Taking Inventory: The Comics Of Eleanor Davis

What is it like to be as sensitive to the world around you as Eleanor Davis is? It must be overwhelming, exhausting, anxiety-producing. Reading her books is like you've undergone a dopamine fast or sensory deprivation and then come back out into the big, bright world like Dorothy stepping out of her Oz-transported house into Technicolor and music. That's not to say that everything she pictures is magical. If anything, it's the opposite: thoroughly grounded in a finely observed reality.

She told me recently, when I mentioned that I had dug back through some boxes to find old mini-comics I bought from her table at Fluke (Athens' comics and zine convention), "To some people, nothing I do will ever be as good as ['The Beast Mother']." Welp, those people are wrong, and yet it's also still quite a good comic. Even earlier than that is "The 3 Bad Ones," a truly mini mini-comic, measuring about 1 by 1.5 inches. It dates from 2004, when she was 21, and it holds up. It's the story of three rotten, hairy little men, who are tired of doing their chores, so they set out to find a wife. They kidnap a series of women--a ballerina who is "too skinny," a tearful painter who is "too leaky," a Wagnerian opera singer who is "too loud"--then chuck them in the garbage. Then they stumble upon a grouchy, hairy, extremely capable woman, who manages to mind her three children as she completes the work of the household. Smitten, they try what's worked before and are promptly smote by a rolling pin. The lady takes no guff. They're back to doing their chores, grouchily, but at least they have someone to tuck them in at night. Davis gets a lot into these tiny pages. The determination of her characters is clear, and her tendency toward drawing substantial bodies has remained. There's also a sort of coziness to the whole thing that's equally present in The Beast Mother.

Done two years later, in 2006, that book is a beauty, with a fancy die-cut (hand-cut?) cover flap of a wild-haired, wild-bearded hunter, who folds over a close-up of the face of the title character. We see her as she minds her pack of children, primal and mindless, with a floppy belly and breasts that dangle all over the place. She's huge and gross and powerful, but we're okay with it. The hunter chases her, he wins, and then there's a twist at the end, sort of. It, too, gets a lot into its short number of pages: ideas about nature versus civilization, man versus woman, child versus parent--everything feels like a struggle, but that's not quite right. Almost everything feels like a struggle, but there are moments of peace strewn sparsely throughout. They make things more bearable, but they also amplify the hardness of the conflict.

Looking back at these early comics is strange, especially the ones in Bugbear, another mini-comic which Davis made with her husband, Drew Weing, also in 2006. There's a comic in it about going camping with her father and her sister when she was 14, and it has so many lines in it that it can be hard to believe it's the same artist. It looks like it's drawn in pencils, but it's hard to tell from the printing. Not only are there many more lines, but they also feel much more hesitant than her current work. It's appropriate to the story, which basically has no narrative. They just go on a camping trip, no one talks. They ride there in a car, set up the tent, gather wood for a fire and stones to make a fire ring, hike, look at animal drawings, eat chili and Spam, put the fire out, and go to sleep. The smoke from the fire trails off into the air. Really what it is about is looking. The people feel a bit awkward (somewhat intentionally so), but every tree is done with care, more care than the people; many of them are labeled, ditto for plants, birds, animals, camping supplies. It's about being quiet and being present, although it never says those things (or anything at all) explicitly. I told her that it was strange to see so many lines in her work, and she admitted that she took almost all of them away for a while, but now they're coming back.

There are other mini-comics in these years, but I don't have all of them. I used to have Mattie and Dodie, also from 2006, but I can't find it these days. When I look at images from it online, the linework feels like Davis, as does the concern with bodies and death, but the shading is weird. She learned not to do things that way and fast. What I do have are her three children's books, Stinky (2008), The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (2009) and Flop to the Top (2015). I've read these so many times that it's hard for me to step back and look at them, but they're all quite different. If you look through How to Be Happy (2014), which compiled a lot of her earlier shorter stories that had appeared in the anthology Mome and the like over the years, you see the same thing: restlessness, but also a preoccupation with home. Stinky is the story of a monster who lives in a swamp. A kid invades his territory, and he's decided he doesn't like kids, so he tries to scare him off. It doesn't work. They become friends. There are all kinds of little details tucked into the corners of the panels, and it feels like a slightly cluttered, very homey world. The Secret Science Alliance, which Weing collaborated on, focuses on three awesome kid misfits who all love to tinker. They find one another, they make super-cool inventions, and they solve a mystery. It is teen nerd wish fulfillment to the max, complete with diagrams and cut-aways and homemade helicopters. These might be the busiest pages she ever did, but the book is a real joy, a story of finding your people.

