Smash Pages Q&A: Vanessa Davis on ‘Spaniel Rage,’ Then and Now

When Spaniel Rage was first published in 2005, the collection of diary comics made a splash. Vanessa Davis didn’t come from a comics background, and she had a unique way of laying out and designing pages and her own sensibility. A few years later when Drawn & Quarterly collected many of her short comics in the book Make Me a Woman, it established Davis’ reputation as one of the great cartoonists of her generation.

Since then Davis has been making short comics and illustrations for many publications, including The New York Times, Tablet, Lucky Peach, and elsewhere. Her work has appeared in Fairy Tale Comics, Nursery Rhyme Comics, Kramer’s Ergot, and Best American Comics. D&Q has just reissued Spaniel Rage with a new introduction by Davis. The book remains a striking and vivid book about life in one’s 20s, about New York City, about the life of the young artist. Davis spoke about revisiting her work, what she’s working on now, and The Terry Southern, which she was just awarded for her work for The Paris Review.

You made a short comic for this edition, explaining that your goal was to draw one thing a day. Was the goal to draw one comic a day? Or just sketch something? Did you have a plan beyond one thing a day?

No. Basically I just wanted to create an opportunity where it was half-pressure, half-no pressure. If it’s a comic, it’s a comic and if it’s just a drawing, I’m not going to worry about it. If it’s more than one thing a day, that works too. I just knew that one thing a day was manageable. My teacher had this project and I saw the cumulative effects of a project like that. I just wanted to do it as an experiment to see what would happen. I didn’t know what would happen.

You talk about studying painting in art school. Did you study illustration or comics at all in school?

No. I thought that was the last thing I would ever want to do. [laughs] I had a really snotty attitude, not necessarily about comics and illustration, but that it’s not for me. I had a really anti-commercial upbringing in art. Even admitting that you would want to be paid for something was offensive. It was just the last thing I ever would have thought of doing. It’s ridiculous. I always drew and painted and thought like an illustrator or a cartoonist so it was just like a case of youth and cluelessness. [laughs]

Was the time you were making Spaniel Rage and before when you first started getting seriously into comics?

I started to in college. Throughout my adolescence I knew about Julie Doucet and I had the Twisted Sisters anthology and so I was aware of underground comics and art comics. I got into Dan Clowes and Chris Ware in college. I had friends in college who were more into comics. Someone had the SPX anthology, and I saw Dan Zettwoch’s work in there and I started to become more and more aware. I read Goodbye, Chunky Rice when I was just out of college, and James Kochalka comics. There was this punk anarchist library in Gainesville where I went to college and they had a lot of comics. At work online I saw that James Kochalka had this daily diary and I saw the Guide for Reproduction that Brian Ralph and Jordan Crane put together so it started to be more at the forefront of my interests around that time.

I ask in part because in Spaniel Rage you’re playing with the idea of comics. I don’t know how conscious or unconscious that was, but you didn’t go, comics need to have XYZ, you have a different approach.

Before I started doing comics—when I fancied myself a fine artist or studying in that direction—I’ve always been really talkative and I’ve always talked too much. It’s always been a thing that I’ve been self-conscious about. What I liked about my own artwork was that I was able to tell stories without words and people were interested rather than tired of listening to me. [laughs] I thought that my strengths lay in being quiet. I thought that if I were to try to do comics they would come out too talkative. I would lose that magical intriguing silence that I was able to achieve artistically, as opposed to in real life.

I ask because from the beginning we can see that you weren’t trying to imitate anyone but trying to play with the idea of comics.

I think I was trying to see how I would do it. I already had this fear of saying too much. Also I didn’t quite know how to put the words to the images that had already been enough. It was really just trying to see what happened when I added the narrative.

When you started, at what point did it go from a sketchbook for yourself to something for other people to see?

I knew about the MoCCA festival and I knew that it would be a low stakes experiment if I decided to make a booklet and give it out at MoCCA. I told myself I wasn’t going to show it to anyone and it wasn’t for anyone, but I had self-publishing it as a goal in mind the whole time. I think I actually did the comic that was for True Porn that’s in Spaniel Rage—about the guy putting his finger in the girls’ butt. I did that before I did any diary comics. That was also an experiment because it wasn’t my story and so I figured it would be something that I could use. It was already a pre-made anecdote that a friend had told me and I figured I could use it as a framework to put a comic together.

The comics from Spaniel Rage are from a year or two. When you were doing it, were you doing other projects or was this your primary work during that time?

