Monday, October 11, 2010
I’ve really been looking forward to Vanessa Davis’s new book, Make Me a Woman. I’m a great admirer of Davis’s zaftig ladies and of the minimum of lines she uses to describe them—round, undulating, bumpy, and squiggly, but always lively. The image blown up on the cover is a great example: The long, rubbery curve of the figure’s leg, foot, and arms, the off-kilter half-moon toenails. The tiny smudges of red polish outside the lines, which signifies her imperfect painting technique, is splendid. I also love her characters’ upturned noses, bubble mouths, and the occasional double chin. She’s generous in the way she draws people, not just in size (not everyone is voluptuous) but also in breadth. These autobiographical comics—divided between published strips and pencil drawings from her daily diary—are often as much about her as everyone around her.
Wimmin’s Comix debuted in 1972 as a forum for women cartoonists to publish work that dealt with issues they were interested in and to represent themselves in more realistic terms, and much of this work took the form of autobiography. The popular lineage of these diaristic narratives can be traced to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century diaries kept by women as a way to be involved in the construction of literature and to depict their daily lives in relation to the world. But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and artist/writers like Marie Bashkirtseff and Anaïs Nin, that diaries changed from factual records to a place where anything could be—and was—said; these more recent versions were revelatory of women’s psyches, a means of awareness and therapy. Davis, however, has found a balance between observation and confession in her autobiographic approach to comics.
Hers isn’t autobio as an event-driven narrative (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, David B.’s Epileptic, David Small’s Stitches) or as scathing self-analysis (Ivan Brunetti’s Schizo, Joe Matt’s Spent). Instead, Davis probes life’s mundanities over a long period of time. Harvey Pekar is the exemplar of this mode: quotidian obsessions, annoyances, and joys writ large over the course of many years’ worth of work—the “autobiography written as it’s happening,” as he described American Splendor. Bechdel did it, too, with Dykes to Watch Out For. And Davis’s comics hew more closely to Bechdel’s: There’s a buoyancy to their stories, and the sense that a span of time, presented either as stretches of many years or as excerpts, leavens the more terrible events that life brings. (A fiction equivalent is Love and Rockets.) It’s a kind of realism that I think only long-term comics narratives can create.