Flop to the Top (also made with Weing) is later, and so it's different. The drawings are all blobby color layered on color, soft and poppy like a world made out of balloons. The art is gentler, but the story is spikier, largely because its main character, Wanda, is kind of a jerk. I love that Davis and Weing felt the freedom to make her one because, really, most kids are kind of jerks. I say this as someone with two of her own. It's not their fault. They just haven't had their rough parts sanded off yet and learned how to put on a mask. Wandais a perfect example: she is self-involved and treats everyone around her, including her dog, like a supporting cast. She learns not to do so when her dog experiences 15 minutes of fame. There's hugging and lessons, and they don't feel unearned. The book is also a visual delight that one's brain can't quite grasp. When you're not looking at the pages, you forget what they look like, probably because they're more shape-based than line-based. When you are looking at them, your eyes flutter around the page happily, taking in places where one color sits on top of another one. It has some in common, visually, with some of the shorter comics compiled in How to Be Happy (2014), but is gentler and more joyous. When Floppy Dog parties on a yacht, it looks pretty fun.


By contrast, not much in How to Be Happy could be described as "fun." Maybe watching Davis try out different media and approaches to making comics. Other than that, it is a book about how hard it is to be happy. Here are some things that can get in the way: big, scary shit, like the planet dying; competition with one another over resources; people calling us on our self-delusions; suppressing our emotions because we also don't want to feel sad, and therefore we try not to feel anything; cruelty and one's awareness of it existing; whatever else is going on inside our own heads. The comics in it range over almost a decade, and although they are all very different, they fit together well because they are about our failures in our quest for happiness. Maybe going gluten-free will solve it, or living in a ritzy commune, or pretending we didn't see something horrifying, or having a baby. Davis is deeply skeptical of all of these attempts to get out of our heads, but she's also not caustic about them. Also, if there's ever such a thing as a prelapsarian state, it's definitely full of plants. In "In Our Eden" (2014), there are plants everywhere, as there should be: big, flowering trees; things with strong roots in the water; bushes that are as big as trees, with long, oval leaves; palmettos; foxgloves; apple trees; uncurled, unblemished ferns; bamboo; tall grasses. We can have a purer relationship with plants than we can have with humans or even with other animals because we can't expect them to love us back. People are messier.

"BDSM," the 11th issue of Youth In Decline's Frontier series, came out in early 2016, and Davis drew it in 2015. The story of two porn actresses, one dom, one sub, is full of big, fat areas of black, a la Jaime Hernandez, set against some really open areas with simple linework, as though to represent artistically the two approaches to expressing power. Davis says a lot in the varying arch of an eyebrow. We can tell that dom Victoria is sometimes uncomfortable with exerting her power, especially over someone she likes. Likewise, it's clear that sub Alex gets quite a lot out of embodying subservience. It's as though we can watch them acting and see through the veneer to the calculations underneath. Davis has always had that ability to see what might be driving someone and then to put it economically on the page, even if it's complicated. She sees and represents subtleties in body language in a way that makes even the less perceptive among us able to grasp what she's getting at.