This was it. I was doing it for myself because I wanted to be an artist and I had this day job. It kind of weirded me out because being in school and having a major I knew what I was all about. Being a civilian out in the world, I was like, am I an artist? I don’t make any art, so what am I doing? It was really on top of working. It was a big undertaking. I also was 23 and I wanted to meet people. One thing I was excited about in comics was not just the form itself but the personalities behind the work. The people seemed really cool. They seemed smart and artistic and when I was a painting major, I didn’t really fit in with a lot of the other students. I was chatty and conversational and I liked to read books and I was interested in other things and not that they weren’t but I just wanted to meet people that were more like me and that were more doing their own thing and not worried about the art world or not taking themselves too seriously. When I read comics I thought this person seems so fun. It would be so fun to be their friend or be their peer.

It was really the main project. The first thing I was asked to be a part of was Megan Kelso’s Scheherazade anthology. I was in True Porn, but I wasn’t asked to be in True Porn, I applied to be in it. Scheherazade was the first book I was asked to be a part of and that was a really big deal for me because Twisted Sisters had been such a big deal for me. Being asked to be a part of something like that was really exciting and gratifying. It was also a cool experience because I was this newbie and Megan was this amazing teacher. She helped me prepare my story and helped me edit it. Even though the printing of that book was a huge disaster, the experience was really great and it set me up for a long run of contributing to anthologies after that. But when I first started Spaniel Rage it was the only thing I was working on.

Do you continue to keep a sketchbook?

I do, but it’s not that great. It’s more scattered and it’s more about whatever project I’m working on. I’ll go and draw with people but I’ve been more project focused than sketchbook focused. It’s more about working things out in a less focused way

I guess that’s a natural evolution. As you work on other projects and get assigned and asked to do things, your sketchbook changes like that.

Yeah, but I do it on and off. It’s something that always brings me back when I haven’t worked on comics in a while. Or when I have been working on something for someone else for a while I will do diary comics just because it resets me and reminds me of who I am and what I do. When I’m lost I revert to that.

Reading Spaniel Rage a few times over the past week, I kept thinking about my twenties. About how I wanted to do big things, which never happened or I never finished, but I did make small projects and I think I learned from that skills that I rely on today. I’m sure you cringe a little as everyone does looking at older work, but do you see yourself and your work when you reread this?

Absolutely. It’s funny because my Uncle Jay told me, when I was in my twenties right before I moved to New York, how the work that you do in your twenties informs or lays the foundation for the work that you do for the rest of your life. Which was intimidating when he said that to me because I had no idea what I was going to do. This was way before I thought about doing comics or I knew what I was going to do for work in New York. But I think it’s true. Even if it doesn’t directly connect. I mean what kind of successes are you supposed to have when you’re 23? You’re still learning what you’re doing. When I look at Spaniel Rage now I think, I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t draw things this way. There are these awkward things where I just didn’t know my language yet. There’s a visual language that you develop as a cartoonist that I hadn’t developed yet. So I definitely notice the difference between how I did things then and now, but it doesn’t make me feel bad. It was honest. I wasn’t trying to be anything that I wasn’t. I feel really grateful to the person I was back then because I tried things and I gave myself the chance to see what I could do. That’s a really good version of myself that I should still try to be.

Spaniel Rage was open and honest, but of course that also means you were choosing how open to be and what to be open about. That’s one reason I asked whether you planned to put it out there, but of course that means a lot about how open you might be.

Of course it’s edited, but adults have more to hide. They’ve made compromises, they’ve made choices, they’ve done things that they regret. Certainly kids have too, but they can be forgiven because they’re just kids. They’re not supposed to know better. I liked being commended on my openness in Spaniel Rage, but it was easier to be open when you’re a young person. I hadn’t done anything, I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t a real risk for me to be like, I like this boy. Also it was published like a year after all of those things happened. The only thing I really had to own up to was maybe a sheepish admission of a crush. Who cares. It felt risky at the time and it was sort of fun and daring. On the one hand I think it was very open and it wasn’t unedited, but it was not really secretive either. I also have to admit that I wasn’t a particularly weathered 24 year old. There were still a lot of things I had not seen or done or known and I didn’t really have anything to hide.

I guess my point is that it wasn’t unedited. It’s obviously subjective but it was pretty open. I was a young person and young people know that they can be making mistakes. They go, am I ever going to get it together? They know that they can look like they don’t know what they’re doing—because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. I think I took advantage of that.

Where did the title, Spaniel Rage, come from?

My friend Jason was dating a dog therapist and she told him—and he told me—about this condition called Spaniel Rage. It’s horrible. It comes from overbreeding. A dog will have a violent seizure and it can be really violent and they can hurt people. I was thinking about that and I was learning about all these new comics and all these tough sounding nineties underground comics like “Hate” and “Dirty Plotte.” I was trying to think of some tough name for my own comics, but I also was thinking about being a young woman who was bred to be this pretty pleasant companion to men whose negative, angry feelings were unwelcome – and opposite to everything that she had been bred to be. Spaniel Rage just rang true in this funny and absurd and sad way.

