Anya Davidson is a musician and printmaker who has been making comics for several years now. While she’s worked on a number of comics, many readers were first introduced to her work in the pages of last year’s “Kramers Ergot 8,” which included her short comic “Barbarian Bitch.”
Picturebox has just published her debut graphic novel, “School Spirits,” a book whose plot is easy to describe, and yet that doesn’t accurately convey what the book is or how she manages to tell the story. The book revolves around the friendship between two teenage girls, life in high school and trying to get tickets to see a concert — but the plot isn’t Davidson’s primary concern. She’s much more interested in exploring the girls’ friendship and trying to capture a certain mindset and stream of consciousness. The way music transports us, the way our classroom daydreams take on a different, vivid shape at when we’re stuck there. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s also one that’s hard to describe.
CBR News recently spoke with Davidson about “School Spirits,” her short form past work and what the future holds.
CBR News: Since this is your first book and some of our readers might not know your work, could you tell us a little bit about your background and work to this point?
Anya Davidson: I would pretty much guarantee that most people don’t know my work. My name is Anya. I live in Chicago, which is an incredible place for cartoonists right now. I moved here to go to college and stayed after graduation because I loved it. I studied painting but started cartooning one summer in college when I felt like I was really about to lose it. I struggled a lot with anxiety and depression as a teenager and into my early twenties. Not so much anymore, but sometimes those monsters resurface. Anyway, I’d had a tough-break up and I kept having these anxious, obsessive thoughts. At one point I convinced myself that I was pregnant even though that was impossible. So I drew a story about a girl who takes an herbal abortion concoction and travels to another dimension. And I was totally hooked on comics.
I took that first zine with me on the road when my old band went on tour. We played in Providence and I met Brian Chippendale and C.F. and Matt Brinkman. I didn’t know who they were at the time but I was like, “Whoa, you guys draw comics? I draw comics too,” and instead of laughing in my face and throwing my crazy, crude zine in the recycling, they were infinitely kind and supportive and so I kept making crazy, crude zines. I’ve made a really active effort to hone my cartooning skills in the intervening years — opinions will differ as to the success of that enterprise, I’m sure.
Also, I’m dating a man, Lane Milburn, who I think is one of the best cartoonists in the universe. His sci-fi epic “Twelve Gems” is coming out from Fantagraphics in the Spring. My personal proclivities are toward maximalism and narrative, even if that narrative is non-linear. Lane’s work is like that and I hope mine is too.
Where did “School Spirits” first start for you?
“School Spirits” started as a zine called “School Spirits.” It was probably my third zine. I’m a little fuzzy, but I drew it ages ago in maybe 2006? The characters had different names and looked different. I knew I wanted to explore female friendship in a story. I always had a hard time growing up with other women, other girls, because gender norms disgust me and I hate the way girls are brainwashed from such a young age. So I wanted to do a story about unconventional girls. Very unconventional girls.
What was the “School Spirits” zine like? If we read the two back to back, would we see the similarities?
The zine was definitely much more crudely drawn but the relationships between characters are the same — it’s structured around the friendship of two weirdo girls who maybe do some dimensional traveling. The “spirit” of the thing, if you will, hasn’t changed much.
When you started working on this new “School Spirits,” did you know this would be a book-length story? Or did that change as you worked on it?
I had SO many ideas for stories in my early twenties, themes I wanted to explore at great length, but I just couldn’t execute longer stories — I didn’t have the technical chops and I was so distracted by other life stuff. So now that I’m a bit older and, as I said, I’ve made a really concerted effort to develop those skills — although they’re still far from where I’d like them to be — I can tackle those same ideas, those themes that have always fascinated me, and really put some meat on their bones.
How much of the character of Oola did you know when you started, and did she change much as you progressed?
I went to see George Saunders speak and someone asked him if he was able to write the characters of young girls so well because he had daughters and he responded that no, all of his characters are based on some aspect of his own personality. And that’s how I do characters too-it’s what has always made sense to me. You just mine yourself. And of course you have to amplify everything to make interesting fiction. Also, Bukowski is one of my heroes — I know most folks grow out of Bukowski but I’m crazy about him, I guess ’cause I’m a perpetual teenager. But what he does is just hold himself under a magnifying glass and amplify everything to great comic effect. I want to give my characters a ton of pathos without being in the slightest way saccharine. I have zero tolerance for that. I didn’t intend for her to change at all really — she’s just an angry weirdo the whole time and I wanted readers to be unsure, at the end, if she would ever pull herself out of the muck or if she’d just keep digging herself in deeper. But I think there’s definitely hope for her. I love her very much. I think it was it in an interview with Sam Simon that he said one of the foremost rules about writing fiction is you have to love your characters.
How did you end up publishing this with Picturebox?
They’ve distributed everything I’ve made for years, including all my shorter zines. The thing is, I’d work for months on those zines and then only print like, twenty copies, because I didn’t have the self confidence to do any self promotion. The first thing by me that they distributed was a split zine I did with Carlos Gonzalez. I had a story called “Lung Damage” and I can’t remember the name of Carlos’ story but it was amazing because Carlos is a genius. Anyway, they carried the “School Spirits” zine, “Real People” #1 and 2, “Consciousness 3,” which was an enormous portfolio of screen printed comics (there was no 1 or 2). I might be forgetting something. Of which I only made about twenty copies each. But all that time I was working. And I knew that if Dan Nadel saw that I was ready he would publish me. He was so supportive the entire time, and I knew he was waiting to see that I could sustain a book.
Will we see a collection of your zines and comics one of these years?
I think that’s extremely unlikely. I still respond to elements of those stories when I read them for sure. I think my writing matured a lot faster than my drawing, so as I’ve been saying-at that point I had a lot of ideas but not the ability to execute them the way I knew I wanted to. I’m a nut for John Stanley, Milt Gross, Jack Cole, Kurtzman — all the “Mad” artists. I’ve always been obsessed with the perfect simplicity of those dudes’ execution. I’ll never get to their level, but they’re my driving obsession. I look back on all those early stories as formative work and the goal is to keep drawing until I can’t hold a pen anymore and always keep looking ahead towards the next new story.
You’re also a printmaker and musician — is there a relationship between those and your comics?
I think the relationship is just that I need to make stuff to stay sane. Music is really cathartic in a way that cartooning can’t be, which is one reason so many cartoonists are also in bands. As far as the printmaking, I’ve always been an extreme Luddite. I wanted to print my work in color and I didn’t like the way color photocopies looked so I started screen printing my comics. It’s ridiculously labor intensive but I love doing it. At this point I’d like to do much bigger print runs of my stuff in color. I’m not sure what the magic solution is. I’m trying to get my shit together-learn Photoshop, be on Tumblr, enter the digital age, but my heart will never be in it.
What are you planning next?
I have an idea for my next book-length project, but in preparation I’d like to do a series of full-color shorts. Between 12-24 pages. Maybe featuring some of the characters I’d like to develop. I’m not ready to plunge into a new book just yet, but I’m really excited right now about doing more work in color, and experimenting with hand-coloring my work. It’s an exciting time — I’m ready to do a lot of reading and a lot of sketching!
“School Spirits” is available now from Picturebox.