Vanessa Davis on the Raw, Romantic 20-Something Abandon of Spaniel Rage

Comics Features Vanessa Davis
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Vanessa Davis on the Raw, Romantic 20-Something Abandon of <i>Spaniel Rage</i>

Drawn in 2003 and published a decade ago, Vanessa Davis’ Spaniel Rage is the kind of slim book that has an impact out of proportion to its size, similar to Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference. Instead of innovating on sequential-art form or function, Davis’ casual diary comics draw from her time in New York and reveal a warm, familiar voice. She has a lot of free time. She goes out. She works at a crappy job. She sits around in her underwear. The collection showcases a storytelling ease between her writing and drawing; the confessional vulnerability doesn’t come off as self-serving or calculated (even the impression of nonchalance). Can that naturalism be taught? Probably not. Davis has done better and more complicated stuff in the years since (see her other autobiographic collection, Make Me a Woman), but Spaniel Rage holds an amazing freshness 12 years after it was published. It certainly deserves Drawn & Quarterly’s February reissue, complete with a new two-page introduction. Davis was pleasantly game to answer a couple of long emails full of questions, including some prying into her Publix sub order.

Spaniel Rage Cover Art by Vanessa Davis


Paste: What was it like looking back at your old work more than a decade later?

Vanessa Davis: It was humbling! In many ways I feel excited, relieved and bolstered by how much my drawing has changed. But I also miss the kind of lost openness of how I felt about work back then.

Paste: Are there things you wanted to fix this time? Or are you okay with it as a sort of time capsule?

Davis: I wish I’d done more comics back then, but I don’t think I could have. I’m happy I have what I did, though. There are things I wouldn’t do now that I did then, but that’s how it goes. Some people have tattoos they regret—I have comics. But we’re still all going to dance our mistakes around from time to time.

Spaniel Rage Interior Art by Vanessa Davis

Paste: When you were creating these comics, did you think at all about publishing them?

Davis: I thought about self-publishing them. I had a plan in mind: I would do a comic every day for about a month, then Xerox minicomics and hand them out at the MoCCA Arts Festival, which I did. I was excited to self-publish and meet other independent cartoonists. I was in my early 20s and wanted to meet artsy, punky, interesting people.

Paste: How did you end up doing so the first time around?

Davis: I was able to use the Xerox machine at my office job. A work-friend helped me scan them and lay them out in QuarkXpress, print them to make a mockup. Then I got a long-arm stapler and put them together. I brought them to the MoCCA Fest and gave them to people whose work I liked. Then I got emails from people who liked my comic and it was super exciting!

Paste: Did you really manage to draw something in your sketchbook every day?

Davis: I did do it most days. I fell behind a few times, and after the initial month I definitely did it more intermittently. I remember being really tired, like I was partying a lot, but it was all just drawing comics. I complained to my mother and she told me, “You’re 24 years old, stop whining. Just stay up late and do it.”

Paste: How did you select the specific pages for the book? Are there pages you think should have been included (or vice versa: ones that shouldn’t have been)?

Davis: I am pretty sure I included everything. There were a few spreads that I remember my original publisher encouraged me to include—some of the non-comics sketchy pages.

Paste: You mention in your new two-page intro comic that you didn’t know how to make comics when you started this project. How did you learn how to do that? Did you grow up reading comics?

Davis: I read Archie comics and Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield, but went to art school from 7th grade onwards, and was really encouraged to abandon anything comics- or illustration-influenced. I always had a cartoony “style” and that was always considered a handicap in my drawing abilities. In college I finally had a couple of teachers who finally just allowed that I knew how to draw as well as I was ever going to, and that the next thing to wrangle was my voice and perspective.

As for learning how to draw comics, I am still entrenched in that process. But every story I drew or job I got since I started, I had to adapt what I was doing to make it work. That taught me a lot about planning, which was the main thing I couldn’t wrap my mind around when I started.

Paste: Were these comics the first time you tried to make comics at all?

Davis: Yes. I’d become aware of arty comics, but never imagined I’d make them. But after time away from school and the space and time school had provided me to be a “fine artist,” I realized it couldn’t hurt to indulge a budding interest. I also had internet for the first time at my office job, and started to be exposed to more comics that way. So it pushed itself to the front of my awareness.

Spaniel Rage Interior Art by Vanessa Davis

Paste: Do you think your lack of experience with the form contributed to, for example, the general lack of panels and the relative abundance of text?

Davis: Yes. Drawing a comic with panels, to me, seemed as far-off a possibility as becoming a brain surgeon. I felt both handicapped, but I also knew that it allowed me to have fun and be inventive with how I constructed the page. I also wanted to “sprawl”—a panel seemed limiting in a way that now I love, but back then hindered me too much.

Paste: I love your handwriting. To me, it’s a hallmark of your work. How do you feel about it? Did you practice? Did you learn cursive in school?

Davis: Thank you! I did learn cursive in school, and I always aspired to have nice-looking handwriting. As a young art school student, I wanted to have beautiful, elegant handwriting and went out of my way not to have the “bubbly” handwriting that was popular back then.

