January 2011

Dave O'Shell

nonfiction

Make Me a Woman by Vanessa Davis

Everyday reality is a mess. Our mind is called on to organize this storm of sound and fury into something conceivable. Some are better at organizing this than others. Psychologists and artists, though often terrible at what they do, are the aides of consciousness.

There is nothing new about a person telling you about his or her day. From “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man” to “It was the first day off in a long time,” people have allowed everyday life to be their muse. The novelty today lies in the number of new voices that have come to talk about their day. Like anything, these so-called voices can be either extremely tedious or surprisingly engaging. For some reason I have read James Kochalka’s daily diary strip every day for the past five years, and others of perfectly good taste see it as junk. What it is that makes one thing engaging over another remains a brilliant mystery, and should remain so.

This mystery does leave a discernible shadow, however, in the shape of a story arc. The pictures or words or devices move through some kind of change. The puppets onstage all appear to be doing something. And there is a beginning, middle, and end; though, as Godard helpfully pointed out, not necessarily in that order. This lovely mysterious movement has been abandoned in favor of something called Voice. The Concerned Citizens for Voice Association dictates that the purpose of art is to hear someone else’s side so that we can understand them. Art will bring World Peace. Good job!

Now why is it after one’s day -- and I assume that everyone, not only autobiographers or memoirists or monologists, also experience a “day” -- why would someone worry that there is a voice he or she is not hearing? I imagine it is for the same reason historical fiction is popular, that there are so many documentary films involving some stranger doing experiments on himself, and comics helping to explain the situation in Israel today, and why adults read books intended for children. We feel Guilty. We cannot allow ourselves the pleasure of simply enjoying the escape of following a story about some characters that never existed doing things that never happened. This pleasure is relegated to children, who probably would have all the fun if the stories they are made to read didn’t have so many damn moral lessons thrown upon them. Odd that in a time of devices that watch television for you and a mechanical brain that drives your car we would worry about having fun.

Of course there are films and comic books and novels and other works of art popular right now that offer enjoyment. The trick is to allow the audience to pretend that the film is enlightening and edifying in some way so they can secretly enjoy it for the wonderful no-damn-reason-at-all-ness of art.

Nothing I am saying is too radical, and I think that on some basic level everyone, probably, agrees. The argument over Vanessa Davis just involves whether there is a thread to be followed through Make Me a Woman or not. Those who enjoy this book (many seem to love the shit out of it) see in it the “story” (maybe “movement” is more apt; Davis herself calls it a “collection”) of a girl becoming a woman in some way. Or perhaps they see it as a development of a character named Vanessa who reveals the multidimensionality of her person though her love for outfits.  I disagree with this, and suggest that Make Me a Woman follows no thread or theme that is in any way healthy, but is rather an assortment of minutiae with careful references to everyday life with the intention of characterizing the author as an outsider with a voice that, appealing to our sobbing-on-the-bathroom-floor Guilt, must be heard.

Davis’s book, at first flip, is striking in its truly lovely design. Her watercolors (this in a time where many artists opt for computer coloring) are beautiful, showing a sharp eye for color. Each character is distinguishable from the other through carefully selected combinations of clothing. Davis is the type of person who surely must keep records, mental or paper (though I imagine that anything she put on paper ended up in this book), cataloguing designs and patterns. Every type of sweater, collar, shoe, swimwear, and ponytail seems to be represented in this book. Compare this to the endearing Never Ending Summer by Allison Cole, whose characters cannot remove a hat or change a shirt without becoming another character.

Her drawings flow nicely with her lettering, which to civilians might seem not unlike praising the “inking” of a Marvel comic, but in comics, lettering does make for about 70% of the total visual experience. Her typography is humbling, especially as she combines clear cursive and print lettering, using the former to signal narration. (A departure from the classic boxed type at the top of the page to signal narration used in most superhero comics.) She uses almost no bounding boxes, allowing each sequence or “panel” to flow into the next, giving each page a chance to be cut out of the book and taped to the wall to be appreciated from afar. In short, Davis has special spectacles for design.

This is where the conflict between those who see the future of comics as sharing a bed with coffee table art books and those who cling to the term “graphic novel” -- which I don’t think I have ever heard uttered at an independent comic book convention and would certainly bar you from any comic book cocaine party. The reason that comic books will never rest comfortably too long on any coffee table is that they must be read. One cannot please himself entirely by looking at the pages of a book. As lovely as the sentences look lined up and simple on the pages of Winesburg, Ohio, they are much better read than seen.
Reading the words and pictures of Make Me a Woman does not give one the same pleasure as seeing them. I will give an example at random (I cannot cite the page number, as there are none: count back seven pages from the last page). This, it should be noted, is a stand-alone “strip”:

We’ve been moving and cleaning so much over the last few weeks [pictures of Vanessa and guy with glasses and interesting hair, spraying cleaning solution] I keep promising myself I’ll get a manicure and pedicure when it’s all over, but the timing never seems right [picture of a winded Vanessa and guy with glasses and interesting hair walking in the woods] I inherited my mom’s feet; they’re like rocks [Vanessa and GWGAIH at store purchasing foot-related herbs and medicines] Yeah so… here I am! [picture of V scrubbing foot in shower with caption “new shower stall”]

The vernacular code for this kind of unwanted idiosyncratic “I Feel Fat and My Feet are Gross” overshare is “TMI,” but I think it goes a little deeper. I think it has more to do with the deflection, “At Least I Was Honest.” Dostoevsky shows the problem of ALIWH in his character from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Pavlovich, the runner up in the winner of the Be My Dad for a Day contest:

As soon as he had uttered his foolish tirade he felt he had been talking absurd nonsense, and at once longed to prove to his audience, and above all himself, that he had not been talking nonsense. And though he knew perfectly well that with each new word he would be adding more and more absurdity, he could not restrain himself, and plunged forward blindly.

There is something resentful in sharing, in confessing. What is the purpose of Fyodor Pavlovich compiling these ever-negating truths? It is a hysterical yearning for absolute truth. The same reason that David Foster Wallace never had enough footnotes for his footnotes. It seems to me that this used to not be as much of a problem, though people were aware that they were never truthful. As Nabokov said, literature began when a boy cried “wolf” and there wasn’t one. Because on some level it doesn’t really matter whether there isn’t one. People once were comfortable with the great lie that consciousness makes of the mess of reality. It is this guilt over never being able to create truth that has created our mess of documentary and overshare without any justification though story arc. We can’t tell the truth and we can’t calm down about it.

Make Me a Woman by Vanessa Davis
Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 1770460217
176 Pages

Dave O'Shell, a comic book author and artist, lives in Washington, D.C.