In the years since Make Me a Woman came out you’ve been making comics for The Paris Review and other outlets. What are you working on now?

That Paris Review column was a really great opportunity. I hadn’t made comics in over a year when I was asked to do that project because I’d been working on this really long—and really fun—illustration project. I really surprised myself with that job. I really loved the work that I did. I’m going to collect those stories and do a couple of new stories and put those together for a book. That’s what’s next. Also in the midst of starting the Paris Review column I rented a studio – which I’d never had – just to do large scale drawings like I used to do when I was younger. I think a theme for me is drifting away from art and then coming back to it and figuring out how to do things. That’s what I did with Spaniel Rage. Life has always gotten in the way of me making artwork so I try to get back to it by doing diary comics or in this case I saw it as “art gym” where I go there and listen to music and see what happens. I’ve been working on the next collection and doing these big drawings.

Is there a chance that in addition to that collection of short stories we might see another volume of diary comics, even if over a period of many years?

I hope so! I would love to do that. I think I probably will.

Do you think that living in Los Angeles has had an effect on your work?

I had a really rough adjustment to living in Los Angeles. I hated it at first and it made me more grizzled and angry. [laughs] I like it now, but I think I have grown up a lot living here and my tone has changed accordingly. Stylistically, I don’t think so. If anything living in LA has made me more committed to being as real as I can be and as rough as I can be and unpolished.

Spaniel Rage feels very New York in some ways and I would love to see how you deal with Los Angeles in your more recent comics, and how the setting has affected them.

It’s weird. Having a day job forced me to go out in the world all the time and now working as a freelancer doesn’t. Life in New York is a lot more public and the city is more permeable. People are in and out of buildings and underground, overground and just everywhere. You find yourself in glamorous places and shitty places. Obviously everyone’s experience is different, but in LA you can easily not go anywhere for weeks. You can stay in your neighborhood and just drive to the grocery store or drive to a friend’s house and easily not get around a lot. I read this Alec Baldwin quote where he said that the difference between LA and New York is that New York is like a rushing river and no matter what you do, you’re going to get carried along by the current and you’re going to get wet and you’re going to get taken somewhere. LA is more like a lake and you can go anywhere in the lake that you want, but you have to paddle there. That just really has made a lot of sense to me living in both places.

Speaking of The Paris Review, you were recently awarded The Terry Southern Prize for your columns there. Congratulations, first of all!

Thank you!

When the Paris Review approached you, what was the gig exactly?

Their longtime contributor to the Daily, Sadie Stein, was ending her column, and instead of hiring one new person to do it, they thought they’d ask a bunch of writers to do something every other week. My editor, Nicole Rudick, had read my comics in the past and thought that I could produce some short autobiographical pieces, which is what I like to make!

What was the process like? Did you start out with a plan of what you wanted to do and cover or did that emerge as you worked?

I had just come off this long-term illustration project, and hadn’t actually made comics in over a year or so, so it was a little chaotic on my end. I had some general ideas reserved that I’d wanted to write about, and then things came up in real time and would usurp plans—like how I cut my hand really severely a few days before the first story was due. I showed Nicole my sketches and she’d make suggestions to tighten up and clarify my points. I also showed sketches to a few friends and desperately would ask them to fix things I couldn’t figure out in the last minute before the pieces were due.

The Terry Southern prize is for “humor, wit, and sprezzatura.” Do you think, that’s totally what I was going for, or, did you go, what are they talking about?

Sprezzatura was a new word to me and it’s really interesting! It’s defined one way as “studied carelessness, especially as a characteristic quality or style of art or literature,” and I do think that applies to my work. Especially with these strips – the deadlines were very tight (for me) and the stories necessarily were kind of imperfect and rough, though definitely not dashed-off. I agonized to craft their insides, keeping their outsides kinda shaggy.

One reason I ask is because the series both is and is not light and fun and humorous. It opens with hearing about Genevieve Castree’s death and how the body deals with pain, memories of your father and his death, dealing with your mother (I may have flinched in recognition at one panel), the passage of time and uncertainty. It doesn’t sound fun but you make it…maybe fun is the wrong word, but not as brutal as that description makes it sound.

Well, it’s not news that humor and pain are usually connected. I think I’ve always had a sunny personality combined with being pretty sensitive and taking things hard.  To me it’s most interesting and accurate to depict the full scope of an experience – which is never just one thing: funny, serious, happy, or sad. It’s usually a mix.

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