MARCH 20, 2017
VANESSA DAVIS IS BEST KNOWN for her 2010 graphic book Make Me a Woman, a collection of vignettes, sketchbook diary entries, and episodic memoirs that depict Davis’s struggles with Jewishness, relationships, family, and artistic creativity. The book’s enduring success has no doubt encouraged its publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, to place her earlier work Spaniel Rage (originally published by Buenaventura in 2005) on its backlist. The reissue is smaller and more compact than the earlier edition, with a new cover and more vibrant separating pages. The edition appends a new two-page color introduction to Spaniel Rage’s two parts: “Diary Comics and Drawings in Sketchbook, 2003-2004”; and “Other Stories,” a collection of shorter pieces that originally ran in small zines and journals.
Make Me a Woman had no shortage of fans and supporters, but it has also been subject to complaints that it, like other work in a similar vein, is trivial and ephemeral. Davis in fact works such criticism into Make Me a Woman, via a scene in which Davis’s mother expresses frustrations with her daughter’s career. After Davis proudly tells her, on the phone, that she drew a bunch of diary comics over the weekend, her mother replies, “I thought the idea was that you were going to develop past diary comics […] to do longer stories with more universality.” Davis, fuming, thinks, “How is something more ‘universal’ by being longer?” Her mother continues, “I mean, the goal is to get into fiction at some point.”
Here Davis’s mother voices the pressures faced by creative writers and artists, and not just within the realm of graphic novels. Brevity is, in the general consciousness, considered to be in inverse relation to seriousness. Despite the short story’s ideal length and scope for a busy culture like ours, we routinely slight short fiction in favor of the novel, short films in favor of feature-length ones, et cetera. Writers who otherwise have a talent for short forms — I’m thinking primarily of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen’s stories and their powerful essays — have gained most of their prominence from their production of loose baggy monsters.
Similarly, the pressure among comics artists to produce the next Jimmy Corrigan or Fun Home is intense. But Davis launches a defense of shorter forms in her new sequential art introduction to Spaniel Rage. Recounting a field trip to the New York studio of her painting class’s teacher, “which was covered in hundreds of tiny paintings,” she shows the teacher telling the class, “I was taking care of my dying partner. He didn’t want me to neglect my work. So I started painting one small thing a day […] and then I just kept doing it.” To the left of the panel, we can see a wall filled with tiny canvasses of various colors. Davis narrates, “All together, they were magic, evoking the broad span of time, feeling, and experience that they recorded.” She goes on to describe her subsequent move to New York, where she “didn’t have any money or space to paint or draw big,” but could “draw one thing a day in my sketchbook.” The studio trip thus not only provides the narrative genesis of Spaniel Rage itself, but also doubles as a meta-defense of Davis’s chosen form. Rather than the long, fictional works that her mother and the comics industry encourage, she aims for smaller bursts like those of her teacher, pieces that collectively might suggest “the broad span of time, feeling, and experience.”
This new introduction thus instructs us in how to approach these diary entries. Rather than seeing them as a dry run for Davis’s “real” work, or even some as-yet-unmade longer form, we are encouraged to experience each entry both for its own sake and for how it — like her teacher’s magical small squares on the wall – forms part of a larger accumulative pattern.
Analogies to visual art, as opposed to prose, might also help the reader enter into Davis’s pages. Diaries are generally cast in prose because of its ability to efficiently narrate a day, using summaries, ellipses, and indirect discourse to compact hours of experience into a few sentences. A comics panel functions differently. This is especially true of isolated panels like Davis’s, which have no adjacent panels to generate a narrative and thus prioritize the moment over the synthesis. The result is a more fragmented work than we would have if Davis had simply published a prose diary.
And yet as readers we instinctively try to fill in the gaps between entries in order to construct a continuous narrative of Davis’s life. This strategy contrasts not just with prose, but also with most narrative comics. We often talk about the “closure” that the reader performs between one comics panel and another, crossing the “gutter” that divides two frames. But Davis makes us enact another kind of closure, between entries. The end result is that instead of being told a story, the reader constantly works to assemble Davis’s selfhood — to make her a woman.
While it would thus be counterproductive to hold Davis’s work up to an ideal that she rejects, I think it is fair to compare it to the more mature Make Me a Woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Spaniel Rage is more raw. (I want to call it “sketchier,” but since everything in it began in a sketchbook, I’m not sure how helpful that description is.) Make Me a Woman is certainly weightier and more substantial — bigger and bolder, but also more robust, with more pages that are fully designed and plotted. It also uses color more often than Spaniel Rage, in which only the new introduction is not in black and white.
Make Me a Woman is, moreover, more concerned with Davis’s complex relationship to her Jewish identity, an effect in part of the book’s more retrospective nature. While she includes many diary entries in Make Me a Woman, Davis just as often assembles memories from her past to narrate short episodes. In these instances Davis knows the meaning of the events she is narrating, while her avatar does not — a gap central to most memoirs of past events.
Spaniel Rage, by contrast, presents moments whose meaning has not yet become apparent. To be sure, the book contains moments of joy, such as when Davis is “at Palm Beach in the sun eating a chocolate croissant,” or when her friend’s “awesome parrot Bongo” crawls up her shirt. But as in most of our diaries, feelings of frustration, confusion, and anxiety are common. One panel shows Davis typing, alongside script that reads, “At work I compose furious emails that are desperate and vain attempts to reclaim relationships I don’t want either — I make myself sick and miserable and I am confused as to what I am trying to do anymore. I feel like maybe I’m figuring stuff out though.” A thought bubble above her head depicts her kissing a guy, haloed by 13 question marks.
Such raw moments also show up in Make Me a Woman, although there they are balanced by the narrative episodes. Spaniel Rage’s only multi-page narratives appear in the “Other Stories” section, which contains five short pieces. The most effective is “I Wonder Where the Yellow Went,” which on the surface concerns Davis’s parents’ cat and its obsession with her father’s Efferdent wrappers. A year after her father’s sudden death, Davis is looking for a lost item in their kitchen when she comes across dozens of wrappers that the cat had stashed away over the years. The story’s oblique approach to the subject of her father’s death is, of course, part of what makes it so moving. But it also exemplifies Davis’s aesthetic philosophy. On one page, Davis’s avatar sits in a chair while her father stands in a polo shirt and swim shorts. The cat is visible behind them, and Davis says, “The cat is in her special spot. She’s got her little routines.” The father replies, “Well you know […] little things make a life!” The bottom half of the page depicts Davis in a few of her own routines: getting dressed looking in the mirror, walking down the school hallway. “And he was right” is written across the page, making its central theme the importance of small moments precisely like the ones that Davis records and her studio art teacher had showcased.
Fans of Make Me a Woman will find much to appreciate in this book, although I’d be surprised if any preferred it over Davis’s more mature work. The real difference between her early and later work might have less to do with aesthetic strategy than with artistic ability. Simply put, Davis is a better artist now than she was in 2004. In Make Me a Woman, and in subsequent work for various journals and her website, she not only experiments with other formats (episodic memoirs, single-page illustrations, et cetera) but also, more imaginatively, with various spatial compositions, layering her page with multiple moments that accumulate into ever more intricate designs. It seems that Davis’s artistic instincts push her toward more density, rather than greater length. One hopes that her newfound success will force her mother, and the comics industry, to respect the small form.