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A Chat with Anya Davidson

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I am an unabashed fan of Anya Davidson’s work, which I first read in 2007. I loved working with her as an author, and published her first book, School Spirits, in 2013. Then, as now, she makes incredibly observant, funny, and generous comics. That last part is important. In all her many comics and zines, Anya seeks the best and most interesting of us and the world, though with an eye out for all that’s fucked up and mortifying. It’s a very delicate balance, and she never fails (no pressure there). Anyhow, I’m always amazed at how much she has to say, and doesn’t mind us listening, about her seemingly omnivorous set of interests.  Moreover, her comics are a joy to look at. Her thick-thin strokes dance on the page and her characters are always-recognizable graphic icons. Hers is a Kurtzman-esque cartooning technique that she can apply to any scenario of her choosing, though often with a SF undertone.

I read her new and wonderful book, Band for Life, in a few giant gulps. It charts the fortunes of the band Gun Tit, which is really an armature for her musings on culture, sex, money, love, and the weather. I love it. Anya will be at this week’s Comic Arts Brooklyn with a new zine, Golden Chimes and a new comic book, Lovers in the Garden. Go out and get her books.

Since we began talking about it a few weeks back in Chicago, I want to hear more. Tell me about your horse in Nova Scotia. And that lady, the one who looked after you.

I grew up on Prince Edward Island, which is near Nova Scotia-similar vibe but even smaller. Telling a Canadian you grew up on PEI is like telling an American you grew up in Arkansas. It’s not cool. I met a woman named Yogi Gamester. Actually, my parents must have met her and I’m not sure how. She’s incredible. She grew up exercising racehorses, traveled all over Canada. Ended up on PEI with a young child in a bad marriage. Got a divorce, was given some land in the settlement and built her own house. Then she started rescuing horses. On PEI, harness racing is a big deal, but any kind of racing is really brutal on horses. They start them too young, when their bones and tendons aren’t fully mature. They get terrible injuries and are sent to the slaughterhouse. Yogi started rescuing horses from the track, and taking in all kinds of unwanted horses and ponies. Last I knew she had over twenty. She teaches kids in the community to handle and ride the horses for practically nothing. My friends and I would ride all over the island on trails and dirt roads. We had complete freedom by age 9. We’d fall, we’d get fucked up, all the girls I met at Yogi’s grew up to be tough as nails. Yogi funds the whole thing with her own money, and a few donations. She works at the vet college in the shipping department, and I remember her taking us to the college to learn about horse parasites. We’d look at these giant jars full of parasites in formaldehyde, and watch movies about animal husbandry and eat pizza. She would often take in Dutch vet students. The Dutch are really serious about agriculture I think, which is why a lot of them come over to Canada. I’m starting to dredge up really old weird memories. Goddamn it, Dan. I’m conjuring up a handsome Dutch icthyologist and now I’m going to move on to another question. Oh, but you can check out her website here.

When did you discover music and begin performing?

I grew up crazy about music. First it was oldies, then it was ’70s hard rock, then it was grunge. Once I hit grunge, around age 12, I started reading about the bands I loved and learning that they’d been heavily influenced by punk. There was a record shop on the Island, Back Alley Discs. Chaz who ran the place started recommending me punk records. I had a best friend, Erin, who was obsessed too. Her mom worked at a nature store, and I remember we went down in the basement of the shop, where Erin would often hang out, and we put on Plastic Surgery Disasters. That was the first time I heard the Dead Kennedys. After that we went to a lot of shows, and started ordering 7-inches that sounded cool from distro catalogs. The zine Slug & Lettuce was huge for me. There was a small but active scene on the island. I didn’t start playing in a band (although I’d had some guitar lessons) until I was 18, and I moved to Chicago (from Nashville Tennessee. Long story.) for school. I met the members of Coughs, the band I was in throughout most of my 20s, at Food Not Bombs. They had a try-out and I became their singer.

What was the arc of Coughs? Sometimes people tell me Coughs was/is legendary. Tell me more.  

