Chicago-based artist and musician, Anya Davidson, has recently debuted her first full-length comic book, School Spirits. Up until now, her modest print editions make her work difficult to come by outside of the defiantly small world of alternative comics. Davidson is probably one of the few artists for which it is appropriate to combine words like brush pen and bad-ass in the same gust. Her stories are often eclectic mash-ups of metal fantasies, female overlords, science fiction, collected vernacular and whatever else gets whirlpooled away into her consciousness. Her newest creation, a high school story that follows the friendship of two teen girls and their fanatical love of a metal band, is a keen understanding of comics as an art form synthesized with Davidson’s own radical tendencies.
She graciously took the time to give me a tour of her studio and working process and shed some light into the zany world(s) of School Spirits.
How do you describe School Spirits to people unfamiliar with your work?
School Spirits is a story about two very unusual girls. Most of the narrative takes place over the course of a single school day. There’s a large supporting cast of characters, some fantasy and some inter-dimensional travel as well
Why did you want to make a high school narrative?
I wanted to examine the friendship between women. I had done a zine called School Spirits years and years ago and it was basically the same idea. The comic was pretty crude. I was still figuring out how to draw and cartoon but the idea was very similar. It just didn’t go away – that desire to explore gender and female friendships. That’s something that has always felt alien to me. In terms of gender, I’m happy to be a woman I just feel like it was really hard for me to relate to other women growing up. I don’t know how I missed a lot of the messages that other girls were getting. I grew up in rural Canada and I was always out riding horses and stuff. Really being confronted with, oh this is the norm, this is how women are supposed to behave. It just didn’t jive with my personal experience. I think the friendships that I had as a kid, really intense friendships with other weird women, were very formative. So I wanted to delve into that.
Do you think of your characters as surrogates for yourself?
In fiction for sure. I’m not interested in making autobiographical work. They definitely are all surrogates for me. When it comes to making characters, part of it is because it’s cathartic and part of it is that I don’t know anyone else. I’m curious to examine all aspects of my personality and delve into them, create nasty characters out of the nasty parts. I heard George Saunders lecture and someone asked him if he wrote the characters of young girls so well in his book, the 10th of December, because he had two young daughters. And he said, “no, that young girl is an aspect of my personality.”
How long did you work on School Spirits?
I have a good friend of mine from high school who always wanted to be a Latin teacher. She’s in a masters program right now to teach, but I watched her get thrown into a couple situations while she was in undergrad. She had a couple teaching jobs that were really really stressful and didn’t feel ready or supported to teach at that moment. So I was thinking about her a lot too when I wrote the teacher characters.
Did she form the basis for the art teacher in the book?
Yea. Loves to teach, loves her subject, and loves her students but doesn’t feel equipped to do the discipline stuff. I really like teenagers. I really care about them. In addition to not ever feeling that comfortable with gender norms, I really don’t feel comfortable with norms in general in terms of how adults are supposed to behave. I feel like our culture is really stifling. I was big into punk and hardcore music as a teenager. I think that that ethos carried over. I do feel that society is fucked and you should do what you love. As tough as teenagers are, it’s sort of socially acceptable for them to manifest dissatisfaction with power and just be a little moody, or on a voyage of self-discovery. But at a point that it’s not socially acceptable to be on a voyage of self-discovery anymore. I think I will be on a voyage of self-discovery until I die.
What were you making as student work at SAIC? There were probably no comics classes when you were there.
I was in the painting department. I’m still a nut for painting. A good painting drives me crazy in a way that nothing else can. I’m a really big fan of painting and painters.
You can totally see that in your line work too.
Yea, it’s really all over the place. It’s really big. I work huge, and I’ve been obsessed with asking other cartoonists how big their originals are.
My boyfriend’s work, Lane Milburn, is real tiny. He’s part of a group of cartoonists originally from Baltimore. They all went to Mica together. They were putting out anthologies as Closed Caption Comics. Then recently, they are all branching out and becoming more independent with the stuff that they are making. He works tiny and he uses a tiny little nib pen. Everything is just so detailed and his pen control is so spectacular. And I’m just like making giant brush marks with a giant brush pen. I really envy people who have that kind of detail. But I don’t think that will ever really work for me.
How big are you working?
The pages from my book were 13×18. I did a zine recently, that was maybe, 15×20. Pretty big!
The narrative of School Spirits is really unstable in an exciting way. While I was reading it, I wasn’t sure when reality was happening or when the reader was in the realm of fantasy. Adolescence comces across as a fantastical space, which, I think it is for a lot of people.
The logic of the book is my own internal logic. The first three chapters are staging for the final chapter. You are meeting the characters and getting to know them. I think of it as one story, but the few short pieces are just build-up.
I was curious to experiment. The one narrative thing that I tried that is unlike the rest of the book, is the 30 page silent battle story. I was really curious to know how people would react to that because I thought, oh this is like playing a guitar solo alone in your room. It sounds cool and interesting to you but if anyone else were listening they would just be like, oh why is this person dicking around. It’s fun while you’re in it but not fun to listen to. I was wondering if that silent part of the story, if I would just lose people.
I wanted to do a piece where Oola and Garf visit the natural history museum and we see the entire creation myth of the peoples that they are coming to see. When you’re in a place like a museum, you can see these totems that are just radiating power and energy and people are just like, where’s the snack bar! I also worked at the planetarium for a while, so I’m pretty fascinated by museum culture or what putting something into a museum does to an object and wanted to examine that. But wasn’t sure if anyone else would have any idea what it was about.
