Vanessa Davis is a successful Comic Artist with an honest, authentic narrative in her work. I met Vanessa and her drawings when we both lived in New York City several years ago. It is no small thing for an artist (or fan of art) to leave New York, and now that we have both managed to relocate successfully, it's time to catch up and see how things on the West Coast have influenced her work.
When I was young, "Marvel or DC" was a relevant question. Is it still?
I have no idea! I think it might be. To a segment of the comics-reading population, I'm sure it is. I did read comics growing up, but with little concern who drew or published them. The closest I got was knowing Dan DeCarlo drew for Archie. And I recognized my favorite "Archie eras" by how tightly Betty's ponytail was pulled. I think there was a sloppy, unfashionable time in the 80s when her hair sloped over her ears. There are many kinds of comics consumers and producers now. One can't just differentiate between "superhero" and "non-superhero." At even the smallest independent comics show you will see work appealing to wildly different sensibilities. Today comics are "post-medium" or something--an inarticulate way to say that they used to conjure up one or two particular things in people's minds but now it's much more panoramic.
Do you see yourself and your work fitting into a tradition? Whose work do you admire? There is a list of young artists and illustrators on your web page, do you consider yourself part of a movement or school?
I thought I was approaching comics based on things purely from my own experience but then saw many cartoonists, both past and present, work in a similar way. Obviously, as I became more entrenched in comic-making, I learned more about them and met more cartoonists. As I get older I recognize things that have been influencing me throughout my entire life. The diary form came from one of my favorite painting teachers, but I've always worked autobiographically. Apparently I'm part of a burst of diaristic autobio comics, which is probably due to something timely and cultural, but I'm not going to attempt to get into that. I was given the "Twisted Sisters 2" anthology of female cartoonists in the mid-90s, and a lot of the work there had a lasting affect on me. Even now I recognize a drawing I did last week looks like one in the Debbie Drechsler story there. Also I'd learned about Julie Doucet from Sassy magazine. She wrote about her own life and I loved it, way before I ever thought I'd do comics myself. I've met a LOT of cartoonists around my age since starting 7 years ago, and that's been one of the greatest rewards of getting into this field. There has been a wave of comics-related activity in the last decade and it has been extremely exciting. So even though I say I got into comics with my own idiosyncratic intentions, I'd be deluded to not say I wasn't part of something larger. The list of people on my website is somewhat arbitrary and grossly incomplete, but it does include people around my age I admire. I feel like I've been working with them since I got started. They have influenced me along the way. I wouldn't say that all of the people on my list work just like me, as there is a lot of different work represented by that list.
Did you study illustration or art? Are you a commercial artist or a fine artist? Is it a line you are aware of, or balance?
I went to an arts magnet school from seventh grade onwards, and was exposed early to a lot of cool, crazy art and ideas. I don't know how things are going now at that school, but when I was 13 they tried to veer our attention away from drawing Betty and Veronica, Ferraris, or Animaniacs and to focus on brainy, idealistic artists instead. My friends and I were more obsessed with the idea of being arty bohemians than making a living. I did always have an illustrative streak and was devastated when the representative from Cooper Union thought I intended on majoring in illustration, which they don't provide. I was totally offended! Did I want to dig holes in the ground and line them with silk and lay eggs or something feminist-earthworksy like that? Now of course I think I'm a combination of commercial and fine artist. In this day and age those lines are blurred. As I continued my fine art education, the insular fine art world seemed more and more irrelevant. In fact bullshit. I think that art has been about ideas and making collective mental innovations. I don't think in this day and age a gallery is the best showcase for that, and I question the fine art world's cultural magnanimity. It seems the commercial world might be the more appropriate climate for my thoughts and ideas but I haven't really figured it out.
Where do you see your work and your career going?
Ooh. That's the topic of the day for me lately! I'm not sure. There's a LOT I want to do. I have more stories to draw, I want to paint big paintings, design fabric and wallpaper, partner with a ceramicist to decorate pots and have a breakfast nook and some babies! It's all a mishmash. I still have a lot to learn about what's the best direction for me, career-wise.
Comic books and graphic novels seem to have avoided the decline of the book in the digital age, at least for the time being. How do you see the format evolving or fitting into media trends? You write for a webmag. How does that differ from print?
This debate affects the comics world in a big way. Many cartoonists are freaked by the computer thing but just as many embrace it. Some tout the internets ability to expose their work to a wide audience, they find it liberating to be able to publish without the constraints of the publishing industry. I don't really know where I am on it. I haven't benefited as much as others from opportunities on the web mostly due to my own inexperience with computers and site-building. But it's a bad time for publishing, both in paper and on the web. I was very lucky to have my column at Tablet, that was a rare experience, unfortunately. I hear more and more from older and more experienced cartoonists, writers and illustrators that "content" is not that financially valuable anymore, and that's obviously crappy...so I don't know. I think it would be a shame for any one media or format to overthrow the another. Some work belongs on a blog, some should be in a magazine, some a book, some on a wall. Hopefully the money will come to pay for it all.
