Eleanor Davis sweats stories, bleeds them. Her book How to Be Happy certainly qualifies as a bloodletting; one story, of the many from MOME and elsewhere, features a woman entering “the emotion room” where all the difficult emotions purge from her body in wormy, pus-like form. Overtly autobiographical stories form one third of the book, with the rest being made up of overtly fictional ones, and ambiguous blends. But, she says, they’re all autobiography.
I first found her work through her entries in the early issues of Fantagraphics’ mid-2000s anthology MOME. These stories used visual vocabularies from fairy tales and magical realism to explore murky, often sexual interpersonal relationships.
As Eleanor discussed on Sam Weber’s podcast My Dreams Your Nightmares in 2013, she took a long break from drawing following her work on the YA graphic novel The Secret Science Alliance, feeling like her drawing had become calcified and no fun. During a stint working at a food co-op, she drew in her sketchbook and developed a looser, more psychologically-rooted way of working that birthed some of the material in How to Be Happy, as well as a new style for her editorial illustration work, which seemed to blossom following her hiatus.
Eleanor’s current work includes a new 32-page story about porn actors called BDSM for Youth in Decline’s Frontier series, a Toon Book called Flop to the Top! made with her cartoonist husband Drew Weing , and an upcoming comic for Retrofit’s 2016 line called Libby’s Dad. I caught Eleanor over Skype right before she left for a big cross-country bike trip from her parents’ house in Arizona, to her home in Athens, Georgia. As you might expect from her work, it was a playful, funny, and thoughtful conversation.
P.S. If you’re looking for another recent interview with Eleanor, I recommend this Inkstuds podcast episode from SPX 2014, conducted in a hotel room and also featuring horror comics magician Emily Carroll.
[This interview was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Annie Mok.]
ANNIE MOK: What’s your first memory of drawing?
ELEANOR DAVIS: ...I have to dig up a lot of different memories and try to sort them out. It’s hard ‘cause stories get mixed into memories. My mom has a story about me realizing… You know how when you’re really little, you draw figures as snowmen, like a ball on top of a ball? She has a story about me realizing that people have necks, and being, “People have necks!” And then drawing in the neck.
MOK: That’s so funny, since some of your figures now don’t have necks.
DAVIS: [laughs] I know! “The neck concept is bullshit! Just attach it somewhere!” I don’t know if I actually remember that or not. I think it’s just a story. I remember being in kindergarten, doing a self-portrait, looking really closely at my face and drawing all the little blood vessels of my eyes. Like, “This is the best, most realistic picture ever drawn! I am so much smarter than all of my ridiculous peers! They’ll never be as observant as me!” And of course it looked totally fucked-up [laughs]. My teachers made fun of me. Can you remember your first?
MOK: ...Drawing Bugs Bunny in fourth grade and all my classmates crowding around. Earthworm Jim, and Pinky and the Brain. Drawing the lettered comic book logos for Sonic and Knuckles [comics], never using a pencil and then getting mad when I’d forget the second “K” [laughs].
DAVIS: It’s a hard a thing to learn when you’re a little kid. We’ve [Davis and husband Drew Weing] taught classes before, and they hate… It feels wrong to even tell them, because they’re drawing as a way of playing. They get frustrated when their stuff doesn’t look the way they want it to, but when you tell them the steps, it ceases to be play and it’s no fun.
MOK: I wonder if other ways of making comics, like collaging comics, would be easier for teaching in that age group.
DAVIS: The route me and Drew ended up taking was totally non-teaching. Just telling them to do whatever, but making little activities to make it more game-like. But it would depend on the kid, if they were like, “Really, I want to know how to draw hands!” But most of them, they’d figured out how to make something explode, and that was enough for them, they just did that over and over and over [laughs]. And we would says, “You’re geniuses! [laughs] You’re going straight to the top!”
MOK: [laughs] I was thinking about kids’ drawings earlier today. Every cartoonist that I know who I’ve talked to about [childrens’ drawings] loves kids’ drawings.
MOK: Can you tell me what your feelings about kids’ drawings are? What do you get from them that you may not get from “polished” drawings?
DAVIS: I feel like there’s a lot of different stages, and when you get to a certain level of maturity you realize that people are looking at your drawings, and that your drawing can be judged as good or bad. And then you clench up like crazy, and that’s when your drawing starts getting bad. Usually. Like, objectively. And then you have to learn and do “How to Draw the Marvel Way” or whatever, and learn to be good. But before that, you’re drawing as a way of play. It makes the drawings a lot more linear. Not aesthetically linear, but the way that the drawing is built is more linear, ‘cause each line is—it’s not preplanned, so each line is responding to the previous line rather than trying to build an overarching image. I think that that lends kids’ drawings a sense of integrity that maybe gets lost when you’re trying to do something that’s pre-planned… I dunno, [I’m] just makin’ stuff up.
