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July 16, 2009

Antiheroines: Vanessa Davis

The Antiheroines series features author Jami Attenberg interviewing up-and-coming female comics artists.

Vanessa Rocker

Vanessa Davis, author of the tartly self-deprecating autobiographical collection Spaniel Rage (Buenaventura Press, 2005) and the forthcoming Happy Chappie (D+Q, 2010), was supposed to come to New York City in June for MoCCA. We were going to sit on my roof and get drunk and watch the sunset. It was going to be awesome. But she cancelled her trip, so I’ve been forced to write this introduction based solely on first impressions obtained via her status updates on Facebook.

Today she’s asking about freezing and transporting cheesecakes. Two weeks ago she guided a wayward Pomeranian home. A week before that she couldn’t stop thinking about how much easier it is to draw comics when you use panels. Two hours before that she discovered one of her tomato plants had aphids and it bummed her out. Three days before that she expressed a sincere opinion: “In the coffeeshop, the table next to mine isn't the best place to clip your nails. I'd recommend doing that at home.” Earlier during that day she took a break from painting to look up pictures of Terence Stamp. And finally, on June 1, she started the day by wearing a lot of billowy jersey fabrics around the house, and then, exactly twelve hours later, was inking pages and eating barley.

Which is exactly how I pictured her.

You moved four years ago from New York to Santa Rosa, CA. What was the impetus behind the move? And do you think it has affected your work in any ways?

I moved to Santa Rosa because I had met my boyfriend, Trevor Alixopulos, who is also a cartoonist. I loved New York but had felt a shift in things. I had a really cool job but was sort of struggling to balance it with what I wanted to be an increasing workload comics-wise. Also, my job paid hardly anything and I was broke constantly. I visited Trevor one summer and his life was heartbreakingly pleasant. He rode his bike everywhere, lived in a big, sunny place while only working part-time, and spent the rest of his time working on comics. There's flowers and vineyards here, and stars in the sky and stuff. It's ridiculous.

I think being here has affected my work a lot, both in positive and negative ways. It took me a really long time to get back in the swing of working, since moving and finally settling on Santa Rosa took almost a year. Then I also spent a lot of time focusing on my new relationship and making friends. I'd work in drips and drabs but I wasn't in my zone at all. I started doing diary strips again which helped that.

I think being surrounded by cartoonists and other artists and consumers of art in general, which I was in New York, has a huge impact on certain people's work. You live in this social cloud where you feel like a member of the cultural elite, you feel like what you do is relevant and important and valued by society at large. That's a New York thing. Obviously, people are creative all over the place and you don't need to be in New York to get work done. But it's one aspect that's different.

I think about moving back to New York all the time but I don't know how I could do it since I'd surely have to work full-time again.

You mentioned to me in an email something about missing the "Spaniel Rage Me,” and that there were different versions of you related to different projects. Can you talk a bit about what each different "me" version means to you exactly?

When I originally started doing Spaniel Rage, I didn't know if anyone would ever see it. It was totally an experiment. I handed out my first mini at the MoCCA festival and I didn't even know ninety percent of the people I gave it to. I was definitely feeling very free then. Even a few years later, as I continued making minis, I enjoyed the community aspect and it was super gratifying to hear back from other cartoonists I admired, but that was a time when it wasn't that common for cartoonists to be getting their collections or books published. And I just expected that I'd make Spaniel Rage minis for another few years and then maybe approach some different comics publishers and see if they wanted to publish them.

So it was a surprise when Buenaventura asked me to do the book. While it was obviously not published with the fanfare many graphic novels are released with today, it was definitely enough to make me think a lot more about the work I was doing and get pretty self-conscious. I'm doing a lot better now since I've been doing these monthly strips for Tablet, but when I was about three years out from putting out Spaniel Rage, nowhere close to having started my second book, and really out of the comics loop, I just balked when I thought about what to do with my comics. I had a weird crisis of confidence.

There were articles here and there with people discussing autobiographical comics as just exercises in self-indulgence, or lack of imagination, but then on the other end of things there were articles in the New York Times heralding these people as though they were "important writers.” I just would go through this cycle in my mind where I'd jump from "Why do I think anyone cares about this?" to "Well, you're trying to connect with people," to "Just have fun!" to "I'm going to watch a movie."

Last winter I was having this discussion with a lot of my creative friends, whether or not the work we were doing was important. I, too, am uncertain at times. And then a friend who had been in the business for a while schooled me a bit. She said that the work that we do is important at the very least because we are part of a collective voice fighting to be heard. And if we don't speak up, the other side wins. I don't know who the other side is exactly. People who don't believe in free speech? Right-wingers? Michael Bay? I guess just some sort of hazy bad guy. Where did you land on whether or not the work you do is important?