In School Spirits the reader is waiting for a magic love ritual to be performed. But the ritual never happens.
That was something that happened in the original School Spirits zine. I wanted to examine that. It’s a laugh at the characters’ expense. Grover is clearly unavailable to anyone. I wanted to magnify that. To make one character who was not giving off any sexual cues, totally off in their own world and this other character who’s a puppy dog following them around. Grover is really unsexy.
You seem to have two distinctly different ways of approaching comics. You have a crazy, unstructured, stream of consciousness style of setting up a page and a more straight forward linear approach to comics like in School Spirits. I was wondering how you make the decision to set up a story?
For the more experimental stuff, it can take ten pages to tell a few pages of story because it’s more of a stream of consciousness with me working around a theme. For Barbarian Bitch – I love like Kung Fu movies, I love trash cinema and I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the righteous warrior. Somebody who has carte blanche from above to exterminate their foes in the name of something greater. How does that work? Because they seem so antithetical. I’ve been really fascinated with warrior priests. I’m really obsessed with discipline, what it takes for someone to master a craft. That piece in Kramers 8 was a meditation on that. It was me pulling threads of that all together. Whereas School Spirits is me attempting a storytelling approach. Even if I were to approach School Spirits in that way, it would have been a mediation on female friendship and then I just would have been pulling from my source material different threads but I wouldn’t have been able to have those moments where characters have sustained conversations and I wouldn’t have been able to develop the characters.
I like both of those ways of working, and I still reserve the right to work in both of those ways.
For the CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) zine, I just googled “The worst experience of my entire life” and it was fascinating and not what you’d expect. It was really weird. One person’s rant about how they slept in a hotel room that was really dirty and they found a crack pipe in the ventilation system. Some angry bitch ranting about how, like a Motel Six or something, how the cleaning staff did a lousy job, and it’s like, really? That’s the worst experience of your entire life? Sleeping in an unclean motel room? There was one that was someone’s middle school experience, but it was really evocatively written. The language was really fascinating. I just like those kinds of sources and pulling them together. For a graphic novel, I don’t think that would really work. But for short story writing I think that’s a fun avenue to explore.
Do you consider art making and discipline going hand in hand?
Absolutely. Creativity is a muscle. Also-cartooning is a craft. You have to be extremely disciplined to hone it.
Have you always been interested in writing dialogue? Your characters come across as very real.
I took some creative writing classes. I’ve never been able to keep a journal but I was always I’m really into listening to people speak and recording conversations.
You’re a collector?
Yea, maybe at the cost of plot. That stuff interests me a lot more. Character development and dialogue more than building the skeleton of a story. What I will do is, I’ll have scenes and scenarios in mind that are unconnected by a story. Then I will weave them together. I will have a character and I’ll know more who they are than exactly what they are supposed to be doing. It grows organically out of knowing I want a scene.
There is a scene in School Spirits where Garf is at her job at a fast food restaurant with her co-worker who is complaining about his toe. He tells a story about how it was injured when he was young. That’s the story that one of my co-workers told me. I thought, this is an incredible story, and I knew I wanted to incorporate it in the book and I knew I wanted to show this character at her after school job, because I had these vivid memories of my after school jobs. How weird they were and what a strange training ground it is for the real world. Your weird mall job that you have when you’re 15. That’s a lot of my process – collecting those moments, paying attention to the way people speak, and listening to other people’s stories.
Are you worried about repeating yourself?
I repeat myself a lot. What I realized about most of the fiction writers that I love, is that they really like to riff on a theme. Sometimes it gets frustrating. John Irving has written the same book like 15 times. I really don’t have the patience for that anymore. There is definitely a danger, but I do think that we live in our own bodies and our own minds.
You’re also a very dedicated screen printer?
I do my screen printing at Spudnik Press. I do a lot of screen printing. That’s my favorite thing to do. It sucks because they are so labor intensive. I can make 50 or 100 if I’m really busting my ass and then they’re gone.I love Spudnik. I was on their board of directors for about four years. Angee Lennard, who runs the shop, was in the same year of college as me. She could charge like two times what she does for studio access, but it’s really part of the mission to make screen-printing accessible to everyone.
You seem really excited about the prospect of teaching.
Yes I am. and I feel like Spudnik gave me the foundation to start doing that. I’m really pro Spudnik. I feel very grateful that I got a lot of the skills that I have. They gave me a lot of opportunities. I thanked them in the book.
In terms of influences, not necessarily limited to comics, who are you looking at?
The old masters. John Stanley, Milt Gross, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood. A ton of E.C war, sci-fi and horror comics. The underground heroes too: Crumb, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Dori Seyda. Some French Heavy Metal artists: Caza and Philippe Druillet. Gilbert Hernandez. Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby. I looooove Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd. Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.
Is there a soundtrack for School Spirits? What would be on it?
Yeah, it’s pretty much the soundtrack of a gore obsessed kid in the early 90’s. Carcass, Death, Morbid Angel, Cancer, the Misfits.
Where are you going next?
I do know where I’m going. I think it will be based on another zine that I made in my early 20s. I feel like, those ideas are ideas that I have not explored fully. And now that I have more discipline and focus I can flush them into full, bigger stories. I do want to play with color a lot. I’m committed to making the next thing exactly what I want and if someone will publish it that’s great, and if not, I will publish it myself.
PictureBox Inc. 2013
8.5 x 10.75, b&w hardcover
*Many thank yous to Brian Nicholson.