MOK: What’s your relationship to improvisation and planning at this point?
DAVIS: That’s a really good question too… I… [pause]
MOK: How do they interact?
DAVIS: Phew... I’m a really tight person. I’m kind of a control freak. I tend to plan everything really tightly. I think often, with comics, since they’re so hard to edit… I guess it depends on the type of comic, ‘cause I know plenty of cartoonists who just go panel by panel, and each panel is responding to the previous one. But for me, I get very—just because it takes so long to draw, so I have this instinct to polish everything, and try to make a perfect little object. So, doing tons of thumbnails, doing tons of edits. So I have this instinct to do these things, but at the same time, I feel very aware that that kills it, that kills the artwork—especially the artwork, but you can also kill the story… In the same way that you don’t want to hear someone tell a joke that feels like they’ve told it a million times. And I’m sure stand-up comedians have to get really good at this. A skill I would like to have is to learn how to tell that joke that’s super carefully rehearsed, but have it seem spontaneous. Have it seem like it’s off-the-cuff. I’m not very good at that yet. I get bored of making—y’know, if I’ve worked on something for too long, I get bored of it, and then the art dies. It starts disintegrating. For that reason, a lot of my favorite stuff that I’ve done are just sketchbook comics that are just a page or two, and involve almost no editing. But that’s so limiting! I don’t know if I want to be the person who just draws two-page comics in pencil forever. But expanding out to longer stuff and not having it feel dead is something that is a real struggle.
MOK: I’ve been thinking a lot about that, because I definitely have a lot of trouble making longer stories, especially if they’re solo. And I’m planning some now, and I’m thinking a lot about how I’m going to keep things loose within a structure, a plot structure.
DAVIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that’s one of the reasons those French cartoonists tend to do the grids. When I’ve done spontaneous stuff I’ve stuck with the grid, because it takes away the big element of—you kind of have to pre-plan if you’re gonna do some kind of fucked-up page layout. Spontaneity—like, your stuff looks extremely loose. When you write, do you have everything planned ahead of time and then draw it, or is it more of an expulsion?
MOK: I work essentially storyboard format, so depending on what I’m doing… For longer projects, and collaborative projects, I’m spending a lot of time outlining. But when I’ve done some medium-length stuff, especially if there’s research or if it’s an autobio comic, I’ve used a manga notebook from Muji, drawn a billion panels—something I’ve gotten from Frank Santoro’s [correspondence] class, not the same process but the same fundamentals. Xeroxed it up to make it a little larger but not much, cut out the [Xeroxed panels] and then I arrange them on the page, and then I took Dura-Lar and drew over it.
DAVIS: What’s that?
MOK: It’s like vellum, but it’s made of plastic. What I’m planning to do for the upcoming stuff, I’m doing something similar but with different steps, and using the Clearprint vellum which is actually made of cotton, which is really weird.
DAVIS: So that’s a way that you could maintain—so you can separate out the different steps, so you have the individual images and then you collage them into where they wanna be and then you work over the collaged?
MOK: Yeah, pretty much. Or I’m doing the collages separately from each other and then I put them together digitally. It’s a lotta magpie stuff, a lot of, like [makes a hummingbird-type BR-R-R-R noise] and then you throw it together. I just like to be able to manipulate things easily, take shit out, move shit around. Especially on the computer, that stuff can be so much fun.
DAVIS: Yeah! I do my thumbnails mostly on paper—well, I kind of do evenly digital and paper thumbnails, but I do tons of cutting out and taping and rearranging and cutting, taping, taping. At least you have to edit so much, or at least I have to edit so much with figuring out the pacing and getting everything just so. Such a puzzle! Comics are such a puzzle.
MOK: It’s true! That’s what I like about them and [laughs] obviously what’s also, like—
[Annie makes a confused-sounding bird squawk, and Eleanor laughs.]
MOK: So, speaking of talking about kids and kids’ drawings, and planning things, I’m wondering what it’s like in collaboration with your husband, Drew Weing. You did Secret Science Alliance (2009) several years ago, which I know [that the process of making that book] had a big, wild effect on you, which I wanna ask about later. And Flop to the Top (2015) recently, which I haven’t been able to read, but people are really jazzed about this book. I read at least one person say on twitter that Flop to the Top is the best book in the Toon Books line.
And I recall you had Stinky (2008) for Toon Books as well. Can you tell me about that process [on Flop], now that you’d had one kids’ and one YA book under your belt?
DAVIS: I really love working with other folks. I’ve worked with Drew and I worked with my mom on a comic that is on hiatus, but it has been a really positive experience.
MOK: It’s a history [comic]?
DAVIS: Yeah, it’s a historical murder mystery set in in the 1700’s.