27338-500I’m not sure who you’ve been talking to. Did Ethan D’Ercole (killer screenprinter!) tell you Coughs was legendary? We were around for about six years, and we definitely had fans in Chicago, who were mostly other musicians who played in bands that we were fans of. We were on Load Records, with great bands like Lightning Bolt, Brainbombs, Sightings and Scissor Girls. We did two LPs with Load. LPs I’m still pretty proud of. We started out practicing in this basement at a place called the Creative Resistance Artist Collective and playing places like the A-Zone (Autonomous Zone), which was an anarchist space with a zine library, to playing clubs and more traditional venues. We toured a fair amount, east and West Coast, and right as we were breaking up we toured the UK. I’m so thankful for my time in that band. I got to see the world and meet people in contexts I never could have imagined. There were six of us, all really strong personalities. The members of Coughs are wilder, weirder and more brilliant than any fictional characters I could create. We were all really young when we joined the band, and some of us needed to leave Chicago and try other things. We’ve mostly all kept playing music.

I first heard of your work from CF and Carlos Gonzales back in 2007. How did you encounter those guys?

I met those guys on tour. Our first tour, I think, was the East Coast. Providence, New York, Boston. It’s very very foggy. I didn’t book the shows so I don’t know who the original contact was. All I know is that we showed up to Providence and I’d never heard of Fort Thunder and I had no idea that Olneyville was home to so many of the world’s most brilliant cartoonists. It was probably the single most formative experience of my life. I had brought a bunch of my own shitty zines on tour and they were so gracious. They were like “oh cool, you make comics. We make comics too.” They treated me like an equal, even though they were leaps and bounds ahead of me. It meant everything. If someone comes up to you with their shitty zine, treat them kindly, for fuck’s sake.

You are, despite your personal shyness, a natural performer. Do you miss the stage? What is the best show you ever saw?

I did miss it terribly but I’m in a new band With Conor Stechschulte and Chris Day, two amazing artists, and our pal Kenny Rasmussen on drums. I think we’re gonna be called Lilac. Fuck you, Kenny, we’re called Lilac now, OK? Deal with it. Just kidding. Kenny’s not gonna read this. He’s lucky–he’s not a cartoonist. It’s really really hard to find a group of people you connect with personally and musically. When you do it’s precious. It’s really hard to let go, and there’s a grieving process when you break up. Dude that “best show you ever saw” shit is impossible. I have favorite moments. I remember CF hanging from the rafters of the Che Cafe in San Diego. I remember Mindflayer playing at the Texas Ballroom, and XBXRX at the Fireside Bowl and Neptune at some club in Boston and the USA is a Monster in the basement at Mister City and Sisterfucker at the Mopery and the White Mice at some bizarre frat house in Philly and Tinsel Teeth at a warehouse space in Providence-not sure which one. Those are some stand-out moments.

band-for-life-181I somehow don’t think Guntit is actually based on your own bands (or maybe….), but the member do fit some rock archetypes. Are you a reader of rock bios? If so, which is your fave?

The name Guntit is taken from a real band. Lale Westvind, Thomas Toye and Laura Perez Harris were all living in New York (Lale’s since moved to Philly) and they started a band. When I heard they were called Guntit I was like, “that’s the best band name ever.” You know, the reason most of us start cartooning is we’re in grade school and we draw our teachers boning or something and our classmates think it’s hilarious so we keep at it. I wanted to make Lale, Tom and Laura chuckle, because they’re some of the coolest people on the planet, so I drew this proto-Band For Life strip and that’s how it started. But all the characters are fictional in the sense that they’re 95% me, a sprinkle of my friends and a sprinkle of observation out in the world. As far as band bios, yeah, I read Come as You Are, the Story of Nirvana when I was a kid and that was a big deal, and Confusion is Next, the Sonic Youth Story. Get in the Van, the Rollins one, is great. I read White Line Fever, by Lemmy, while I was on tour once. That’s a great one for reading in the car cause the type is huge. And Patti Smith’s memoirs. I don’t know if I have a favorite, although the Nirvana one turned me on to a lot of other music. I did very consciously set up a rivalry between Annimal, the drummer in my book, and Linda, the frontwoman. I’ve always hated the Rolling Stones, but I find the rivalry between Richards and Jagger really entertaining in a camp way. So I sprinkled some of that in. But it’s just a fact that bands have conflict. I don’t know if collaboration can exist without conflict.