I haven't quite landed yet. I sort of sway from side-to-side in between thinking I'm doing something important and thinking I'm doing something ridiculous. I don't know why, because my parents were huge art lovers and proponents and always pushed me with the art stuff. My father was a photojournalist and my mother was a journalist so they both were part of that "collective voice." I went to a fine art middle and high school, and college. Perhaps since it was so much a part of my childhood now when I hear people talking about "their art" or whatever I can't help but roll my eyes. But on the other hand, what the hell do I think I would do instead? Nothing. I won't be doing anything else, but you will also never hear me talking about how I have to do art to like, stay sane!

You write about being Jewish for Tablet (formerly Nextbook), which I have written for before – but kind of grudgingly, because I always think being Jewish is one of the least interesting things about me, though I will acknowledge it's a part of me. How did you start writing for them and was it something that always played into your work?

I began working for Nextbook doing spot illustrations. Their former art editor contacted me after seeing my stuff somewhere. We were working very well together and then they had this idea to do a punk, feminist, comic version of the story of Esther, for Purim, and they asked if I'd like to do it. I thought that was a crazy but fun idea and I thought it'd be good for me to try out doing a comic that was someone else's idea.

So I did this weird comic where Vashti was an aggro, riot grrrl who didn't want to stop her radical quilting bee to show up at the king's party; and Esther was a "soft feminist" who does a DIY wedding and cooks a traditional Tofurky dinner; and the king is a whiny, cokehead, emo chub-rocker. Amazingly, they liked it, and they offered to let me do more three-page comics.

I also have thought that being Jewish is one of the least interesting things about me, especially when I lived on the east coast and everyone I knew was Jewish or seemed Jewish. I never wrote that much about being Jewish in my comics partly because of that, and partly because I knew I'd be pleasing/offending my mother way too much. But it's been really challenging and rewarding doing these comics. They're teaching me a lot about writing, and formatting, and they're making me look at my identity in a different, sort of relevant way.

This has come up a bit in some of my past Antiheroine interviews, fitting inside a box/space. Do you appreciate those constraints? Do they ever frustrate you?

It depends! As far as boxes go, when I first started drawing comics, I decided to forget about panels because they took too much planning and forethought, and I just wanted to do whatever was necessary to break down anything intimidating me from working. Then just it turned into this cool, organic way to fit everything in. When I was in college I had a drawing assignment where we just had to work “big." So I was doing these weird, proto-comics "memory drawings" and I just blew them up really big to like, five feet by seven feet or whatever, and I found that I still couldn't fit everything in. So just any edge at all was a problem.

In my last Tablet strip, however, I had a bunch of small scenes I wanted to include on the last page, and I felt like coming up with creative ways to interconnect all twelve or however many of them seemed sort of unnecessary and arbitrary. So I gridded out the page and just filled in each box. It was so easy! I loved it. I think for the panels/no panels debate (not that anyone debates about it) it's just one more element in a piece that has to be considered, deliberate.

With pages, at this point I don't have a problem with set pages. I ramble like crazy, and my subjects are usually really amorphous and inconclusive. So if my editor requests three pages, I like that it's impossible for me to spin off course. Sometimes it's hard, because I don't get to say nearly as much as I want to about something, but then I just try to imbue all that I do include with tons of gravitas. I try to be as heavy-handed as possible! Just kidding.

We have now arrived at the Largehearted Boy Mini-Music Questionnaire portion of the interview. Do not be afraid.

What was your first rock show?

My first concert was Pete Seeger, does that count? He was playing at FAU in Boca Raton and I went with my parents. I was probably seven. I was sure that Pete, then in his seventies, would see me from the stage and be completely dazzled by me and ask me to run away with him. I wore a lot of plastic bead necklaces to up my dazzle factor.

What albums do you listen to while you work?

I listen to a lot of dance music and old 80s stuff. My boyfriend is a big music collector and has a keen new-wave tendency. I sort of like to work to the same kind of music I like to dance to or work out to. Right now I have been listening to this Fred Falke remix of the Little Boots "New in Town" and "Dressed to Digress" by Boy Crisis over and over. "I've been to Prague, I've been to Iraq / in search of booty and I never came back."

What was the best performance you've ever seen?

I went to see Junior Senior a bunch of times in New York when they first started coming to the US to play, and I'd always get into the front row and dance and sing like crazy. The first time I saw them it was at Arlene's Grocery and Thomas Troelsen performed with them to sing his part on "Move Your Feet" and he's like the Danish Prince. Insanely sexy and charismatic. Once at the end of a Junior Senior show, Senior stuck the microphone in the audience and had everyone sing into his microphone and he got to me and I screamed into the mike and was just like totally sweaty and gross and crazy and he grabbed my face and kissed me after that and I almost died. Obviously, as you can tell from my Pete Seeger story, that's all I really want to happen at a concert.

Vanessa Davis links:

Vanessa Davis's website
Tablet Magazine contributions by Vanessa Davis

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Antiheroines interviews
musician/author interviews
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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