SPOTLIGHT SERIES: Vanessa Davis

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Vanessa Davis brightens the world around her, not just through her comics, which have been published in the collections Spaniel Rage and Make Me a Woman, but in her outgoing personality. Davis never shies away from the colorful. Her confessional drawing and journaling style feels inclusive, but manages a balance between insider and outsider. Her work humorously straddles the vibrant area where artsy and nerdy meet, keeping things light while addressing real-life issues.

Davis was that girl in my arts high school: cool without being judgmental, seemingly able to eliminate the awkwardness inherent in adolescence. Maybe her ever-willingness to show her hand is also the secret that informs her work as a cartoonist. Recently, Davis and I spoke about all things her.

The Rumpus: Were you always a storyteller?

Vanessa Davis: I always have talked a lot. I’d say that most of my social conditioning as a young person was devoted to getting me to talk less. I’ve never been a storyteller in the sense of making up stories, though. Fiction has always and will eternally stump me.

Rumpus: What led you to drawing comics?

Davis: I went to a magnet art school beginning in 7th grade. Even through all of that academic drawing training, I maintained a cartoony, illustrative natural drawing style. I loved line and pattern, but I didn’t care that much about precision or rendering beyond a certain point. So I knew I had an affinity for illustration, but I dismissed it in my studies, because I thought it wasn’t brainy. When I did draw, it usually indulged my love of decoration and style. As I got older, I began to own my style of drawing and recognize ways I could use it to communicate. The whole fine art world began to seem really irrelevant and circular. I was enchanted by the way art transformed my voice into one people didn’t mind hearing.

When I first moved to New York, I was a regular working person, not an artist and not a student. I had become aware of lots of these alternative cartoonists, who wrote about real life or had a different, weirder perspective. I decided to keep a comics diary, to figure out how to draw comics, to re-engage with art, to keep busy despite my circumstances. When I began to meet more cartoonists, I felt finally at home with all of these people who were artists, but who wanted to write and talk and laugh.

Rumpus: How did growing up in Florida influence your work?

Davis: Everyone knows Florida is a very colorful place – literally and figuratively. Purple orchids and green lizards, red and pink clouds splashed across the sky, the turquoise blue ocean. But, like any destination spot, it’s filled with appalling, horrible, and hilarious people. These clashes have long infuriated and inspired me. I’m especially attuned to those things in life because of Florida’s stark conflicts.

Rumpus: In what ways has your life changed after moving from New York to Santa Rosa?

Davis: Many of the people I’ve met here are more inherently rebellious, or independent.  People moved out here to do what they want, which is why I moved out here, too. But I guess I miss that nebulous, ubiquitous New York feeling that there are old people who expect things of me. In the absence of that, I’ve internalized it and it’s been kind of a drag. For me, specifically, it’s Jewish. Also there is no place here to buy a black-and-white cookie and it drives me crazy.

Rumpus: How has it been to tour with your collection, Make Me a Woman?

Davis: One of the best things that happened during my book tour was appearing with Lynda Barry at the Miami Book Fair. I love Lynda Barry so much, it like, hurt to be near her. In a good way. Being up there together, talking about both our books felt insane.

The worst thing about touring is that I have a very hard time working when I’m traveling.

Rumpus: How did Facebook become an effective marketing and community-building tool for you?

Davis: I’m so glad Facebook didn’t exist before I started making comics, because so many of my diary strips are exactly like status updates. But I love Facebook so much for this reason.  I have no idea how Facebook may have helped or hurt the marketing of my work. I have a “fan page” for updates about comics and stuff, but I suspect many of the people on there think I am Vanessa Davis Griggs, the evangelical self-help writer.

Rumpus: Who do you go to for feedback?

Davis: My boyfriend, Trevor Alixopulos, who is also a cartoonist and a good editor, and a handful of other comic friends. I often ask my friend, Karen Sneider, a cartoonist and comedy writer, for joke help, although the last time I did, I ignored her advice.

Rumpus: Do your mom and sister receive veto power? What’s your philosophy on private/public domain?

Davis: No, I don’t give anyone any veto power. I know when something isn’t my story. It’s funny because as an autobiographical writer, people think of me as this dangerous, gossipy person. Meanwhile, other people say the worst, most revealing things about people all the time—in their food blogs, in articles in the newspaper, and on Twitter.  So far, I’ve avoided writing about people I don’t love or respect. I’d like to write more about people with whom I’ve had negative experiences – I think it’ll be a challenge to not exploit them. It’s also possible I might be a little too uptight about that, though, and maybe I should just let ‘er rip.

Rumpus: Why are pencil lines and eraser marks often visible in your finished work?

Davis: That probably started with publishing comics that were never inked or “finished” in the first place. It can be fun to see the history or process of a drawing. I had a drawing teacher in high school who said that marks were like wrinkles; they gave a drawing character.

Rumpus: Unlike Spaniel Rage, Make Me a Woman doesn’t have a dedication noted. Was that a decision you made?

Davis: No! I was going to make a dedication, though I wasn’t sure to whom, but then I’d already submitted the indicia page. I asked my editor about it, but I think it was too late. I have mixed feelings about dedications, anyway.

Rumpus: Any upcoming projects?

Davis: One of the next books I’m working on is about men. Specifically. And not specifically.

Rumpus: Any regrets?

Davis: Oh my god, a million regrets!

This piece was edited by Melissa Tan
Spotlight series editor, Paul Madonna

Gili Warsett lives in Brooklyn, where she is studying for her second master’s, this one from Pratt Institute in Library Science. She has published most recently in The New York Times, Bookslut, Pindeldyboz, and Venus Zine. She graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in Creative Writing. Currently, she is working on her first novel and coauthoring a graphic novel with her partner, Joseph Tekippe. She is a public school librarian and blogs at http://giliwarsett.com/. More from this author →