Making a Woman with Vanessa Davis
I have recently read Vanessa Davis’ Make me a Woman (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010). That was my first contact with Davis’ work. Initially, I was attracted to it by its art. It is a stunning book indeed, especially in the few colored sections of it. But as for narrative, it is not as good as its art, at least for me.
There are a few good stories in it (like the one that gives the name to the collection). But, overall, the book is filled with loose scenes of an uninteresting life, which don’t add up to a good story. Don’t get me wrong: I like to read about an uninteresting life just like everyone else. My problem with it is just the way the stories are put together.
Most of the stories within the book reminded of something out of Twitter. I am talking about tweets you have probably read. The ones about people doing their nails, or buying shoes, or eating at some place with someone, or doing something embarrassing. That kind of it-doesn’t-really-matter-to-me type of message we get from people from time to time. You know what I mean? Well, let me try to explain…
I am aware, and partly in love, with the highly personal graphic narratives that became a staple of North-American independent comics at least since the 1960s and 1970s. Think about Robert Crumb (also mentioned by Davis as a sort of precursor, when she analyses Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated — W. W. Norton & Company, 1999). Think about Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Cia. Das Letras, 2005). Think about some of Davis’ contemporaries, such as Joe Matt and Chester Brown. Actually, these are better names to compare her work with. Now, let’s see the differences between being personal and being “Twitter-personal.”
Crumb, while being personal, is frequently disconcerting. Of course, he is not being completely sincere or even realistic about his own circumstances. He is lying, or at least telling half-truths about himself. That is to say, Crumb is creating a persona through his comics. Being harsh with oneself is not enough to be confessional. What Crumb does is to highlight the worse of him. And this is just a perspective of one’s life, of course, a way to look at it. He usually focuses on his eccentricities and kinkiness in general. What comes out of it is a portrait of a persona rather than of a person. I am not saying this is not part of who he is, but rather that this is just part of what he probably is. And it is fun, sometimes even awkwardly fun.
Spiegelman’s Maus is no fair game. It is kind of confessional, but the personal story of the narrator is connected to his father’s memories and, ultimately, to some of the most important historical facts of the twentieth-century. So, why have I brought it up? Just to show that personal stories can be more than about one person and one person only. I know, Davis, this comparison is not fair! But, please, bear with me so I can make my point. I am not exactly comparing Davis’ narratives to Spiegelman’s masterpiece; far from that. What I am suggesting here is that there are different approaches to the genre, if it is possible to call it a genre within comic book traditions. There is the fully personal, confessional, self-destructive, or self-commiserating (which I think is Davis’ case, in contrast to, for instance, Crumb’s self-destructiveness) type of story; and there is the personal-meets-history type of story. Retelling history through personal stories sure helps change what one may think about the past, ultimately modifying history itself. Mentioning Maus thus serves to put Davis’ work in perspective.
It also helps me jump to other examples to briefly compare Davis’ works to; contemporary confessional stories. I mentioned Joe Matt and Chester Brown, and I will stick to these guys. First, let me point some similarities. Davis, Matt, and Brown put themselves at the center of their stories. Even better, they put a version of themselves into the narratives. They talk about everyday events, uninteresting stories of uninteresting people living in uninteresting parts of the world. Now, the main difference: Davis’ stories haven’t got a point to them!
Do they have to have it? I don’t know. Probably not.
Davis’ Make me a Woman functions as a personal diary (at least this is how it is described by the publisher). It is sometimes so personal that it doesn’t have to make any sense, or invite people to make sense of it. Matt’s and Brown’s books try to accomplish something, whether it is the destruction of the self, as per Crumb’s model (I am think about Matt’s Spent — Drawn and Quarterly, 2007), whether it is arguably a relevant, yet questionable, social issue (Brown’s Paying for it — Drawn and Quarterly, 2011). Foremost, both Matt and Brown create narratives for their misfortunes and their daily lives, putting apparently sparse and uninteresting personal facts, likes and dislikes, into a bigger picture. That is to say: they narrate and, thus, create little lies to make it into a story you can actually follow. Davis, in turn, tells us just what happened when it happened. Just like a tweet from an inconvenient friend.
For me, Make me a Woman felt like that: a collection of beautifully illustrated tweets. I guess I need to be lied to, to get some fun out of it.
In conclusion, the main problem with Davis’ Make me a Woman is nothing but I.