An Interview with Vanessa Davis


BY LYDIA CONKLIN

How did you come to write autobiographical comics? Do you think of the character in your comics as you, or as a slightly fictional version of you? 

It's definitely me. I started making comics in my early twenties, but before that I'd gone to art school most of my life, since I was eleven. I did painting and sculpture and textile art, but I never felt satisfied with any one media. Everything I made was narrative and autobiographical, but since autobiography is a literary term, I didn't think of is as the niche that was possibly mine. I thought I couldn't figure out my niche. Meanwhile, there was this huge comics legacy of autobiography. So when I ran out of space and money and only had room to draw in a sketchbook, it all came together in a way that made sense. 

 

At what point in your career would you say you hit upon your very distinctive style? Was it always your style, or was it a process to get there? 



I'd learned plenty of rules in art school, but they were all the opposite of what seemed like was required to draw comics.


I hope it is still developing! As I began, I was drawing diary strips partly to teach me how comics work. I'd learned plenty of rules in art school, but they were all the opposite of what seemed like was required to draw comics. As I continue, the logistics of different projects enable me to change in different ways. Printing in color is expensive, so I didn't even think about working with it until several years into making comics. When I started drawing a monthly column for Tablet, I had a three-page limit and I wanted to make it as readable as I could. So I sort of got over my old, meandering, improvisational style that had really dominated what I'd done before, and started using panels and thinking of the page and all of the images and text as more of a puzzle. Now when I work on longer projects, I have to re-train myself and remember I can take more time with scenes if I want to, or if the project calls for it. I want to always do things on purpose, and to suit the format, so I have to be adaptable.

 

Though they are episodic by nature, your comics also read as a satisfying narrative when put together. Do you purposefully try to pick up threads, themes, etc, as you go? Or do they just naturally string together well? 

I think in general my themes just stay the same, even if the events or circumstances are different, so that can act as a magic glue to make everything connect. When I was sixteen I had this painting teacher who took us to his giant loft studio, where he had thousands of small paintings hung up along the wall. He'd done one a day for the last five or six years at that point. I was really, really affected by how powerful and cohesive they all were together, even though it'd been put together piece by individual piece. I think that influenced my approach for a very long time—definitely, absolutely to comics.

 



I was really inspired by other cartoonists. Getting together to draw was a cheap way to hang out and a good way to maximize limited free time.


You have some comics that show you drawing with other cartoonists. Is collaboration part of your process? Do you share your work before it's finished?

In high school, I couldn't wait to go to college because I imagined it as a non-stop brilliance party of exciting creative people having fun. Like in Real Genius, but with art. That didn't happen, but when I started making comics, it was like that. I was really inspired by other cartoonists. Getting together to draw was a cheap way to hang out and a good way to maximize limited free time. I still like to show stuff to people when I'm working on it, and I get a lot out of working with a good editor. 

 

If you could illustrate a new novel by any prose writer in the world, living or dead, who would you choose, and why? 

This might sound unintellectual, but I was thinking it would be fun to adapt Carl Hiaasen or Jean Auel's "Earth's Children" series into comics. Hiaasen's books are so comic and physical already. And as a fellow Floridian, I think it would be so fun to visually portray the scenery in the way I feel I can tell he means to express it. 

I only just read (all six) Auel books in the last year—my mom got me the first one after we went to see Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. She told me it was about ethnobotany! When I'd started reading it, I told her I liked it and she said, "Oh, REALLY!" There's obviously a lot of cringe-inducing eighties nerd sensuality in those books, but I think that and all of the taxonomy would be fun to draw, too.

 



My friend Tom Hart told me, "Nobody's looking, and nobody cares." Which was totally true at the time.

What would your piece of advice be to young cartoonists? What do you wish you had know when you were starting out that you know now, being extremely wise as you are? 

That's nice of you to say, but I feel I was at my wisest when I first started making comics! My friend Tom Hart told me, "Nobody's looking, and nobody cares." Which was totally true at the time. Comics have since moved more into the cultural spotlight, which is great in a lot of ways. But I think the mostly unprecedented possibility of making a career out of being a cartoonist has been tough to navigate. I think it's still primarily important to be flexible, humble, and hardworking. Work on your personality. Draw from life. Do your own thing.


VANESSA DAVIS
    May 11, 2012