MOK: I remember you talking about it way back in 2010 on Inkstuds.
DAVIS: Yeah, we’ve been working on it a really long time—I mean, we haven’t been working on it the past three years, but it’s been a really interesting experience, and I hope to get back to it. Working with other folks is mostly just a joy. Y’know, I feel like one of the things that’s hardest for me is just getting stuck.
And when you’re working with someone else, if you slow down they can bat things to use at you if you slow down, and you can bat things to use at them. Keeps that energy going, which is hard to maintain alone for me. Working on a kids’ stuff in general is extremely difficult. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. I think that kids need something different from books and reading than adults do, and I’m not necessarily built to provide that stuff. I don’t know why. I keep thinking I can make a breakthrough, and I’ll be able to do… I think one of the main problems I have is that I’m not good at drawing comics for anyone other than myself. I’m doing these comics for Psychology Today Magazine, and they’re not very good either [laughs]! Which is frustrating, ‘cause you’d think they’d be right in my wheelhouse [Annie laughs].
A little kid’s display that he made for “his favorite book” (from his interview/review of Secret Science Alliance); and here’s a video of a little kid in a Batman mask who made up a song about the book (from this CBR article).
MOK: Do you know objectively that they’re not very good? Or do you think that’s your personal opinion?
DAVIS: Well, they have been a little bit hard to work with, which makes them—I feel like they don’t particularly like them, my editors there [laughs]. which makes me like them less as well, since I’m so terribly affected by other people’s opinions. But nah, y’know, I think that they just quite don’t have a… squishing them into a format to make them publishable, and quick enough to be publishable in that venue causes them to lose some sort of honesty, I think. So yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s an issue writing kids’ stuff in particular that I’m not as good at, if it’s just that I’m only good at doing this kind of masturbatory [laughs], hyper-personal work.
MOK: Speaking of your hyper-personal work, the work in How to Be Happy comes from these stories that are from [the Fantagraphics anthology] MOME and elsewhere. “Nita Goes Home,” “Seven Sacks.” And it’s funny, I asked you on twitter a couple years ago, if you were gonna come out with a book of shorts. And you said, “I don’t have enough work yet, sad face emoticon” [Eleanor laughs]. And I was like, aw, that’s too bad. And it was really not that much longer after that that the book came out. I was wondering, when did you feel ready, and how did that happen?
DAVIS: Yeah, that was… mighta had something to do with your question, I don’t know [Annie laughs]. I’d been feeling really [laughs] bad for not having a book out that was, uh...
MOK: All your work? Solo work?
DAVIS: Yeah, that was a collection of short stuff, but I didn’t have a cohesive enough body of work. And I remember thinking, I just have to make more stuff that’s really good, and as time went by, more of my old stuff started to seem… I guess it was when I realized that the MOME stuff was getting old enough, that if I let it wait any longer, then I was no longer gonna be as comfortable collecting them alongside new stuff. ‘Cause they are very different. And I was going through a life crisis, the way one does.
DAVIS: And, uh [laughs]...
MOK: I’ve never even heard of one.
DAVIS: [laughs] No crises, just an Eleanor problem only! And so I think that I was in a “fuck it” mood, and Gary [Groth] at Fanta has always been super nice to me. He was like, “I wanna publish something of yours!” And I just emailed him and was like, “Okay! Fine! I’ll do it!” And it was enough. And it did turn out to be pretty cohesive, even though the stories felt so disparate to me before I put them all together. Made it all work. Sometimes I shit stuff out, and it comes out badly, and sometimes—the book, I’m really proud of it, but I definitely put it together in a bit of a rush. I left it to the last minute to… Gary was like, “What’s it gonna be called? What stories are gonna be in it? You gotta send us a page count!” And I just jammed stuff together, like “AAGH, I HOPE THIS WORKS!” And it worked. But sometimes you do that [laughs], and it doesn’t work.
MOK: Well, sometimes you plan a lot and it works, and sometimes you plan a lot and it doesn’t work [laughs], so.
DAVIS: Luckily that was one of the times that it did work, I think, because it was... my biggest thing.
MOK: I saw you speak at SPX the year [How to Be Happy] came out, you did your slide show presentation, and you said during [the audience Q&A portion], I think it was when I asked you about editing—you said that you took out the minicomic “The Beast Mother,” and a couple other early stories. You said that you knew that some people would be disappointed, because they liked those stories, but you took it out because it wasn’t autobiographical, and you wanted stories that were autobiographical. Can you talk about that? The relationship between you and these characters? I tend to think of a lot of fiction as writing memoirs through the side door, when you’re doing fantastical work, which a lot of your stuff is, while staying emotionally direct. Can you talk about that process, and maybe when you realized, if it was not conscious the whole way through, that that was your intention [for the collection]?