I assume you like hippies and punks, but if you had to choose, which would you take, and body aside, which cultural parts?

r-1984967-1256753789-gifMy philosophy is perfectly illustrated by the cover of the LP by the band Uncurbed. It’s a picture of a bunch of half-clothed hippies in a commune, but the music on the record is just super nasty and crusty metallic hardcore. They have a song called Liberation Hippies and one called Party Punx. They got it right. Since the turn of the century there’s been an unbroken thread of counter-cultural activity and awareness. It takes different forms but the differences are mostly aesthetic. Progressives know that those boundaries are arbitrary, and divisive. Yeah-I get it-punks are supposed to hate hippies ‘cause hippies were all about doing drugs and burning out and they didn’t effect the social change they were supposed to, and it’s punk to hate your parents etc…The fact is, I hate all codified subcultures. I do and say and think what the fuck I want, and I dress however I want, and I recognize that everyone involved in any countercultural struggle is an ally. Janis Joplin was punk as fuck. Aesthetically I have to say my favorite decade is the 70’s.

Dogs. Tell me about dogs.

Dogs are disgusting and I wish I didn’t love them so much. Mine is getting old, which is really hard on a big dog. Her hind legs are getting weak. Pets are tragic.

Who do you think draws the best animals in comics?

I’ll tell you who draws the best animals but she’s not specifically a cartoonist. Kathleen Hale, author of the Orlando the Marmalade Cat series from the 1930-3-70’s. Her illustrations are stunning. Also, I’ve been reading about Jack Yeats, WB Yeats’ brother. He was an illustrator and cartoonist. He did a lot of drawings for this magazine called Paddock Life. His horses are amazing. So are Lautrec’s. There’s the whole school of “half animal, half people” cartooning. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat wins that contest. Brian Blomerth’s “Pups in Trouble” comics are lovely. Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Warthog is great. Leslie Weibeler draws really good animals too.

Kathleen Hale, A Bicycle Made for Five, circa 1938.

Kathleen Hale, A Bicycle Made for Five, circa 1938.

Do you have any experience with the prison system?

No, and I felt a little weird about representing it, even briefly, in my book. I was institutionalized as a teen after a suicide attempt. That was my only experience of being held against my will, and having no autonomy whatsoever. Being told what to wear, being physically restrained etc… But I know it’s far different-I would never compare that experience to what people deal with in prison. I think our prison system is racist and irreparably flawed, and that it needs to be dismantled. I had my characters meet in prison because I wanted to illustrate their inability to function in conventional society, but one is coming from a place of uncontrolled, self- destructive anger and the other is acting specifically in protest. And there’s a B movie “women in prison” trope that I wanted to explore, because the book is very much about loving trash culture. Specifically Reform School Girls with Wendy O Williams, who’s a hero of mine.


band-for-life-215Do you care about artistic communities? Do they matter?

Yeah. I’ve always been interested in the idea of intentional communities. I’ve never tried living in a communal setting but I can tell you my personality really wouldn’t jive with it. I love hearing about Ida, for instance, the intentional queer community in Tennessee. I have some friends in New Mexico who all bought land right next to each other and are building Earth ships. They’re heroes. I’m an only child and I grew up pretty solitary. I’m not great at sharing, and I like to work alone. But I live within walking distance of  friends, and I love being in close proximity to them. It’s a fact that I would have nothing without the artists I’ve met over the years. Artistic community has really been everything to me.

Do you think we need a more robust ecosystem for comics? You seem pretty self-sufficient — always have — but do you feel like there’s a place where your work goes and reaches an audience?

