By Koom Kankesan

Spaniel Rage was published by Buenaventura Press in 2005, Re-released by Drawn and Quarterly in 2017. As a  124 pg 6.8 X 9″ B&W Paperback, SKU 9781770462564. $19.95 CAD, $16.95 USD. An excerpt is available here.

I very much enjoyed and admired Vanessa Davis’ previous collection from Drawn and Quarterly, Make Me a Woman (2010), a hardcover compendium of autobiographical stories, reflective pieces, and diary entries, all told in quasi-rambling comics form.

I was looking forward to reading Spaniel Rage from Drawn and Quarterly, which I thought must be a sequel (seven years later!) and an evolutionary companion to the former strips.

Spaniel is actually a re-release of an earlier 2005 collection. Though some of the art is as attractive and stylized as that in Woman, it reads as sort of a warming up to the more mature and rounded-out subject matter in the 2010 compendium.

Let me start with the art: it is fairly distinctive and even tantalizing, in the way that cake frosting seen through an expensive shop window might appear. The early entries in Spaniel are daily sketchbook reflections: a young artist living and working a twenty-something job in New York, trying to dedicate herself to craft, over 2003 and 2004, while staying afloat socially and financially. Davis works exclusively in pencil without inks, her panels are border-less and seem to blend into one another in a way that evokes rambling memories, chains of reflection. Whether this is done intentionally or unconsciously, it is probably the thing I like most about Davis’ work: a soft dreamy ethereality that focuses on small things: rent, work, friends, lovers, clothes, lifestyle, social engagements: little bits of impression and experience that bob in a sea of angsty uncertainty.

As if taking Emily Dickinson’s exhortation to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’ literally, Davis employs a slanted visual angle. We see her subjects as if her mind is a fly on the wall, buzzing around and looking objectively at herself and her friends in canted angles worthy of Chagall. Her vantage point is always a little higher than her subjects. The subjects themselves are always looking off to the side, never at the reader directly, as if they are unaware that you observe their lives. Everything has a slightly dreamy quality, abetted by the hazy and soft pencil lines. The early entries are a little simple but you can see commitment and evolution as Davis journeys into the practice of drawing more defined and committed backgrounds, detailed figures and clothing, and the text and situations become accordingly complex.

This brings me to the other thing I really like about Davis’ work: the writing. Her words are a balancing act, and have an ephemeral nature. Davis’ poignant observations, her ability to render herself and her thoughts, embarrassing and quirky as they might be, with just the right touch of irony and objectivity, is a gift. Like her art, Davis’ writing bears her unique sensibility in that she is able to pick fleeting moments that are precious and string them together with a certain amount of pearly grace. Any more, any heavier, and she’d lose it. When she renders herself in bed with a young man, participating in a lighthearted conversation but secretly wondering whether he really cares for her or simply walking down the street and not being able to get the jingle from a friend’s quirky answering machine message out of her head, there is a light, airy detachment to her work. In its youth and celebration of the rootless times one’s twenties bring, I thought of things as diverse as the hijinks of the jazz age and HBO’s Girls.

I love seasons three to five of Lena Dunham’s Girls but the first two seasons are fairly insufferable and annoying. In an odd way, the first half of Spaniel Rage reminded me of how the first two seasons of Girls are worth enduring because you know the characters, the writing, and the strangeness of the series get so good once the third season kicks in. You can see the evolution of Davis’ craft in Spaniel as she gets better at gluing her moments together, hitting her poignant and precious, airy stride. Pages take on a little more density and the second half of the book rewards you for putting up with the initial efforts which are fluffy and rootless.

By the second half, Davis is completely comfortable depicting herself and her friends naked, both in mind and body (or at least half-nude anyway: there are many casual shots of herself and her roommate in undies, bodies realistically and lovingly drawn), comfortable with herself and her existence even as she moves through the tortured and airy rites of her twenties.

The drawings also become fully formed. Characters bear distinctive Davis noses and eyes and lips, especially lips, in a way that is quite lovely and alluring, and yet shaky and awkward at the same time. It’s almost as if the renderings of these people, capturing a fleeting age, snapshots in the sketchbook, are immensely more attractive than their real life analogues. It is the frosting of memory glimpsed through the shop window of time.

The longer stories at the end of the collection, after her diary work ends, are by far the strongest part of the book. They’re sort of a bridge to the work in Make Me a Woman. Woman deals with more substantial themes like Jewish identity, the artist’s practice, and more sustained examinations of love, friendship, growing up, and family. The strips are generally longer too. They sometimes feature colour, at which Davis is an adept. In Spaniel, these stories include an odd impressionistic account of Davis’ apartment being invaded by a giant flying cockroach menace (“The Blattarian”), a horrifically frank and jaw-droppingly funny account involving a friend whose lover sticks a finger in her ass without warning (while making love) and is so disturbed by the results that he never calls her again (“Depo$it”), and a touching story about Davis’ dad and their cat (“I wonder where the yellow went”).

On the whole, I was grateful for these longer pieces because they point to Davis’ talents and promise. A promise that’s fulfilled in Make Me a Woman. Which brings me to ask: why the re-release of this collection now? It clearly pales in scope and substance to Woman. In 2005, a year after the diary entries were drawn, and when Spaniel was released for the first time, the collection would have heralded a unique and promising young talent. I’m also curious as to the process by which Davis has selected the sketchbook diary material she included – what was cut out and left behind? At this point, released seven years after the stronger book, Spaniel is somewhat of a letdown in comparison to Woman. Why the title Spaniel Rage – what does it signify or mean? So many questions, Vanessa! What we need are more collections from Davis outlining her growth and reflection as a thirty-something, a more mature and practiced Vanessa Davis who fights the good fight of being a woman and comics artist in America.

Koom Kankesan is a fiction writer who has loved comics ever since he first laid eyes on them. He has recently interviewed Alan Moore, Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Seth, and Chester Brown, among others. His works of fiction are The Panic Button and The Rajapaksa Stories. The Tamil Dream is currently in stores.