Vanessa Davis doesn't leave out any excruciatingly awkward moments on her autographical comic panels -- not when she's picturing the planning process for her bat mitzvah, not when she's detailing daily life at fat camp. Yet, Davis does something entirely unexpected in underground comics: Comes to a happy ending.
Her new book, Make Me a Woman, a compilation of sketches and panels made over the last five years, starts out with her childhood in Florida, moves through her years as an artist in New York City, and ends up in Santa Rosa, where she currently lives with her boyfriend.
While Davis doesn't shy away from showing life, warts and all, the other shoe never drops, the ironic comeuppance is never delivered. It's refreshing.For all the disappointments and humiliating moments in Make Me a Woman, published by Drawn & Quarterly, the overarching impression is life ain't so bad.
The alternative comics of the '80s and '90s were dark and cynical both as a necessary reaction to the horrors of the world and a counter to the "good triumphs over evil" simplicity of superhero comics. Davis says she gets that, too.
"As much I was into that and I could relate to it, I felt really bogged down by knee-jerk obligatory negativity in alternative comics," she says. "Me and my family, we're all sensitive people with stress and anxiety, but I definitely have an optimistic side, too. Even if I'm complaining about something when I'm in it, I always remember it in a good way. When I was putting the book together, that was a big theme -- I wanted to make a place for a cheery outlook in alternative comics."
Davis, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice Magazine, Arthur Magazine, and the online Jewish publication Tablet, often reflects on her Jewish upbringing. She's gotten to the age where she realizes that things she resented about her childhood, which prompted her to seek the art world as a means of escape, have actually shaped her, for better or worse.
"I think my experience is a pretty common one, whether you're Jewish or not," she says. "Everyone has that mix of disdain and affection for their upbringing. You want to reject it and claim yourself for your own, but you can't help notice how it stays with you even after you've left it."
"For example, I didn't like my Jewish day school, but I am really lucky to have gotten to go to that school. There were only 14 kids in my class. I got to learn how to speak Hebrew, and that's a rare experience. It's a sense of perspective that has been really important to me."
In Make Me a Woman, many pages are fully fleshed out watercolor comics; others seem incomplete -- small borderless sketches on a white page done in pencil with visible eraser marks, like something you'd see in a sketchbook. These drawings aren't stories or even jokes. They're more like musings or fleeting thoughts. A peculiar moment. A look exchanged.
"I love writing and I love stories, but I do think there's a lot of value in expressing those small ideas," Davis says. "It's akin to a poem rather than a novel. You can sometimes express a lot with less."
Davis counts artist David Hockney, Love and Rockets creators Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, and cartoonist Debbie Drechsler (who also lives in Santa Rosa) among her influences. In particular, though, Davis says she was most impressed by one of her art-school professors who made a painting a day, which, when shown together, made for "an overwhelming document of his life." That prompted Davis to start recording her life in daily sketches, too.
"When I started doing comics I figured I could start out doing a little every day in my sketchbook, and maybe no one would ever see it," she says. "Then I really got into the format and how I didn't feel held back by these ideas of what comics are supposed to look like. And I saw a lot of value in the strips that were like that, even though they weren't traditionally put together. So it was definitely deliberate to leave them like that."
That theme of embracing imperfection comes through in Make Me a Woman in other ways, too. Like in her first book of diary comics, Spaniel Rage, Davis draws herself and other women in an honest way, with thick thighs and freckles, and then tackles the absurd things women do and say in the quest to live up to a certain ideal, like in her adventures at fat camp.
"Women are always taught to apologize for their flaws and to focus on them as something they need to be constantly working on," she says. "As much as I totally do that myself, I resent it. I do think it's important to take care of oneself, and I'm really into fashion and beauty and all those frivolous things, but at the same time, I don't think that it's worth it to go through life apologizing over the flaws that I supposedly have, according to some arbitrary ideal."
"There's so much beauty you can see if you don't look within those specific parameters or standards that a lot people don't allow themselves to enjoy or see," she continues. "I like being a human being, as humiliating and as gross and as smelly as that can be sometimes. That being human is also sexy and beautiful, and that's reason great stuff can happen."
Vanessa Davis reads from Make Me a Woman TONIGHT, Thursday, November 18, 7:30pm at Pegasus Books Downtown in Berkeley. For more information, visit pegasusbookstore.com.