. I just got a mechanical eraser and I’m really excited about it!

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When I met you I was surprised by how much you resemble your cartoon self! After all these years of drawing yourself have you noticed ways you’ve improved on capturing your likeness?

Thank you! That’s a great compliment! It’s funny because a lot of the things I learned in high school made it hard to draw comics, at first. Well, it makes sense. In school you’re not supposed to have a style. You’re supposed to be always looking. But that makes you start from scratch with every drawing, which is impractical in comics. So I’ve gotten cartoonier, which basically expresses itself as a certain confidence.
I think also reading more comics, and seeing how other people draw people has helped. Like, discovering Love and Rockets and Jaime Hernandez was a revelation. He obviously loves the body and draws figures immaculately. But they’re still cartoony.
But it also comes back to being realistic! Like, maybe I have to start adding bags under my eyes as I get older, but that’s the truth! And it’s not so bad. Especially as a cartoon.

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So much of your comics talk about being Jewish. Would you currently consider yourself a “good Jew”? Do you practice at all?

I do think I’m a good Jew! I mean, what does that phrase mean? I obviously have a conflicted connection with Judaism–as I’ve written, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Jewish guys, synagogue, and religious obligation. I grew up in a tightly-knit Jewish community, with it everywhere; I didn’t have to do anything to be Jewish, I just was, a lot. Now, I don’t really practice seriously–I’ll have matzoh ball parties for Rosh Hashanah and go to temple every once in a while. But all of those things seem to me more about community-building. Which is very important, don’t get me wrong! But I’m lucky, I’ve been able to build my own, specialized community–within comics, old friends, etc. It’s not enough for me for someone to be Jewish for me to get them, or for them to get me. Even as a kid, my whole life, I hated group activities. I grew up Reform (while attending a Conservative day school), and so I have never felt a real pressure that I couldn’t make my own way in Judaism.

Someone recently was describing a Reform rabbi as “less religious” than a Conservative rabbi. But my own rabbi is totally religious! And scholarly, very Jewish. That statement completely baffled and irritated me. But maybe it’s just semantics. Maybe this person meant “less practicing” instead of “less religious.” I guess I don’t believe that practicing necessarily makes you spiritual. And to me, more religious does not equal being a “better Jew”–certainly not a better person. Even in the community I grew up in in West Palm Beach, a few of the most religious people turned out to have some real ethical problems, deep in their character. Ultimately, I’ve been taught that a lot of Jewish values are about navigating the world with integrity, and generosity, and being honest, realistic. Examining things, trying to understand and be open. Loving and respecting your family. I think I do all those things–at least, I try. I do want to learn more about Judaism. I haven’t devotedly studied it in many years, and it just seems like this massive intellectual and spiritual thing to tackle, which is exciting, and daunting. This is a big question!

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You recently went on a little promotional book tour around the US. What were your experiences reading to crowds of people? Were there any moments that really stood out as memorable?

Going on tour for the book has been wonderful, and wrenching! I’ve been saying it has sort of felt like a one-person, multi-day wedding, seeing so many friends and family members. It’s intense to see people I love so much so briefly. But still great. My Uncle Danny and one of my mom’s best friends from Florida came to see me at the Strand, in New York, and that meant a lot to me. My old roommate–you know, it’s amazing! At the Strand, Len Small, who is one of my editors at Tablet, read an introduction for me that was insane. And doing the interview with Marjorie Ingall, who is someone I’ve admired for such a long time….It’s overwhelming, hearing all of these nice things and meeting people who love the book and totally get it. It’s great! I mean, I’m still processing it. I think some of the best things that’s come from making comics are the opportunities I’ve had to meet and connect and have conversations with so many people I respect and look up to. In November I’m going to the Miami Book Fair and doing a reading with Lynda Barry, and that is currently completely blowing my mind.

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What’s next on your horizon? I imagine your comics coming to life in an animated series!! You should make a pilot! What do you think?!

I’d absolutely love to do an animated series! That would be amazing! Hello, to anyone reading this who wants to help me put together an animated series!
I don’t want to sound flighty, but there’s so much I want to do. I still have big stories to draw. So that’s probably coming soon.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have time, but I want to do more painting.
I’d love to partner up with some designers and make some homewares. I’ve dreamed for a long time of working with a ceramicist and decorating plates and utilitarian stuff. And you know I’m totally crazed over your wallpaper and textiles. Please, somebody let me make some wallpaper and textiles! I’m pretty much up for whatever!

Thanks so much to Vanessa for sharing! I cannot recommend this book enough! Pick up a copy here.

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