DAVIS: When did I start doing that… I did “The Beast Mother,” and I did a comic after that, still in college [at SCAD] called “Mattie and Dody.” And I guess I kind of realized that “Mattie and Dody” wasn’t very good. Well, it was flawed because I was trying to write about stuff that was too much outside myself.
So… After that, I was doing the MOME stuff. Just realizing—I was drawing in my sketchbook and using it as sort of a therapy process, or a ouija board, to kind of break out these images that were inside me. So rather than seeing the exterior world and trying to capture it, it was bringing forth an interior world. And that felt more honest. ‘Cause honesty is a big priority. It was also helpful for me in a personal way, more than observing and creating was. Because at that point I wasn’t in therapy [laughs], which is dumb, I look back on it, I shoulda been in therapy years ago. But at the same time it was important to me not to make direct autobio because I was interested in condensing and simplifying these ideas and the feelings I was having into something that was more crystalline, and had more clarity. And hopefully, for that reason, would be more easily interpreted by a reader, or more easily felt by a reader, and then applied to their own experiences and their own life. So kind of an interest in the transference of a strong emotion from my body to someone else’s body, from my mind to someone else’s mind. And I felt like the easiest way to do that was through metaphor, rather than through literal descriptions of events. So one of the easiest examples was, I did a little short comic [for MOME] called “Dot and Louisa and the 10,000 Rescues.” It was just about two little girls rescuing each other from terrible fates over and over again.
That story’s about me and my best friend Kate, but in real life all we do is just talk on the phone all the time [laughs]. But how do you make—how do you show the feeling of having your life be saved by someone? If I was just doing it literally, showing us talking on the phone, it wouldn’t do anything for a reader. There would be no transference of emotion. Working in metaphors. I kind of stepped away from needing to use the fantastical metaphors as much, but still wanting to work in the clarity of fiction, the clarity of a manufactured narrative to describe actual feelings, actual events. I don’t know [laughs]. It’s a messy answer.
MOK: You said that… that honesty is a big priority. How do you define honesty?
DAVIS: Phewww… Oh, that’s a good question too. [Long pause.] There’s so many aspects of it. And I’m sure that different people have—and I think that for awhile, I was hyper-focused on needing to present an honest version of myself to the world. I was on Twitter a lot, not filtering myself very much. I’ve kind of gotten out of that stage, and I don’t know if it’s a positive or a negative thing, or if it’s just part of life that one goes in and out of. Different stages. I think that for me a lot of the time when I don’t say something, or when I censor myself, it’s out of a sense of shame, or guilt, or self-hate. Y’know, wanting to be someone different. So when I say “honesty,” I guess I mean a rejection of those negative influences. Or the attempt to reject them as much as possible. I guess I have the desire to be okay enough with myself that I’m able to show my true self bravely, without trying to, y’know, pretend to be someone else, or hide away. ‘Cause they feel like very negative, harmful instincts... Strong! Really strong [laughs] harmful instincts.
MOK: With Sex Wizards, your new porny minicomic, and with BDSM, your new 32-page comic for Frontier, Ryan Sands’s Youth in Decline series; and then also your new comic for Retrofit, Libby’s Dad—there’s so much about confrontation, safety, fear, fluidity, and care… There’s so many threads about, What is this Real self? How can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with each other? In BDSM it’s this thread—I guess, spoilers [laughs]—the two characters, Victoria—is that Victoria?
DAVIS: Well, both characters kinda have two names. Victoria is either Victoria or Vic, and the other character Alex is either called Alex, or Lex, or Alexa, depending on the level of respect she’s being addressed with, or the dynamic between her and the person she’s talking to. So it’s understandable that you wouldn’t remember her name! ‘Cause she does have three of ‘em.
MOK: [Laughs] That’s so funny, it’s like Maggie Chascarillo’s names.
DAVIS: I haven’t heard of it… What?
MOK: Maggie Chascarillo? …That’s Maggie from Love and Rockets [laughs]!
DAVIS: Oh! I’ve never heard her name said out loud before.
MOK: I think it’s Chascarillo [chow-ska-REE-oh with a rolled “R”], I’m not totally sure. I was thinking of it because in Esperanza, that last volume of the new collections of Jaime’s stuff, Ray ends up pronouncing her last name phonetically to Doyle.
DAVIS: Yeah, he’s so uncompromising about—it’s so confusing for her to have so many names! But it’s really pleasing, ‘cause that’s what real life is.
MOK: Oh yeah, everyone has different names for you, different ways of addressing you, what your history is, what your mood is, how you’re relating to each other at that time...
DAVIS: Yeah. Trying to figure out the stuff about real life to flatten out, to make simple in order to make it into an artwork, and the stuff to not make simple is really complicated. Tricky.
DAVIS: It’s—it’s Slut Servant 6 [laughs]!