I don’t know Dan. I mean, it’s easy to romanticize the days when print was stronger and there were more paying venues for cartoonists and illustrators. I’m really wary of nostalgia, and I can’t say if that was a better time because I wasn’t there. But yeah, I wish there was more distribution for comics these days, and I wish there were more newspapers and magazines that paid artists. I don’t think there’s much of an audience for my work, and I don’t care. You know what there is an audience for? Books about weddings and food. Pictures of cats in funny costumes. Pictures of celebrities at the beach. That’s OK. This world is absolutely, unconscionably terrifying. If you’ve had a hard day and you want to look at a picture of a butt in a thong, I’ll be the last person to criticize. The people who appreciate my work seem to find it. That’s amazing, and I’m very thankful. I’m obsessed with the book No Hidden Meanings by Sheldon Kopp. It’s kind of an atheist’s bible. It’s a list of precepts. 12, 13 and 14 say it all. “It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.” “You don’t really control anything.” “You can’t make anyone love you.”

bandfinal178Is page 178 basically your daily dilemma? 

Yes 100%. Being an artist can seem frivolous in light of how much healing the world needs. And I’m constantly being reminded of how insignificant I am, and how small the audience is for my work, and agonizing over whether I should have become a therapist or a teacher or a ceramicist. But I do think art is a necessity. I think it’s a spiritual need for human beings. I mean, there was a lot going on thirty-thousand years ago. You wouldn’t think that Paleolithic people would have a pressing need to paint horses and rhinos in the Chauvet cave but there they are. They had religious significance, they were an attempt to understand and influence the natural world. Am I comparing the success of my work to that of the Chauvet cave? Fuck no. I’m just saying that some people are compelled to make art and I’m one of them and I wish I could stop but I can’t. There’s also a part in the book where Linda says “sometimes I feel like I’m not living up to my full potential and other times I’m just thankful I’m not lying in a ditch drinking paint thinner.” That’s me too. Sometimes I’m just amazed I didn’t have to be institutionalized for my entire life. My psyche is kinda fragile. I think I’m doing the best I can.

Your comics have always been amazingly hopeful right alongside the crotchety humor. What gives you such optimism?

I’m very privileged.  I’ve had so much love and support from family and friends. I truly know what it feels like to give and receive love. I know the power of love. Plus, check out Kopp’s precepts #23, 24 and 25: “Progress is an illusion” “Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.” “Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.” “

band-for-life-162It strikes me that you’re doing a kind of slice o’ life comics almost like American Splendor or something. Whatever comes to mind comes out of the character’s mouths. They are distinctly characters, but you channel your observations through them. They all can’t help but comment on everything from age to sex to urban life. Why funnel that through these monster/SF characters?

Ha! I’ve been asking myself the same thing. I thought for a while that it was more interesting to draw monsters than people, but I’m starting to change my tune. I wanted it to be a visual joke, really deadpan. I thought the incongruity would be funny-that you see these outrageous looking characters talking about really mundane shit. I was influenced by Melvin Monster, which you turned me onto, where there’s a monster world and a human world and the fabric between them is really thin and porous, and you can kind of step back and forth between them. And I was tremendously influenced by Brinkman and Chippendale, who do a lot of that. And I wanted to make a joke about the B movie “monsters and babes” trope, where the slimy monster carries off this gorgeous babe. I thought, “what if the monster and the babe lived happily ever after, in a really egalitarian relationship?” And then I got frustrated, ‘cause I was like “how can I address these really pressing, real-world issues like killer racist cops, if everyone’s green and orange etc…” That’s why I chose to try a different approach with Lovers in the Garden, my book that’s coming out from Retrofit in November.

band-for-life-89I was struck that by how casually you set up relationships between different species/same sexes, etc. And that they are all based on intense conversations and proclamations. It brings to mind, actually. Philip Roth, who you reference. Tell me about depicting love/sex/devotion. And Roth, too? 

