Interview: Vanessa Davis, author of Make Me a Woman

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

By Lisa Qiu

“A huge part of my writing process comes from agonizing over the most delicate and/or diplomatic way to talk about people. Nobody likes to be summed up. But as a writer you have to be authoritative. And as a cartoonist you have to be brief.”

Vanessa Davis is author of Make Me a Woman, a recently released anthology, fifteen years in the making. It shows her creative and life journey as a cartoonist from her Bat Mitzvah to her late twenties and follows her as she moves from New York to California. Drawn with an uninhibited hand, Make Me a Woman documents the highest anxieties in her life, yet then there are whimsical women dressed in colorful and textured outfits to dance the reader into another story. Recently, Davis has collaborated with SMITH Magazine’s very own Pekar Project, illustrating Harvey Pekar’s comic story, Jewish Chops.

In an email interview, Davis offers advice about the craft of creating comics, from her tools to her processes, told through the lens that defines her work: her own life.

You mention women and body image issues in comics. What does a woman’s body in art mean to you and what do you wish to express about womanliness in your own comics?
Doing comics in general is a very revealing activity for me. To write about my own life and have it be interesting, or fair, or meaningful, I really have to explore all of these experiences and figure out why they were important or funny enough to draw about. So in that sense, it helps me understand myself as an adult and woman and person.

As far as body image, and the woman’s body in art–I mean, it’s not like I have a photorealistic style of drawing, but it’s also not the cartooniest. It’s a mix. I like what things actually look like. I’m certainly a product of a beauty-obsessed society. I think my drawing reflects that–both the beauty and imperfections and everything in between. I love looking at people, and it just so happens that I write a lot about myself, so I have to draw myself a lot. I’ve read a few reactions to the book and many have mentioned body image and weight: I only wrote about body image and weight in a couple of instances in the book, so I think it must come from the drawings. I actually have pretty strong feelings about body image–I feel like a lot of even the most progressive and feminist people today still have incredibly backward and conservative ideas about women’s looks. So while I’m not about to pull an Erykah Badu and get all nude walking down the street, I hope to at least imbue the images in my work with a sense of love and self-confidence, appreciation for the beauty in me, on me, and around me.

You put a few rough sketches in the book. Did you want your readers to get a sense of your process or did you do it because you thought it was a cohesive segue to your other pieces?
Usually I regretted not finishing some strips, but what was done was done. Diary strips done later have a very different feel than ones done in the moment. There’s one diary strip where I’m standing in front of a stuffed tiger, but when and where I was drawing it I couldn’t recall what a tiger actually looked like, so I made a note to myself, “Look up tiger.” I never did, but in the end I felt it was a valuable and relevant strip, and the pathetic drawing combined with the note was funny to me and added something I’d never intended in the strip, and made it better.

On the other hand, there was one strip about a fight my sister and I had that in my sketchbook was only drawn as word balloons and the faintest of sketches. I wished I had finished it because it related to another strip that was kept in the book, but it was so hardly drawn it would have been ridiculous to include it.

What qualities did you look for in your past comics that you picked out to be anthology worthy?
Almost everything published (self and otherwise) from the last five or six years was included in Make Me a Woman. I’d planned on doing another Spaniel Rage with diary comics, but ended up not getting a chance to. I liked how those 2004 strips bridged the last book with this one and to the diary strips from more recent times.

I feel pretty good about all the stories and strips I’ve done since Spaniel Rage, even though I’d like to think I’ve become a stronger cartoonist since I did some of the earlier strips in the book. I can only hope I’ll feel that way about my most recent pieces as well, soon enough.

I also put in a bunch of illustrations I did of women, as I got really obsessed with doing those for a long time before the book was put together. I liked the drawings and I felt like they were done in the same spirit as a lot of the strips. The only things I really omitted were a handful of diary entries that were either boring, really unfinished, or posed a threat to current relationships. (Though some kept in are a bit scary, too.) Art’s important but life is more so.

