Originally published in 2005, Spaniel Rage presents the first collected cartooning efforts by Vanessa Davis, a Florida-born and LA-based cartoonist. The book contains diary comics 2003-04 from Davis’ life in NYC, a few anthology stories, and a new watercolored introduction by Davis. The pages feature a free-form panel layout that mirrors a scattered approach to narrative, in contrast to the more structured autobiographical stories in Davis’ later book for Drawn & Quarterly, Make Me a Woman. Often funny, often tinged with loss, Davis chronicles a life page by page. It’s a flawed book: some bits fall flat due to awkward drafting skills, and some don’t work because the jokes don’t connect. However, the charm of Davis’s project, one that seems to be one of teaching or re-teaching herself to draw, overrides any shortcomings this collection faces. “I didn’t know how to make comics,” she says in the introduction, “But I could draw one thing a day in my sketchbook.”
Various stories explore issues around fashion and self-image. “It’s because Vanessa’s got a booty!” a friend says to her, and she says, “No, it’s big but it’s totally flat!” In another entry, a young girl passing by sticks her tongue out at Davis, and Davis notes, “Too bad when girls grow up they don’t greet each other with a big smile and stickin’ their tongue out. It’s different,” and she shows a bitchy modern greeting. Cultural signifiers of the mid-2000s abound; Davis uses a boxy iMac at work, and Friendster at home instead of Facebook. Like her contemporary Gabrielle Bell, Davis touches on the anxieties of the internet age.
This book was a big influence for this reviewer, and the pencil style and breezy quality of the drawings and the narratives helped breathe new life into autobiographical comics. Pencil comics by Sam Alden, myself, and others proliferated in the years following this release. I miss the old cover (of a scene of dancers in a club), but this book has lost none of its subtle and funny charisma in the ten plus years since its release.