Fear of the familiar takes center stage in a new short work from Eleanor Davis, whose 2014 Fantagraphics entry How to Be Happy stunned with its juxtaposition of overwhelming, deliberate color and discordant emotional ambiguity. Libby’s Dad, a short story entry from Retrofit, brings the same overwhelming color, style, and grotesquerie that made How to Be the stunner that it was, but falls short of packing its nuclear punch.
Davis returns to her toolkit once again to explore the landscapes between language and reality, threat and violence. However, Libby’s Dad’s grasp doesn’t quite take the same hold as any of the How to Be pieces. A short story about a group of prepubescent neighborhood girlfriends, Libby’s Dad finds its tension in one of the girls spreading a rumor that Libby’s newly divorced father had threatened to shoot Libby’s mother as the result of some unknown argument. Libby’s father has also treated the girls with the utmost hospitality, ordering them KFC, allowing them to eat sweets after dark, letting them use the pool in his new midlife crisis pad. Philosophical questions rise up for the girls: how could someone be dangerous and generous at once? How could they possibly be close to someone who could also destroy all of them? And the eternal question: is it ever possible to really know someone? All of Davis’s usual pieces are in play: a child’s lack of grasp of nuance; an environment capable of enveloping its characters with its visually and psychically overwhelming elements; an ambiguous distance between truth and fiction; a paranoid whisper-down-the-alley; and an intrusion of imagined violence and mental illness — all diffused within pages of them reaching their greatest pitch. Why?
Davis shows how easily manipulated young children are: keeping the status quo means keeping all the easily-won luxuries that come with it — swimming pools, forbidden foods, an idea of camaraderie at a divisive age, and everything else a prepubescent girl could want — not to mention, getting to purge those nasty introspective thoughts and questions of responsibility. Davis is an absolute master when it comes to depicting the absurdity of modern spaces, especially the ridiculous need for products to have brand identities (Libby’s mom allegedly weeps in the grocery store while looking at a box of Fruit-by-the-Foot, which a girl notes isn’t even a sad product, like a mascot-less veal shank). She also has a tremendous timing for dropping a sudden beat of violence in safe, peaceful spaces. But there’s a subtlety missing here: while this bait and switch of safety for violation has been so effective in her previous comics (what comes to mind is one where someone nonchalantly snips off fingers with a pair of craft scissors), a gun massacre does not hold the same psychic resonance. It’s the small violences — the quiet spaces of humiliation, betrayal, and black humor — that dig deepest into the skin in her work, and without them, Libby’s Dad wilts.
The tension resolves when Libby’s father reveals himself to be compassionate in a situation where he could lose his cool, and the girls resolve that it must be that Libby’s mother is insane. So if a rumor can come and go so quickly, why address it at all? To prove that snap judgements can be made and broken in seconds due to the placating luxuries of pool parties, or a cake without occasion? Or was there maybe, somewhere in the blackest reader’s heart, the sick desire to actually see these girls decimated that Davis wants to expose? A little more length and maybe a little more complication could have gone a long way to serve Libby’s Dad; maybe we’ll see more context for it in a collection some day. I am willing to venture a guess that the personal is missing in Libby’s Dad, and Davis thrives when she is most present in her work.