Paste: Part of what makes your handwriting stand out is that it’s so unapologetically feminine, something I would say is true of your comics in general. Does that come naturally? Do you think comics is still a boys’ club? Has it changed since 2003?

Davis: Comics has definitely changed since 2003, but also my little corner of comics is so small, which is fine with me. I felt very welcomed by comics, and if I’m being honest, part of that had to do with being a rare woman in the scene. I think within my niche, people were happy to meet other kinds of people, and if they were women, all the better. I encountered some weird, creepy sexist stuff, but I also met some of my truest, most formidable peers. At this point, boys’ club-type cartoonists are as irrelevant to me as I am to them, and there’s still plenty of amazing work and people to read and get to know.

Paste: You don’t write all that much in these comics about the difference between Florida and New York, but that had to be something you thought about a lot. The drawing of you by your car in front of a Publix that opens the book really made me think about that difference. I live in Georgia, and Publix (and its subs) are a big part of my life.

Davis: I still miss Publix. Living in New York was so fun, but I was making about $20,000 a year and was just so poor. Once I moved away, I realized how much for granted I took Florida’s nature, how big a part of life down there it is, and felt keenly aware of the lack of it. New York is slick and fancy, while Florida is necessarily kind of wild and casual, which I like better, style-wise. New York was dirty and I had to schlep everywhere and I always arrived anywhere I was going drenched in sweat. Just normal city life stuff. And this was in the early 2000s when the standard of living in New York was so much higher than it is now. I only had to take one train to work. I lived in Boerum Hill, which is like a millionaire neighborhood now. But I’d go home to Florida and it was all seashells and ocean breezes and easy parking and toodling around in my old Toyota. I missed my youth, my comfortable life in the suburbs, with all the languorous time and space that I had as a kid. As much as I now miss my time in New York, much of it was spent imagining my escape.

Paste: Speaking of that, what’s your sub order at Publix? That’s not a question I’ve ever asked a comics person before.

Davis: I used to get kind of a plain turkey deal with their deliciously thin-shredded lettuce, onions and olives. I also get the Cape Cod or some other kind of kettle potato chips and insert them into the sub as I eat it. Then, did you know that in the last few years they added the option to get chicken fingers in the sub? I will order that when nobody’s around to judge me. My favorite/primary place to eat a Publix sub is on the beach.

Spaniel Rage Interior Art by Vanessa Davis

Paste: Yes, I know about the chicken fingers! Although my usual is an Italian on wheat with most of the toppings (but not cucumbers or bell peppers) and spicy mustard. The days when it’s on sale are a moment of joy in my life.

Davis: Italian is the ultimate sub.

Paste: Are there specific lessons from art school that you’ve applied to your comics work?

Davis: Yes! I learned a lot about craftsmanship, philosophy and confidence in art school. Unfortunately, I learned nothing about technology, commercialism or math. So my comics have suffered in those departments. Maybe the biggest lesson I learned is that everything you do to your work has to be for a reason. If you let arbitrary circumstances play a big role in what you make, the work will suffer. If something sucks, it’s usually because you didn’t choose it deliberately enough.

Spaniel Rage Interior Art by Vanessa Davis

Paste: Math is overrated! It seems like your technique is generally pretty old-school (not a lot of computers). Is that accurate? Do you ever see a downside to that approach?

Davis: I spent my entire education avoiding math and now when I am assigned pages to draw at 6.678” by 9.84” I feel very regretful. I am a specific age where computers were pretty out-of-reach unless you were either a computer geek or rich. They became important right after I left school, when I lost access to them. I didn’t have my own computer until a few years ago. So there’s a lot I don’t know how to do. There’s definitely a downside, from a professional standpoint. For comics, I can make anything work, but for illustration, which has sprouted from my comics work, it can hinder what jobs I can take or get.

Paste: One of the things that people seem to respond to in your work is the fact that it seems so unfiltered, but then you said that thing about choosing stuff very deliberately. Is it that you’ve made a very conscious choice to present your true self?

Davis: Yes, choosing to leave things in, be sort of natural, is a definite decision. As much as I love design, pure aesthetics, and as much as those things inform me, that’s just not where the bulk of my abilities lie. Through a lot of trial and error I have found that I am not good at trying to be stylish; the grit in my work is in the stuff I can’t obscure.

Paste: How many times do you draw a page these days before you’re happy with it?

Davis: Once or twice. I had this idea recently that I think my art technique is similar to my hairstyling technique: my hair is really fine, and I can make it look good, but I can’t do exactly what I might want it to do. I have to touch it as little as possible. If I try to sculpt it too much, turn it into what I want it to be rather than what it just is, it falls flat.

Paste: Is California like the happy medium between Florida and New York?

Davis: No! California is definitely its own weird thing. I like living in LA now for the cultural diversity and exciting urban stuff, but even though I’ve been living in California for 11 years or so, it all still feels very far from “home.” But that’s kind of fun in its own way, too.

Paste: Where does the title of this book come from?

Davis: My friend was dating a dog therapist and he told me about Spaniel Rage Syndrome. I think that as a young woman, I related to the idea of being groomed as a pretty thing, a companion to man, a being whose feelings and anger were unwelcome, mysterious and dangerous. So it seemed both apt, sad, funny and absurd all at the same time, which I liked.