February 25, 2021


Vulnerability Is My Superpower. By Jackie E. Davis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The “poor me” concept can be as distasteful as the “wonderful me” one: both focus attention on someone who asks, or rather insists, that he or she is and ought to be the center of strangers’ attention. This is part of what makes celebrity worship such a mass of self-denigration: people who do not know celebrities and never will, whose lives have nothing in common with theirs and never will, nevertheless feel obliged to behave as if the celebrities have some level of importance to the worshipers’ lives, concerns and worries. This is a little like believing that members of a professional sports team care whether individual fans root for them: at least naïve and at most delusional.

     Yet there are ways to reach out to strangers and share feelings and experiences effectively as well as vicariously, potentially doing some good on both sides of a relationship that, looked at objectively, does not exist. This is what art can do: representational or abstract art, music, anything that is driven by creative expression in a way that communicates shared (if not necessarily universal) feelings and helps both the artist and the audience perceive that “we are in this together,” even if that togetherness is, from a physical-proximity point of view, entirely imaginary.

     And this is what Jackie E. Davis tries to do, for the most part successfully, in Vulnerability Is My Superpower. Because she happens to have the talent to draw amusing/appealing cartoon characters and use them to communicate her own real-world hopes and fears, and because those hopes and fears are ones that she shares with a great many people, she is able to put together a book that can connect emotionally with people she never met and never will – and give those people the feeling that Davis, whom they have never met and never will, understands them and shares their worries and concerns.

     Unsurprisingly, the book has an Internet origin as Underpants and Overbites, which Davis describes as “a diary comic.” It works well in book form, though, precisely because Davis is both honest enough and self-effacing enough so her ruminations on her own worries, fears and inadequacies come across as if she is a kind of Everywoman, sharing thoughts and feelings that are hers alone but that closely parallel the ones her readers may very well be experiencing. In fact, Vulnerability Is My Superpower is suitable only for people who gravitate to Davis’ way of presenting her concerns and who share at least some of them: this is not a presentation that will come through effectively to people who have different experiences of life. And that is fine: Davis is creating this material as part of her own therapy and as a way to reach out to people in similar emotional circumstances – not to invite psychological voyeurs to observe and comment on what she has gone through and continues to go through.

     Within its structure and limitations, Vulnerability Is My Superpower often comes across very well. Although little in the material is funny, many points are made with a kind of sly wink. Thus, in one strip, Davis’ cartoon self – who looks like a buck-toothed (hence “overbites”) squishy potato with underwear frequently slightly visible (hence “underpants”) – says, “The more I share about myself, the more it can connect other people.” That perfectly sums up Davis’ intent – delivered by her cartoon self, who flies over a stylized cityscape. But to leaven things a bit, there are two more panels, in which an on-the-ground observer says, “Um, your ‘V’ [for Vulnerability] fell off, and I can see your underwear” – leaving cartoon Davis nonplussed.

     It is this sort of balancing act that prevents Vulnerability Is My Superpower from simply being a “poor me” comic strip that is used by its creator to work out her own issues, audience be darned. There is often a certain charm to Davis’ laments and worries about herself and her circumstances. For instance, a recurring “character” is a plush toy called Butter Udder, a “cow plushie” that cartoon Davis says she has had since childhood and carried into adulthood – and, indeed, a real-world fixture discussed on the “About the Author” page at the back of the book. Another recurring character is cartoon Davis’ cartoon husband, who is not always as understanding as she would wish: a two-panel page has her lamenting in the first panel that “writing stinks,” leading him to say, “Aww, why don’t you draw a wittle comics tantrum?” In the second panel, cartoon Davis has drawn crossout scribbles all over her cartoon husband – a neat conflation of real and comic-strip worlds.

     Not everything in Vulnerability Is My Superpower is at this level, though. The least-appealing sequences are the ones that most directly and humorlessly address Davis’ angst about herself and her life. For instance, in “Two People,” she goes on for six full pages about being both sure of herself and pitifully anxious – an understandable matter for an artist to dwell on, and one that may well connect with her intended audience, but not an example of especially trenchant thinking or cartooning.

     What keeps Vulnerability Is My Superpower interesting is that the better and less-good strips appear in no particular order, so if something does not quite work, something on the next page or a few pages later often will. And some of Davis’ observations really are telling – and effectively communicative. For example, she explains about “a door opening inside me” (actually showing that happen on the torso of her cartoon self), saying that she kept it closed for a long time because she was “so afraid of all the bad getting in” – but now realizes “how much bad needed to get out.” That analysis shows considerable self-awareness, and is presented well in cartoon terms: squiggly black things emerge from inside the torso door and, in the final, wordless panel, fly away. The “poor me” elements of Vulnerability Is My Superpower are sometimes overdone, but the elements of self-analysis and the issues Davis explores are ones that will often connect with readers, and in doing so may bring them some of the same insights and satisfaction that revealing them brings to Davis herself.

No comments:

Post a Comment