What is your process like? You had many other jobs while you drew your comics in the anthology, how did you balance it? What have you learned? What advice would you give to young twenty-somethings starting in the industry now?
I’ve always struggled with process, it’s almost like a start from scratch with any new project. Getting into comics was in itself an attempt to find a way to draw without all of the hindrances of fine arts–I could work without space, expensive materials, the pressure of a big, white canvas that I’d spent a million hours constructing, gesso-ing, and sanding. I could just do it in my sketchbook and get to work.

Obviously, comics has plenty of time-consuming craft issues, but luckily I didn’t know about them when I first started. At this point, I outline an idea, thinking of both the script and the images I want to include, and then mush them around and cut things out until it’s coherent. Then I pencil, which takes the most time. Then ink and paint and scan and clean. I don’t have a studio or even much space to work, so it has to be pretty bare bones.

When I was first getting into comics, I had a full-time job with a lot of responsibility. I’d often come home from work well into the evening. I wouldn’t get to start my “real work” until late at night. But to twenty-something cartoonists, I’d tell them what my mom told me, “You’re 24, just stay up and do it!” Some countries have great grants and money for the arts and people get to prance around making comics and having plenty of time and money to do so–that wasn’t (isn’t) the case for me! But this is the youngest you’ll ever be for the rest of your life, so gather up that energy and do it. This is what I tell myself.

How do you decide how to portray the people in your life? Do you show your mom or your boyfriend your stories before you go forward to publish? Has anyone ever been offended?
I just try to consider them as much as possible. I am pretty hard on myself and agonize over these things a lot, and I really try not to exploit people and just make a comic that’s like, “Look at this asshole!” That seems cheap to me.

Also, with people I love, like my mom and boyfriend, even when I’m showing myself being mad at them, or annoyed at them, or them acting badly, I hope that it comes through that it’s in context of a loving portrait. I try to show myself the same way. People are complicated and not always perfect. I remind myself that I do have a right to my experiences.

Nonetheless, people have gotten offended from things I’ve written with which I never intended to offend. I recalled a time when I said something stupid in one comic, and the friend I said it to got mad all over again when she saw it. I’d say that a huge part of my writing process comes from agonizing over the most delicate and/or diplomatic way to talk about people. Nobody likes to be summed up. But as a writer you have to be authoritative. And as a cartoonist you have to be brief. So it’s hard not to write about people in a way that will piss them off. But at this point, I’ve spun around so much trying to be sensitive, I’m actually trying now to be less so.

My sister is one of the more notorious “characters” in my comics, and she loves my portrayal of her. For the readings I’ve been doing on tour, I removed one strip that had her basically calling me fat and me basically calling her ugly, because people thought it was more mean than funny. But she thinks it’s hilarious. She has always been good at reminding me that what I say isn’t always so important. It’s good to remember that!

What materials do you use to make your comics? How long does it take for you to make a page?
Writing takes the longest and that can happen within a day or months. Penciling only takes long if there’s a lot to research. Once I have it all planned out, it doesn’t take too long. Doing the strips once a month for Tablet last year helped me really get a lot faster. I would often put those together in about a week or so, after about a week or so of writing. (They were only three pages.)

My favorite supplies for comics are hot press smooth watercolor paper (I like Arches blocks, though I don’t like the price), disposable pencils with B or 2B lead, a clear pica ruler, Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay black india ink, Winsor & Newton series 7 sable brushes, Nikko NG-3 manga nibs, Winsor & Newton pan watercolors, Reeves black pan tempera cakes, and Dr. Ph. Martin’s concentrated watercolors.

And finally, Vanessa Davis, what is your Six-Word Memoir?
Stay up and get it done!


BUY Make Me a Woman.

VISIT Vanessa Davis’ website.

CHECK OUT the author’s Flickr page.

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14 responses

  1. Francee K. says:

    I am astounded at Vanessa’s progression…the more layers she peels away the bigger her talent becomes. That’s impressive and delightful for those of us who have followed her work! I love the woman you’ve become….and your characters are spot on!

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