I just finished “Make Me A Woman” by Vanessa Davis, and I feel like I’ve made a friend who I want to hang out with more. I didn’t want the book to end, and I identified with so many of these comics that I'm starting to think Vanessa and I were either cousins or went to Hebrew School together.
It all started on a trip to the comic book store. I was wandering around, trying to find something to read. To be honest, I haven’t been that smitten with anything in some time now, and it was beginning to feel like a bit of a chore to read and write about a comic each week. I picked up this book at random, unaware that it was "new", and the next thing I knew, I was engrossed in the story of Vanessa’s Bat Mitzvah experience.
I know, right? Has anyone every captured this in a comic book? (That's a rhetorical question. I'm sure somebody has.) But this was the first time I'd read one, and the first time I've read anything about that particular experience in a way that takes me back, personally. I rarely (almost never) reflect on that time in my life, but when I do, I usually just marvel that I found the time to practice and memorize a portion of the Torah.
For me, these are very specific "American Jewish Girl" moments that are usually only talked about and relatable in the short time frame in which they actually happen. That period of time, from about 1st grade through 8th grade, the main thrust of all the religious school training that we young Jews have...it's a very specific experience, but it isn't one that has much to do with my adult life, and it isn't one I reflect upon very often. To open a comic and read about it, to have something so specifically relatable to me, but to also get a feeling that it could be a little more universal than I previously expected was like...coming home? I'm digging around here, but that's the only way I can describe it. I felt this comic, on a gut level, but it came out of nowhere and I'm not confident that I'm going to be able to verbalize it very well.
Much later in this collection of comics, there was a series of frames dealing with being an adult Jew in the world, and Davis wrote “I feel lucky to have been brought up in this broad-minded Judaism, that lets me belong, even when I pull away.” It's such a lovely way to crystalize the experience, and I’ve never heard anyone express gratitude for Judaism in that style. It struck me again: this is something I'm relating to on a basic, barely remembered level. These comics aren't about me, but my relation to them, my response to them--it's something further than mere identification. The last thing I’ll say about the whole Jewish-thing (maybe) is that Davis simply references it is as a part of her upbringing. She’s not constantly trying to crack Jewish jokes or throw in a bunch of oy veys. It felt real, it felt honest. It shook me, but not in a negative, overly melodramatic way. To be honest, the most accurate word I'd use for it is that it felt cool, reading something that wasn't corny or overly sentimental.
The other thing that strikes me so much about this book is what Davis is able to capture. There are moments in my life that seem so full, whether they be full of pain or joy or love, but moments and memories that overflow with feeling and meaning. In my life, I tend to try to put those moments into a song or poem. (Often unsuccessfully.) I know how hard that can be, and reading Vanessa’s book, I developed a great love and appreciation for comics as a medium of personal expression. Only in a drawn picture with word and thought balloons can some moments really be captured, it seems. Sometimes, she abandon comments or editorializing, just simply relying on the a particular drawing to deal out a moment that makes its significance known and felt.
Beyond the Judiasm, I related to so much of "Make Me A Woman". Vanessa references places and even a few people in NYC that I’m familiar with. She captures that slightly miserable feeling of dating in New York (and possibly anywhere) by depicting the behavior of single guys and girls and the things they say in a stark yet careful way.
I also adore the way she frames herself and illustrates her own quirks. Particularly sticking out in my mind at the moment is a series of pencil sketches that start with her narrating, “Lately I’ve been experiencing these desperate pangs for people I know...” That sentence alone is hilarious and I know exactly what she was talking about! But then the sketches that follow make it even more hilarious.
This is a wonderfully dense collection of work and I loved every minute of it. It’s a wonderful journey through a life, and the comic critique of Crumb is in just the right place. At no time did I find Vanessa’s (you like how I’ve just gotten so friendly with this person I don't know at all that I’ve taken to calling her by her first name this whole time? No “Davis seems...”. Just “Vanessa is..”. I think that is a reflection on how this book makes one feel like they know her and feel like a friend of hers after reading it) work seem full of ego. As I read her critique on Crumb where she says “Is this why people think auto-bio cartoonists are really self-indulgent assholes?”, I thought “Oh yeah! That IS what I usually think when I've tried to read auto-bio comics!”
It’s true, I have to admit. I’m almost always like, “Ugh....why are you illustrating a totally uninteresting story about your life to me?” But I do not feel that way about these comics/cartoons at all. In fact, there’s always some point beyond “sharing” for each of her anecdotes and tangents. Whether it be simply a form of relatable self-deprecation that seems charming through her comics, or capturing complex relationship dynamics in a fair way, every picture is engaging, fun to look at, and full of life. I’m so glad that I had this opportunity to read this. I’m looking forward to keeping up with Vanessa Davis in the future.
-Nina Stone, 2010