MOK: Oh, excuse me! [Laughs] Not to be confused with the other Slut Servant.
DAVIS: Yeah, 1 through 5 [laughs].
MOK: Did you check that title to make sure it’s a used porn title?
DAVIS: I think I did, and I’m almost 200% sure that it must be [Annie laughs]. And I think that’s why I decided it was okay, because there’s almost 300 Slut Servants... I’m googling it.
MOK: [Laughs] So anyway, they’re on set, and their dynamic is that Vic is a domme who is playing a rich madame, and Lexa is her maid, in a French maid outfit. Then there’s these weird complicated dynamics with a couple of guys working on the set. It seems like a mainstream porn, not an indie one. I don’t know much about mainstream porn sets, but I knooow about [non-porn] film sets being full of dudes [Eleanor laughs] who are usually shitty [they both laugh] so it’s a dynamic I certainly recognize! Then Lexa loses her car keys, Vic takes her home, Lexa’s flirting with her, and they go up to Lexa’s place where this tiny dog Frito is, who I love…
Lexa and Vic start fooling around. Lexa asks Vic to hit her, and Vic gets embarrassed. Lexa sort of says that she doesn’t think it’s because she’s not into it, you liked it today, are you ashamed? Do you feel uncomfortable? At the end she says, “It’s okay if you wanna hurt me. It’s okay if I wanna get hurt.” Which to me, re-reading it today, I thought of that not only in terms of sex, but just in a general dynamic, just about vulnerability.
You see this in Libby’s Dad, there’s a bunch of kids at a pool party. And one of the dads has threatened the mom?
DAVIS: They had gotten a divorce, and they had heard that the mom had said that the dad had threatened to shoot her. So it’s convoluted because it’s all second-hand that the kids have heard, and they don’t know what to make of it. They don’t know how to understand it.
MOK: Then there’s a turning point in this short but dense story—dense largely because of the colors, and the markmaking, in what looks like colored pencil?—the turning point is that one of the kids spills nail polish, and she freaks out because that dad is gonna come, and he’s gonna know that I did it! Libby says, “My dad’s NOT SCARY, okay? I’ll tell him I spilled it.” Then the narrator says, “But instead… he cleaned up the nail polish and wasn’t mad at all.” Like, “I guess he’s a nice guy after all! Which was just so scary—I really love the ending of this comic [laughs]!
DAVIS: Oh, thank you very much!
MOK: It works really beautifully. Very complicated, and again, something about the question of, where safety? How much do we trust each other? And how much do we understand about each other? Thinking about the [writer] Willa Cather quote: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” This space between people—in “Nita Goes Home” [in How to Be Happy], the seen or unseen, these suits they have to wear with only dark eyeholes. At one point, [Nita and her sister] are holding each other and crying, going “UH HUH HUH HUH” [Eleanor laughs] but all you see are these horrific dead Charlie Brown’s Halloween costume ghost circles... Can you talk about these relationships and these liminalities between self and others?
DAVIS: Yeah, I guess one of the main stories in Happy was isolation, feeling separated from other people. Wanting to be whole, wanting to be happy, wanting to be loved, wanting to love. And in some ways I think the stories in Happy, I’m being a little cynical of them, and they can be a little critical or mocking of the poor characters. But they were basically stories about people trying to be kind, or people who were… There wasn’t any badness in those stories, because they were all just… I don’t know, there’s a gentleness, I think.
And the difference between those stories and my BDSM story and Libby’s Dad, with those two stories I was trying to expand out to talk about something a little larger, things that are a little larger, and to explore, especially, what happens within power dynamics. How that affects relationships. And in, hopefully, a gentle way. With BDSM I tried to not have the male characters be particularly aggressive or misogynistic. They were just ubiquitous and overwhelming in their ubiquity. The effect that that ubiquity and masculinity had on the two women of this story, especially on Vic, who is very much trying to… fit in with that sort of—was hoping to receive those privileges through behaving in these masculine, macho ways. How dynamics can cause bad things to happen, even within characters that hopefully will still be sympathetic, and that the reader can empathize with. So that’s been interesting to me lately, power dynamics.
MOK: I was wondering if you could take us through the process of a particular story, from gestation through planning, first-draft drawing and editing, whatever that looks like for you.
DAVIS: I guess I’ll talk about the BDSM story, since that’s just come out. I didn’t have drawings for it, but I wanted to do a story about two women, and one who’s very feminine and kind and giving, and the other was more a stand-in for me… Considered themself a feminist, but her idea of feminism was that women should be more masculine. She would treat the kind woman cruelly, because she felt that the kind woman was weak and betraying her gender in some way by being nurturing. I wanted to somehow include something that got cut, which is… You know that thing where you hear, if you have a longer ring finger, it means you have more testosterone? Have you heard that?
