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Make Me A Woman
posted October 7, 2010


Creator: Vanessa Davis
Publishing Information: Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover, 176 pages, October 2010, $24.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781770460218 (ISBN13), 1770460217 (ISBN10)

Here's how effective a cartoonist Vanessa Davis has become: during one of the many cartoons involving her mother, I actually found myself looking at the picture of Davis when I was surprised by what her mom had said. I wanted to know if I heard correctly, and if I had, what her reaction was so I could then offer my own. This kind of conspiratorial glancing doesn't happen to me a whole lot in life or in art, and certainly never has with cartoons. Make Me A Woman sneaked up on me, and I went into the experience with my eyes wide open and full of admiration for the best of what Davis can do. She exceeded my expectations.

imageMy respect for Davis' cartooning is almost solely derived from a series of water-colored on-line cartoons she did for Tablet, an on-line Jewish general interest publication firing off in a half-dozen different direction (this promising cartoonist, that award-winning blog). One of the great advantages of the Internet is that what may be lost within the framework of a magazine or simply one of the features takes on single-click primacy. I thought many of the cartoons, reprinted in this volume, extremely pleasurable and diverting, side journeys into a life and lifestyle I had no hope of understanding. Key to Davis' explorations into certain aspects of her life was how she portrayed herself, basically as one of those smart, slightly self-deprecating, openly endearing comedic anchor figures that gives all the good lines to everybody else but is so central to the proceeding that she can knock you flat with the tiniest shift in communicated perspective. They were sort of like the best workplace coffee-room stories ever, but they were also very pretty, very evocatively and appealingly depicted -- not unlike certain moments within Lewis Trondheim's diary strips, although with less of a virtuoso flourish and more frequently a significant part of the narrative flow as opposed to something that broke with it. Davis' art almost never says, "look at this." She already has your attention. I looked forward to nearly every installment this book publishes with palpable anticipation.

This collection is not just the Tablet strips, and at first I thought the inclusion of the black and white material might be a problem. These are strips and stories with a generally broader autobiographical focus. Most look like they were developed on the sketchbook page, whether that's their origin or not; the final results appeared in a variety of publications. I prefer the color work. And yet the more I read Make Me A Woman, and I have a few times now, cover to cover, the more I realize the great gift of these strips with which I'm less familiar is the shift in perspective and tone and how that adds to our overall understanding of Davis as a character and as an author. There are very few strips where she slips outright into John Porcellino style reflection, but those that do pack a punch because you know that moment breaks with a mighty river of amusing patter and biting, slightly daffy humor. You can almost feel her slowing down, taking stock. There's a terrific strip in the book where she visits friends in Portland and has to negotiate the comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people with the feeling that their lives are moving at a different pace than hers -- she never comes down hard on one side another; it's pitch-perfect observation-based writing. By the end of the volume it's not hard to see how the title might actually have some meaning beyond simply being a compact nexus of self-referential jokes (they're easy and fun to figure out: the childish activity played against the fleshy curves; the call-out to one's bat mitzvah, etc.). It's good to know that only do we get the pleasure of watching Davis' extended reflection on life and self, but that she herself seems to have benefited from the experience. I liked this book an awful lot.