Libby's Dad also came out in 2016, published by Retrofit Comics and Big Planet Comics. It's a similar size to "BDSM" and can be read as the other side of the coin, an example of Davis's constant need to challenge herself. Where "BDSM" is starkly black and white, Libby's Dad is done in soft colored pencils, mostly blue and red but also orange, green, and yellow. There's no black at all, and although it features adolescent girls as its characters, lolling about in a pool, there is also no sex to be found. What they have in common is a focus on violence in relationships. The premise of Libby's Dad is that Libby's parents are getting divorced and the rumor is that Libby's dad (who is hosting the pool party) threatened to shoot Libby's mom with a gun. One of these books contains consensual violence, and the other nonconsensual violence. One shows the beginning of a relationship, and the other circles around the end of one. "BDSM" doesn't have a lot of plants. It's a pretty urban environment and one full of dudes. Libby's Dad is full of fresh, hot plant life and its characters are almost entirely young women. Is it weird that “BDSM” is the heart-warming one and Libby’s Dad is the one that leaves you feeling unsettled and sad? What it is is characteristic. Davis doesn’t want to give you what you want or what you expect, and she works hard at that. She’d be ashamed of herself as an artist if she just made you happy and didn’t make you look harder.

Right after she made those two books, she decided to bicycle from her parents’ home, in Arizona, back to Athens, Georgia, by herself. Along the way, she drew and posted drawings to Instagram. It was exhilarating to watch things unfold as she went along, and it also made me nervous. The result ended up being You & a bike & a road (2017), which hit 172 pages and was the longest thing she’d done up to that point. If you want to challenge yourself, why not try to bike 1800 miles and then also create a long-form comic? You & a bike & a road is still one of my favorite things she’s done. It’s loose but not sloppy, and it puts you inside her head (or at least it feels like it does) like nothing else. Because the trip unfolded as it did, she couldn’t craft it the same way she usually does, which means it’s less like a story and more like looking out through her eyes. It’s also not adversarial because a lot of it is about either being alone or being with people whom you don’t know very well and probably will never see again. I tend to be itchy about mindfulness exercises and inclined to jump straight into doing rather than to be at peace with a lack of progress, but reading this book is the kind of mindfulness practice that works for me. When I wrote about it for Paste, one thing I said was, “A bird’s eye view can be useful, but it can also produce foolish stereotypes. When you move in a car, you see a lot of things very quickly, and the images run together. Twenty gas stations witnessed in quick succession become a type, and your mind learns to filter out the differences. When you move under your own physical exertion, however, whether that’s on a bike or on your own two feet, you don’t pass as many things, and your wonderful brain can let your senses encounter the world without processing what’s perceived into a set of rules. That may not be a way to live every day, but it is a valuable exercise and one of the insights of the book.” I’m starting to think that it is, at least somewhat, the way Davis works, as a person and as an artist. It’s not that she doesn’t see types, but she’s invested in individuality, even when she draws people with few distinguishing features. Her illustration work is a good example of this, as she makes a significant effort to include all types of people, even (especially) when she doesn’t have to. When you look at it, and you see people with big noses and fat ankles, bad posture and thinning hair, weak chins and regrettable tattoos, sideburns, stretch marks, acne, failed facial hair, and so on, you feel seen and you see others. You become a perceptive person even if you are not naturally one.

Why Art? came out in 2018, but Davis wrote it two years before that. It is, again, a totally different kind of book. It started out as a PowerPoint presentation for a bunch of illustrators and morphed into a publication. When it begins, it is a joke, a riff on a serious art textbook, defining art in terms of its physical attributes, but it transforms halfway through into an actual serious examination of why humans make art, told through narrative. Because of its original medium, there’s a lot of typeset text, which can feel weird at first, and the title page (somewhat like Noah van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski) mimics that of a stodgier, more canonical work, perhaps an art history textbook. The drawings, unlike the one on the cover, are done with clean, economical linework, entirely in black except a few pages in the middle. Their figures are what one should think of as classic Eleanor Davis people: big bodies, small hands and feet, multi-ethnic, a little sad. Their clothing is barely important. The lines don’t vary a ton in their thickness. My kids are looking at this book right now, while I’m trying to write, and asking questions like “why isn’t he wearing a shirt with his sweater?” and I’m trying to explain that the figure in question is wearing a shirt, but it’s hard to point to the evidence that tells me he is, other than the fact that you can’t see his nipples. How do we know the characters are male or female? Sometimes we don’t unless she tells us. Why Art? is like “BDSM” if you removed 60 percent of its visual content. There is more white space in this book than in anything else she’s done, and her editing is palpable. The jokes are strong because they’ve been honed; ditto for the drawings.

