By Vanessa Davis
176 pages, color & black and white
Published by Drawn & Quarterly
Vanessa Davis’s comics are not, at a glance, the sort of experiences that would be universally understood. A love/hate relationship with Jewish boys, going to fat camp, celebrating the High Holy Days, a mother who uses slightly inappropriate and sexually tilted words. "That’s not me at all," you’re probably thinking. But what makes Davis’s comics in Make Me a Woman so good is that somehow, she makes everything relatable to the reader, no matter what their background. Boiling down the emotional experiences of each story to their core, there’s a lot to connect with. And more importantly, fall in love with.
The stories in Make Me a Woman are a mixture of recollections and every-day journal entries, and each have their own particular charm. I was initially familiar with Davis’s comics through her more structured stories, where she picks a specific portion of her life to focus on and then tells it to us over the course of several pages. There’s a lot to love there, with stand out stories including the camaraderie and friendship found at fat camp (I totally want to go now, too), trying to live up to expectations (the last two panels in particular are killer), and "going home for Christmas" (which probably sums up everyone’s family experience at least once in their life). Davis is remarkably unselfconscious in her stories, presenting herself in a relaxed, humorous fashion. It’s that utter lack of a wall between her and the reader that helps make each story so relatable; it invites you in and lets you match your own similar emotions to the ones she experienced, making each story feel like you were somehow there.
At the same time, though, Davis serves up less structured snippets and vignettes from her life throughout Make Me a Woman, and I found myself slightly surprised at how much I loved them as well. They’re usually just a brief moment or scene, recorded in comic form for posterity’s sake, and yet somehow they become engrossing. It helps that Davis doesn’t present these as throw-away pieces, or something that doesn’t deserve the same amount of attention as her full-length stories. Even if it’s just a short conversation on an elevator, Davis brings the people she encounters (as well as herself) to life, making you feel like you’re sitting in the corner and observing all of these moments yourself.
One of the things I found the most interesting about Davis’s Make Me a Woman is her approach to page layout and the traditional idea of panels. For some of her full-color stories done for other publishers (like her Tablet stories) there’s a traditional look to her layouts. Stories move from left to right, usually in rows across the page, separated by her words that form gutters separating the columns of art. It’s in her black and white stories, though, that Davis instead uses the entire page as a single, large art form where the image flows from one moment to the next, the passage of time unencumbered by panel borders or separations. As your eye moves across the page, each drawing bleeds into the next, but it’s still incredibly easy to follow. It’s a beautiful technique, one that is hard to pull off even as Davis makes it look effortless. It’s a different type of storytelling than most people are used to in comics, but it’s one that I hope Davis never abandons.
As for the figures within the art, Davis draws people in a relaxed and realistic manner. Davis draws herself so close to reality that when I met her at the Small Press Expo this year I was able to instantly pick her out of a crowd. From the way her hair falls around her face and shoulders, to the freckles on her cheeks and nose, she looks as attractive and down-to-earth on the page as in real life. She’s remarkably good at capturing other details like posture and body language, too; from laughing over a silly note left on food, to a nervous swig from a bottle of beer at a club, people move and act true to life. It’s hard to say whether I like her black and white or color art more; while the black and white drawings come across as much more intimate and personal, she has a strong sense of color that pops off the page without ever looking garish or out of place. It’s a great look and each new page made me fall in love with her art all over again.
When reading Make Me a Woman, it’s hard to not feel like you’ve somehow become friends with Davis by the book’s conclusion. She lets you into her life and share her thoughts, and in such a welcoming, friendly manner. If hanging out with Davis on a regular basis is even half as enjoyable as her book, her boyfriend, family, and friends are all extremely lucky people. This is, easily, one of my favorite books of the year. Highly recommended.