Review: Vanessa Davis’ Spaniel Rage
Drawn & Quarterly
Disclaimer: Spaniel Rage was reviewed using a copy provided by Drawn & Quarterly.
Vanessa Davis’ Spaniel Rage mostly chronicles her one-drawing-a-day diary comics from 2003 to 2004. Now over 10 years old, these drawings are practically historical, living in a very different time where few people had heard of Barack Obama, Manhattan was an affordable place to live, and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet. If you were a young adult around Davis’ age during this time, this book might be comforting and nostalgic. But if you’re outside of that demographic, especially if you’re younger, it probably won’t have the same emotional hook.
Davis’ introduces the collection by explaining her goal of drawing one thing a day back in 2003 and 2004. All drawings, with the exception of this introduction, are done in pencil and black ink, with a particular interest in the details of hair and women’s bodies (usually Davis’) in underwear. The amount of complexity varies from day to day, sometimes with notes from Davis that she didn’t feel like drawing that day, but pushed herself through it. The most problematic part of Davis’ art, perhaps because she didn’t care to make it more readable, is her lettering when there is dialogue. It is often difficult to discern where a conversation is supposed to begin, interrupting the reading experience as the reader has to double back from the first bubble where the eye naturally falls in order to find the true starting bubble.
Proper lettering is not the only subject of disinterest that overall damages the reading experience of Spaniel Rage, however. Davis, in fact, doesn’t seem particularly interested in anything occurring around her. There’s no discussion of politics. There’s little reference to outside current events. We barely even see what media Davis consumed at the time. With all this strange, context-less emptiness, there’s very little rage to be found in Spaniel Rage. There’s also no Spaniels. Seriously, there are only two dog drawings in this book and neither of them are Spaniels.
(But to be fair, that Chihuahua is adorable.)
So instead of an interesting and personal insight to what living in 2003/04 was like, Spaniel Rage is like hanging out with a new group of friends who have known each other forever. They have a decade’s worth of inside jokes, they know all of each other’s networks, and their vibe is comfortably solidified while you’re still trying to get to know their basic ticks. Because of this, you’re often left feeling put out and bored while they’re having a raving good time over Davis’ “gay truck.” Again, if you’re around my age and at least part gay like me, you will find yourself very unimpressed by this.
Diary comics are a thriving and important genre in the medium, especially since they give women and non-binary people a natural place to talk about their trials. Davis certainly has trials; for instance, her drawing about getting catcalled by teenage boys in the subway and then moving up to the sidewalk to get accosted the same way by grown men is unfortunately still a universal woman/femme experience. However, even if you excused these recordings for not pulling from wider subject matter, these personal notes still do not contain a rawness you might expect in diaries.
Since many of these short comics were released to readers when Davis first made them (which explains why cartoonists I highly respect such as Eleanor Davis and Lisa Hanawalt gush with fondness on this book’s back cover), Davis anticipated an audience. It feels like she censored herself for that audience. Her comics about disappointment with her own love life and anxiety come abruptly, the impact of her dad’s death present without prior mention. Thus, these moments don’t feel deep or relatable when they occur. Drawn & Quarterly’s website, not without ad copy cliche, refers to these comics as “frank, intimate.” But are they really more frank and intimate than someone willing to dive into these subjects and visit them again and again in order to thoroughly explore how themes and events impact one’s own psyche?
On the more positive side, included in the later part of the collection are a few of Davis’ non-diary short comics. “I Wonder Where the Yellow Went” in particular looks at the death of Davis’ father through the lens of the family cat’s behavior before and after the event. True intimacy comes in the details; a cat playing with its owner’s dentures and how that connects to its family’s coping after that owner’s death is not something one can invent. The palpable sadness comes from seeing what Davis and her mother have lost and from that we gain a better understanding of their original mourning experience.
It can be uncomfortable to decipher what makes a work as personal as diary comics to be “good” or “bad.” But we can probably agree that like any other work, a good diary comic points out something the reader has never seen before. In diaries, that requires an incredibly courageous openness and a willingness to admit to one’s most shameful parts of themselves. Spaniel Rage fails to go that deep in the majority of its comics. I knew nothing about Vanessa Davis before and if I passed her on a New York City street today, I would still not know her much better than any other stranger.