Things start getting more complicated visually as the narrative twists and thickens. Suddenly, seamlessly, we’re in a story, not just a bunch of jokes strung together by a theme. It’s a story that’s both about a bunch of individuals and about generalities. I want to say it’s full of truisms, but it doesn’t offer simple, self-evident answers. To start off with, we see a bunch of different ways of making art, but what do you do when your art begins to feel hollow to you, when you don’t want to keep repeating yourself, when your work is predicated on sincerity but you’re having a hard time forging connections with people? What do you do if you start to question “why art?” due to external factors and a seed of doubt germinates? In a time of climate change, increasing cruelty, political disaster, etc., why would we ever make something as selfish and wasteful as art? Don’t worry! She sort of answers those questions in a way that lets art continue to exist. As the scope of the book expands, so do the images. Two-page spreads hit hard. Our brains, reading this book, have been accustomed to receiving less information, and then we get flooded with loads of it. There’s one spread that includes nearly a dozen babies, people kissing, people hugging, giant flowers, a woman with a wheelbarrow who’s engaged in some sort of gardening, a river with someone kayaking on it, people running and playing and touching each other. We’ve been in a world of art, and now we are in a world of life. Luckily, they can coexist.

That concern with existence and creation, life and death, and questioning whether any of it is worth it plays right into her newest book, The Hard Tomorrow, which is shot through with yearning for a baby--the powerfulness of the biological imperative that overrides pessimism about the state and trajectory of the world. What can love do? How do we keep loving people we know are flawed, even with no hope for their improvement? Is this the same as believing that there is no chance to fix the world in a permanent way? How can we keep interacting with people when most of them are so fucked up in one way or another and we can't fix them either? Why, why, why would anyone choose to bring a child into a world where octopuses end up in the streets of Miami anytime it rains, and techno-utopianism, instead of solving things and making life better, is rapidly turning our society into a James Cameron movie? Why bring life into being when it only and always ends in death? All of this is in the drawings as much as in the story.

I remember sitting in my bed a few weeks after bringing my older daughter home, with her in a crib next to me, and realizing that not only would I die someday and my parents, too, but that this tiny, squirmy person with such a thirst for life, would also, eventually, die, even in a best-case scenario. Louis CK sucks now, but one of the things he said a long time ago comes into my brain all the time, about how even if you “meet the perfect person who you love infinitely, and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children, and then you get old together and then she’s gonna die. That’s the best-case scenario, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.” My heart hurt thinking about it. But I still had another child. And so do many other people. Smart people, people who are aware of the damage it can do to the world and didn't necessarily always want to have children and maybe even made a pros and cons list about it. Nature rules us more than we would like to admit. Even if we think we've transcended or overpowered biology through our brains (fucking Descartes being the model here), and that we're better than people who aren't aware of this stuff, nature often sets us straight. The Hard Tomorrow is kind of about this.

It’s also about looking, in a similar way to You & a bike & a road. The most important thing in the very first panel of the book is main character Hannah’s eye, which is right where our eyes go. She’s lying in bed on her back, eyes open, her hand on top of the covers, listening to birds outside the window, with her partner snuggled up beside her, breathing sleepy hot breath into her ear. Those eyes are different from most of the things she has drawn before. A lot of her work, as mentioned, focuses on simplification, but between Hannah’s big, open, vulnerable eyes and her dark curly hair that bunches and sticks out everywhere, this book signals right away that it’s more interested in complexity and individuals as they find a way to be in the world. If we want to treat people with more gentleness, we have to see them, but that perceptiveness can also make things harder for us. Hannah’s great strength and great weakness is that she sees things, and that what she sees goes straight into her heart. Pages 19 and 20 are early and crucial in establishing this. Hannah’s driving, listening to and singing along with the Spice Girls. She sees a couple with their baby in a stroller out of the passenger side window of the car. First we see Hannah look to her right. Then we see what she sees, from within the car, the side mirror and the outline of the windshield and the passenger seat getting in the way a bit. The woman is reaching down for her baby. In the next panel, we don’t see the car anymore, just the head of the woman’s partner, the head and arms of the woman and, most of all the baby, lifted high in the air, dangling its fat legs. We flip the page and get a ⅔-page panel of just the baby’s face and the mother’s face, the mother’s thumbs pressed tight against the baby’s chest, the baby’s index finger poking into its mother’s mouth. They’re looking intensely and happily at one another, tendrils of their hair swooping around. The world doesn’t exist anymore. Back to Hannah. We see her from outside the car, at a low angle, her eyebrows and a couple of lines on her cheeks suggesting want and pain; part of a stop sign is back and to her right. Last panel: back inside the car, she sees flashing lights in her side mirror and we hear the “bwoop bwoop” of a throat-clearing police siren. She’s run the stop sign while looking at the baby. This whole 140-ish-page book could almost be these two pages, which deal with life and desire as well as hindrances. Luckily, it’s not.