You ink, color and caption. Will you always? Is it tedious or a joy.
As long as I do comics, I am sure I will do it all. I'm into the handmade nature of it, so it is fun AND tedious. Usually I have some deadline and think about how nice it would be not to... but then I wouldn't be working if I wasn't on deadline.
Do you sell original work or editions?
I've sold a few things here and there and it is always a bit confusing. I want to do prints, I just haven't gotten around to it. I did a series of paintings of women that I think would make a cool calendar.
You have a regular column in a contemporary Jewish publication. How prominent is your "ishness" in your work?
I don't know whether it was working for Tablet or something else that brought the Jewish stuff out in my recent comics. I had to talk about Jewishness in the column, and sometimes it was over deliberate. I never would have considered doing comics about Judaism earlier in my life. Since moving to California and seriously dating someone non-Jewish, I think about it a lot more, just because it's not as much of a given as it is in New York or in South Florida where I grew up. I do think my own particular Jewish experience has helped me embrace comics and see them for all of the possibilities they hold, because I've been able to be Jewish on my own terms. I'm into the aspects of Judaism that are about being an individual, seeing things out of context. So obviously that's helped me with comics, since I've approached comics separately from a lot of the stuff associated with comics.
Your work is all autobiographical, often painfully so. It is also entirely narrative. Do you ever think in terms of "a gag" or "a joke".
I think of jokes all the time, but I don't know that I'm that good at gags. There are lots of circumstances surrounding things I think are funny, and they are best explained in some kind of context. I did this one comic about looking at a pretty college girl, from head to toe, she was all blond and skinny and stuff. But then her toenails were like 3 inches long and curly and brown and just insane. So stuff like that, even things less outrageous, are constantly making me laugh, but they're not really "gags" I guess. Most of the editing and criticism I've received has been about explaining things even MORE, so I think my strength just doesn't really lie in the overt, one-panel format.
Have you ever submitted a panel to the New Yorker?
You have no square panels, the drawings float and quiver. Is that more natural to you?
I started using panels in the last few months of my Tablet strip because it helped me organize the stories quickly and coherently. I didn't have time to artfully dovetail images together in visual witty ways, and because it was for a wider audience I wanted the narration to be straightforward. In the past I enjoyed that organic layout because of the visual opportunities, and because I didn't like the constraints of the panels. I wanted to be able to bend the perspective as needed and the panel was just an arbitrary obstruction that affected things.
Do you Miss New York? Has leaving the city changed your drawings?
I miss New York a lot! I talk about it all the time. I miss my family and the hustle and bustle. I miss the "biz" aspect of New York. Here when people see me drawing, they ask me if I'm doing it for a class. In New York, people assumed I was a professional. Obviously that's a nice feeling. I don't miss the discomfort and I don't miss trudging around. I never felt "liberated" by the subway. I literally felt desperate for nature. I hated going home for my mother's birthday, because it fell during the nicest 2 weeks of the year in the city, at the end of April. Florida is beautiful then too, but I was angry and resentful about what I'd been through over the winter and to miss a minute of New York spring was annoying. But the longer I lived in the city, there were fewer and fewer places I really enjoyed being. Soho felt like the mall, the East Village felt like Long Island, Midtown felt like the Midwest. Because Manhattan and now Brooklyn is so punishingly expensive, I found by leaving I could devote an appropriate amount of time to my own work. I loved my job in New York, but I was torn between work and drawing. In a smaller town I can afford to actually BE a professional. I always thought those starry-eyed suburban kids who couldn't WAIT to move to New York were so dorky. Then I moved there (from the suburbs) and had an amazing "only-in-New-York" dream experience despite my cynicism. But then I started to feel like a sucker, thinking I HAD to be in the city. Putting up with so much bullshit just to be there felt kind of degrading. I wondered if maybe it was MORE of a "New York thing" to move away, like I don't need it.
Does your mother see all your work before it is published?
Ha ha, no! With these Tablet comics, I used my mom and other family and friends so much, I did try to take their feelings into consideration. Sometimes I'll offend my mom, and she won't say anything. She doesn't want me to feel self-conscious. But she WILL tell my sister, who will tell me, and she knows it!
See MORE about Vanessa Davis on DRAWN and QUARTERLY and SPANIEL RAGE