MOK: That’s so funny, I was just thinking yesterday—I stepped outside, it just got warm, so [laughs] I got flooded with memories. Thinking about when, in seventh grade, some of the boys at the lunch table… the one for our school was, if your ring finger is longer than your first finger, you’re gay.
DAVIS: I think that actually came up with the hideous conversation this country’s been having around Trump, talking about his hand size.
MOK: I don’t know what that is?
DAVIS: Rubio accused Trump of having little hands [Annie laughs] which is supposed to mean he has a small penis. Awful, awful...
MOK: So this is a school thing, more testosterone if, what?
DAVIS: If your ring finger is longer than your pointer finger, which mine is.
MOK: This was for girls?
DAVIS: For anybody, boys or girls. But it’s something that at times I’ve clung to. It symbolized something, that I could be stronger. It was a sign that I could have access to the things that I wanted, which was, y’know, being good at art, being successful, being respected. Which is… bizarre [laughs]!
MOK: I can see where that would come from. I know I see sometimes in [majority white] queer circles, butch cis women’s voices and white trans guys getting more privileged, and some genderqueer people. Which is something I see sometimes, not all the time, it’s situational and intersectional, but it happens.
DAVIS: Yeah. So for me, there’s the weird combination of feeling—I’m not femme, I am...
MOK: May I ask how you identify?
DAVIS: I identify as a woman, but I think that if I was younger, I probably would use the language “genderqueer.” But I sort of got attached to the word “butch,” so that’s how I be. So that feels like a positive thing for my identity in some ways, but it’s also mixed together with… Y’know, ever since I was really young… as long as I can remember, I don’t have any memories where this wasn’t part of my understanding of the world, was that being born a woman was being dealt a shitty hand. And that it meant that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the things I wanted to achieve, that there would be certain things that would always be closed off to me. So I have the strong sense of feeling… “butch” is something that I feel very comfortable with and proud of, and then also sort of a sad awareness that it also involves some general confusion with gender; there’s some self-hate built into it. And so I think that the sense of wanting to be more masculine as a way of wanting to have more power is .. bothersome [laughs]. Confusing, scary. So that was kind of what the initial story was about. They weren’t about Vic and Lexa, they didn’t have names yet, and they weren’t porn stars. But I knew even though I had this strong visual metaphor in my own mind of the longer ring finger, I knew that it wouldn’t mean anything to anybody else. Kind of a personal obsession. I can’t say when I decided that the story would work with them as porn stars. And I still don’t know if that was a particularly good choice or not, because I don’t know anything about porn. I’ve never acted in porn, nor have any lived experience with that. I don’t really know if it’s fair or not. Then I decided that the kind, nurturing, more feminine woman would have a dog named Frito. Then I was like, okay, I have to write this comic [Eleanor and Annie laugh] ‘cause I really wanna have a dog named Frito, it’s vital! Then it took another year! I thumbed out the first half, so that it just kind of ended on a really sad note, with Vic humiliating Lexa. I wrote it, and then I thought, “God, this is just depressing!” Very not kink-positive, which is not how I feel. Then it took another four months to realize that the ending could be the two women falling in love. Deciding to define their relationship outside of this patriarchal structure. It’s hard, ‘cause I wanted it to be kind of critical of the inherent idea of having intense power dynamics, but also kink-positive, sex-positive. It might have been too much for me to balance all that stuff. Nngh! We’ll see how it goes.
MOK: That first [draft] of the story being depressing—I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a lot because, you know that podcast We Should Be Friends?
MOK: The episode they did on me—which I really appreciated [Eleanor: “Aw!”], more than almost anything—[Ashley of WSBF] said “I feel like Annie cares about me as a reader.” Which blew my mind, because I wrote almost that exact same sentence in a comic-format essay about Chris Ware in 2008. So that’s so funny because it reflected back to me. But I think of your comics in a similar way—
DAVIS: Oh, thank you!
MOK: —I’m curious when you say something like, this ending is depressing, meaning it would be difficult for you and difficult for the reader, and maybe not generative for the reader—
MOK: Can you talk about how you take the reader into account when you make a story, how you try to balance intense emotions and your own personal satisfaction with… There’s a guiding sensation I get from a lot of the stories. The characters pass through a threshold, a visual one, or with time. The very first comic in How to Be Happy: “Write a story. A story about yourself. Now believe it.”