"A Woman’s Place", Eleanor Davis, for The New York Times Book Review

The Hard Tomorrow is deeply informed by Davis’s experiences with Athens for Everyone (A4E), a local progressive group that fights for social and political change in Athens, Georgia, with which I’ve also done some volunteering. That’s really how I met and got to know Davis. I’d seen her at Fluke and gotten some books signed. We’d had a few somewhat awkward conversations. I’d interviewed her over email. But I got to talk to her at length from about the fall of 2017 on, when she recruited me to help do some legislative research. She dove in hard following the 2016 election and only scaled back her involvement due to health issues with her family. Hannah is involved with a group called Humans Against All Violence (HAAV), and its inner workings feel a lot like A4E, only more ambitious and more idealized, with fewer cis white dudes running things. Much like her extended bike trip, A4E was an attempt by Davis to get out of her head and throw herself into action (as well as to mobilize others to do the same). Was it successful? Is that even the right question to ask? I found myself thinking of Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” an existentialist essay from 1942 that covers similar ground, only via philosophy rather than comics. If you don’t know your Greek mythology, Sisyphus was an arrogant but clever king whose underworld punishment involved having to roll a huge boulder up a hill over and over again, the rock slipping and rolling all the way back down every time. The story is a metaphor about getting too big for your britches, thinking you’re superior to the gods, although one that’s not quite as unpleasant as Prometheus getting his liver eaten every day by an eagle. Camus’ point, by the end of the essay, is that Sisyphus’s task is both meaningless and absurd, much like continuing to live in the world, but that the king realizes that and continues his task anyway, finding a kind of happiness in the struggle to complete the task. The Hard Tomorrow isn’t as purely existentialist as that, but there are similarities. Davis has also mentioned Grace Paley to me as a model for someone who made art even though she thought it might be pointless, and George Saunders wrote about Paley, “To see better means: more joy, less judgment. There is a roof on our language that holds down our love. What has put that roof there? Our natural dullness, exacerbated by that grinding daily need to survive. A writer like Paley comes along and brightens language up again, takes it aside and gives it a pep talk, sends it back renewed, so it can do its job, which is to wake us up.” Davis doesn’t do that with language, but it does sort of sound like her mission.

When I finished The Hard Tomorrow, my cup was so full with feelings that I immediately went and found the worst comic within reach and read it, to turn off the faucet of emotions and get back to a place of being able to function in the world and get some sleep. I hope that Eleanor Davis doesn't walk around feeling that much all the time. It's not a way to be that gives one any peace. At the same time, one of the things that's particularly good about the book is the way it treats social media and ever-present digital devices, not as a source of evil that must be rooted out lest we forget to connect with each other, but as a normal and sometimes lovely part of the world we live in. They foster connection. Hannah looks at her phone with the same range of emotions (fear, nervousness, infatuation) with which she looks at her husband and her friends. Davis understands that the phone is just a tool, and although it has downsides, it's foolish to see it as evil. This book is not a polemic in favor of a harsh reality. It’s a very subtle argument in favor of opening your eyes and seeing as much as possible, rolling the rock up the hill but not closing yourself off to what’s going on around you while you do so. There will be fighting, including with those whom we love, and there will be pain and plenty of ugliness, but also plenty that’s worth seeing and that will help connect us to each other and let us continue on into tomorrow.