I often wish that I was better at depicting sex explicitly. You know who’s incredible at that? Conor Stechschulte. His Generous Bosom  comics depict the weirdness and mechanics of sex so explicitly and brilliantly. Relationships and sex always surprise me. The way you can find yourself profoundly attracted to someone with whom you have nothing in common. The way you can be madly in love with someone you’re not attracted to. How you can end up in bed with someone unexpectedly. How you can be tormented for years with dreams about an ex, even in a happy relationship. It was important to me to try and depict devotion because capitalist culture always wants you to be looking at young flesh, new flesh. It’s kind of subversive to try and figure out how non-traditional couples can survive and thrive over the long term. I read some Philip Roth right after college. Portnoy’s Complaint, Exit Ghost, Goodbye Columbus. I tried to read Our Gang but couldn’t get into it. I liked Portnoy’s Complaint a lot but the Breast is my favorite. It’s such a stupid idea-this man physically becomes a breast. It’s in the tradition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Gogol’s The Nose, so there’s definitely a precedent, but it’s so outrageous and he plays it so straight and it ends up being profoundly affecting. He takes his outrageous premise seriously and pushes it as far as it can possibly go. That’s what great sci-fi writers do. And I applaud his agenda-I read that he was really into busting up the stereotype of the effete Jewish intellectual man. He wanted to give Jewish men their sexuality back. That’s hot. 

band-for-life-142Tell me about your SF love. It’s been present the last few years in force. It seems both literary and visual and musical. What regions does it space? Like, concept records, Star Trek, LeGuin, etc?

My Sci-Fi love is deep and wide and all-encompassing, and has been ever since I can remember. David Cronenberg is probably my favorite director. His movies have this incredibly astute psychological sensibility-Movies like The Brood and Dead Ringers really tackle the horror of living in a female body in a way that few directors can match. I love Rodney Matthews and Roger Dean as psychedelic sci-fi album cover artists, and Robert Beatty is carrying on that tradition. I love Space is the Place, the Sun Ra movie, and everything about George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and the artists they worked with like Pedro Bell, Overton Lloyd and Ronald “Stozo” Edwards. Star Trek is perfect-As a kid I watched the original series. Battlestar Galactica is a huge favorite. Farscape is the best. I like the Left Hand of Darkness a lot. I was really into Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and the Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk as a teenager. The Fifth Sacred Thing is interesting because it’s one of the few novels that imagines what a utopian futuristic community would look like. It’s a lot of guilt-free group sex and crystal healing which, come on, who doesn’t want that? I’m fascinated with Martine Rothblatt and other transhumanists, even though I think transhumanism is fatally flawed for reasons I won’t go into here. I’m not so much into hard sci-fi like Asimov and stuff. I can appreciate that stuff but I’m more into the psychological drama of space travel, and the ways we can use sci-fi to better understand our present. And I’m in love with Lane Milburn, who’s a sci-fi cartoonist. Sometimes he wakes up and tells me he’s dreamt about space colonies, or just flying through the vastness of space. I think he might have traveled here from another dimension.

This book is a collection of serialized strips — so nearly every strip has a punchline. Was that a challenge you made for yourself? To tell complete vignettes in each strip rather than focus exclusively on serialization?

No no that was all dictated to me by Nick Gazin, the comics editor at VICE, where the strip first appeared. He explicitly stated that every strip should end with a cliffhanger or a punchline. The whole form of the book-the fact that the story is told in strips, is because of the parameters around that gig. Even after the strip got axed from VICE I maintained that format because it was a really interesting challenge. I still don’t know if I’m funny, but I entertain myself. Sheldon Kopp, precept #30: “We have only ourselves, and one another. That might not be much, but that’s all there is.”

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Your palette reminds me in some ways of all things great and glorious about our lord and savior Karl Wirsum. You come to color (I guess) as a print maker. How’s the difference like between printing color and using markers?

Karl Wirsum is a divine being, and I think he was super influenced by advertising, sign painting and other mass-distributed print media. I definitely come to my palette through printmaking, specifically 4 color process printing, or CMYK printing. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, key. Key is usually black. And then you get great secondary colors when you overlap those primary colors. Markers don’t have the same flatness, and I cheated. I had, like, a few different blues, I had a red marker and a magenta marker. I didn’t limit my palette quite as much as I do when I’m printmaking, but it’s still pretty limited.

Also: Replacements or Husker Du or both? There’s no wrong answer. 

Husker Du. Zen Arcade is such a genius record. This might be controversial, but I just can’t get into the Replacements.

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2 Responses to A Chat with Anya Davidson

  1. Ant says:

    “I hate all codified subcultures”. Anya Davidson is GREAT (just picked up Band For Life but haven’t read it yet, gonna dive right in now).

  2. BK Munn says:

    a terrifying inspiration

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