Where the character turns to the audience. And the part in “In 2006 I Took a Greyhound from New York to Los Angeles,” when this hands of God image comes through to open itself to the reader in this huge spread. Then at the very end there’s a panel of you eating this Butterfinger that you got from this guy, and looking out the window. And also, very especially with the last story, when you’re driving in a cab with Drew. You say, “The mind is a shitty place to live. Wouldn’t it be good to be free of it? The song ends and starts a third time. Like taking off a bad pair of glasses that make your head hurt and make everything ugly / so nothing stands between you and this beautiful world.” While the city lights are outside and the cab driver and him are singing “The Tennessee Waltz.” This guiding rhythm lets the reader into a place of openness at the end. I think about [King-Cat cartoonist] John Porcellino, who I know you’ve mentioned as an influence, and I see as an influence in these stories. And especially like your early stories, like that biking at night one. When I first saw that comic, I was like “Oh my god, it’s like John Porcellino drew a comic if he put in a million, billion lines!” [Eleanor and Annie laugh.] Can you talk about how you’re hoping to guide the reader through experiences, and what kind of place you’re wanting to bring them to?
DAVIS: I wonder how other artists feel about this, but for me at least, making an artwork is, especially with comics, and the PowerPoint presentation I did...
MOK: [Laughs] That’s my favorite thing ever that you did!
DAVIS: Oh, thanks! But they’re very, super manipulative. Like the hope is to guide the audience through a set series of emotions in a very careful way, while at the same time not making it obvious. Trying to guide readers to an idea while making them feel like they had the idea themselves. Guiding readers to an emotion while making the emotion feel true and not false. It’s an odd dance, because it’s simultaneously—the primary purpose of the comics is something for me, something that can serve as an expulsion or as an exorcism in some way. To remove difficult ideas, difficult emotions, from my mind, from my body.
One of the most desperate feelings that I contend with, and that I feel like a lot of folks contend with, is—like, you mentioned earlier, like a desperate sense of isolation. Not being understood, being cut off from the people around you. In that way, wanting to have an effect on the reader isn’t manipulative. The purpose of it is to try to have a connection in some way. Like, if I have this strong feeling, I’ll make this other person who’s so disconnected from me, who’s so far away from me, make them mirror that feeling. Then that will help me feel a little less alone. Will help me feel a little less scared of the feeling. I don’t know.
One of the things that feels odd to me about people’s response to Happy is that—I tend to think of those stories as sad and a little bit cynical, but people respond to it in a positive way, and say that it feels uplifting to them. What they mean is that it’s a relief to read something that they see themselves in, or they feel a connection with me as the author of the story. It’s really complicated, and maybe a little bit of a burden in some ways. Before I put the book out, I was far less aware of the audience. These stories were made seeking an audience, seeking people to relate to, people to connect with. When I found them—it kinda freaked me out [Eleanor and Annie laugh]. I wasn’t sure how I feel about it! So, figuring out where to go from there.
MOK: I can see why you would think of those stories as very down and cynical, but every one of them ends with a reflection, a quietness, and a very open space that, I feel, is very helpful. To me what determines whether I think of a story as tragic or hopeful is solely the ending. I think especially with this stuff like this, there’s such a sense of strength and continuation.
DAVIS: Oh, thank you.
MOK: I’m getting interested in performance, and—what was your slideshow called?
DAVIS: It was called Artist’s Statement.
MOK: For people who were not able to see it, this was a slideshow presentation using [comic book] panels from many different artists, including [cartoonist] Cathy G. Johnson’s Sailor Moon drawing?
DAVIS: [Laughs] Yeah, it was her high school anime manga drawing. Silly.
MOK: I’m interested in performance as an expulsion. And to me, this work brought together so many threads and hooked them up in a different way: what is autobiography, and what is fiction? Bringing together books and authors and how relating to books and storytelling folds time. In one section, you go to meet the wizened old body of [early 20th-century British author] Virginia Woolf, kept alive in a tank [Eleanor laughs]. You ask her about your book, and she says, “Well, it’s pretty good, the printing in the first story is a little pixelated [Eleanor laughs] but it’s not even that it’s good, it’s just that it’s you.”
DAVIS: That connection.
MOK: Then you kiss and merge faces?
DAVIS: [Laughs] Yeah, we both become a big ball of light [they both laugh].
MOK: Then there’s a bit I loved, where you read that John Porcellino’s doing a comics reading at a hair salon. Then you get there it’s too late, ‘cause you wrote it down wrong in your phone. You show up and all there is is a little torn scrap of paper [Eleanor laughs] with a bird on it, and you like to think that John drew it. Then at the end, you say that most of that stuff is not true! I loved it. Can you talk about performance as an expulsion, crafting that performance and doing that work?
DAVIS: Yeah, that was a really fun thing to do. I was surprised by how enjoyable it was, because I don’t think of myself as somebody who likes to do public speaking. But I guess I do, as long as I have enough control over it... I made this book, it was all full of stories that had a lot of issues with disconnection in them, revolving around folks wanting to… I wrote those stories in an attempt to connect with other people, ‘cause that was the only way I knew how. I didn’t know how to connect with folks in real life, I knew how to connect with people in comics. And then to have to promote the book by seeing people in real life felt brutally unfair [they both laugh]. ‘Cause that was the whole point that I’d written it, ‘cause I do a shitty job connecting with people in real life, so what’s the fucken point? [Annie laughs] And the idea that you would want even more access—you’d connect to someone through their work, and then you’d want even more than that, you need to access them more deeply… Than reading their innermost thoughts. It seemed interesting to me, and it made me feel very frightened, and resentful as a creator, but also I was extremely familiar feeling that way as a reader. And y’know, falling in love with people who made art that helped me understand the feelings I was having, feel less alone. Be happy.
MOK: I know you’ve talked about [Love and Rockets cartoonist] Gilbert Hernandez before, and [Hernandez’s] Palomar… The things you’ve said about the way that kids draw, and that one line leads to another, leads me to [cartoonist and teacher] Lynda Barry and [her book What It Is]... Who are the influences, who are the people that made you want to meet them, and know more about them?
DAVIS: I feel like anytime I’ve had a strong interaction with an artwork, I wanted… Y’know, you Google that person’s photo, and you look at their Twitter, and you think about them. You wonder what they think of you. At times when I was younger, when I’ve been particularly stressed out, or in crisis mode, it can enter into the realm of fantasy, kind of hallucinatory. The role of Virginia Woolf in my presentation was a little bit fictionalized, but I did have a period where I was isolated and depressed and I was reading a lot of Virginia Woolf. And really, having conversations with her in my head, thinking about how we could be friends. Which is a totally valid, normal response to art, which is also kind of depressing because art doesn’t work that way. And relationships don’t work that way. So even in the cases where I’ve… Like, I know John Porcellino in real life now, which would have completely blown my mind when I was a teenager. And I value my relationship with him in real life, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with my relationship to his work. They’re both valuable in different ways, and are kind of astonishingly… unrelated. And the more people I get to know in real life whose work I love, it seems like it’s true 100% of the time. That those friendships are separate from the work that they make. Which is kinda sad, but also okay. It’s a private thing.
MOK: So, you’re now at a place where How to Be Happy came out two-ish years ago. BDSM has just come out a month ago, arrived in my mail slot in my front door, which was so fun. Like getting Sonic comics [Eleanor laughs “heh-heh-heh-heh”] or Nintendo Power in my mail every month [as a kid]. Libby’s Dad is gonna come out from Retrofit this year. It always seems like you’re doing a ton of editorial illustration, from The New York Times and such, and Flop to the Top just came out. What are you excited about now? What are you thinking about, inspired by? If there’s anything you’re seeing that makes you say, “I wanna make something like that.”
DAVIS: Oh, gosh. Wonderful work being out all the time. I’m always a little bit torn between wanting to make stuff that’s longer and more complicated, and wanting to stay with what I feel like I’m better at, which is shorter, more poetic, dreamy stuff. I liked putting out How to Be Happy, and I’d like to put out another collection eventually, so I’m trying to little by little, do more short comics to that end as a general goal. I got pretty burnt out on doing illustration stuff over this last year, 2015, so I’m trying to find my footing. Enjoying markmaking again, enjoying imagemaking with a style that feels alive and fun to me again. And in the super immediate future I’m hoping to go on a—
MOK: Bike trip!
DAVIS: I’m hoping to bike from here, staying with my folks in Arizona, and bike back to Athens, Georgia, my home. So we’ll see how that goes. I don’t believe in… The only way I’ve ever known how to do stuff is just to do what I want to do, and not do what I don’t want to do. And just hope—that’s worked out okay. Right now, I don’t wanna do art, I wanna ride my bike! [Eleanor laughs] I’m gonna try riding my bike for a couple months and see how that works.
MOK: On Sam Weber’s podcast a couple years ago [in 2013], you said there was a period after Super Science Alliance where you quit illustration, stopped drawing anything for money, worked in a co-op. And then some time later you came back to it with the style you were developing in your sketchbook, very rough style. Then all of a sudden, you’re getting illustration jobs, and comics are coming out. It had taken this period of doing other things to come back to yourself and find something new, and it sounds like that’s where you are again.
DAVIS: Yeah! And it’s a little trickier now because I have a career, and I don’t want to totally shoot my career in the foot and lose all my clients. But... I’m just, I’m terribly, terribly selfish and... childish [Annie laughs]. I cannot handle doing anything that I don’t wanna do!
DAVIS: So as soon as my style starts feeling stale, or I start feeling like I’m phoning it in, it’s just, “UGHH,” like my skin is crawling with hatred for having to crank out whatever it is. And that doesn’t seem good, I’m not gonna make good work like that. That’s another way to lose clients, is to phone it in. So, just gotta try to follow this strange thread of desire, which right now is more adventures, and less drawing table. We’ll see how it goes.