Eleanor Davis Shows Readers "How To Be Happy"

Cartoonist Eleanor Davis has two books to her name: "Secret Science Alliance" and "Stinky," both created for a younger audience. But most comics fans know her for the short comics that have appeared in "Mome," "Nobrow" or online at her website www.doing-fine.com. Her new book, "How To Be Happy" (out now from Fantagraphics), collects many of her short comics work for the first time.

Whether she's working in ink or in color, in longer or shorter stories, from slice of life to science fiction Davis shows herself to be a gifted and versatile storyteller. As we spoke about her new book, Davis explained to CBR News the reason for it's title and the advice Françoise Mouly gave her, which may be the secret to success.

CBR News: I really enjoyed "How To Be Happy," and I suppose I was happier after reading it.

Eleanor Davis: [Laughs] That's good. If that works out, that's awesome.

How did you decide on the title?

I had to come up with a title fast. I was brainstorming with my husband and I said "How to be Happy" as a joke. And we both laughed and laughed. After we stopped laughing, my husband Drew said, no, really, that's a good title. That's what you should call it.

It just felt right.

Yeah. Even though it's a pretty sad book, all the stories are about trying to be happy -- or trying to be something approaching happiness. Trying to be strong, trying to be good, trying to connect with others.

You've been making comics for a few years now. At what point did you start to think about assembling a collection and how they would work in relation to one another?

I'd been doing all these short stories, but not making a ton of them. I always hoped to do a collection but my older stuff kept getting older and I'd stop being excited about it. I wasn't producing new stuff fast enough, stuff that I thought was perfect enough. Finally I said, okay, I'm just going to put out a collection, and it's going to be a weird, motley one. Maybe it won't be exactly what I want, but I'm going to ask [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary [Groth] if he wants to publish it as a book.

Then I tried to write as much new stuff as I possibly could. The deadline was approaching and finally, I just took everything decent I had and desperately squished it together and tried to arrange it some sort of order.

To my surprise, it actually ended up being a lot more cohesive than you would expect for being a sort of slapdash process. There's a cohesiveness in the subject matter that made it come together in a way that wasn't deliberate.

It's interesting to hear you describe the process like that, because I was curious how much the book represents you discovering themes and connections running through your work that you weren't necessarily conscious of, and how much it was a curated selection of a certain theme.

It was actually a little embarrassing. I'd always thought I'd done a lot of different sorts of stories over the last seven years, but when I put them all together, it seems more or less like I've been writing the same story over and over again.

It wasn't terribly curated, other than leaving out some stories and hand picking which of my sketches best suited the book. It was more like there were all kinds of scraps lying all over the place and I picked up all the scraps that were both the strongest and fit together the best.

Were you paying a lot of attention to the order of the comics in the book?

I tried to get a flow to it. I tried to put stories together that fit. The book starts out with stories about people searching for utopia, and then stories about people who are trying to find their best selves. Then there are a couple that are more spiritual and about God, a little bit. Finally, it ends it with stories about folks who are just trying to be fully present and alive. I also went back and forth between shorter stuff and longer stuff, and the color stuff and the black and white stuff, the older stuff and the new stuff. I tried to juggle all those things.

I really liked the one-page comic that opens the book. It felt like not quite the thesis of the collection, but a good opening to it.

Thank you. That was just something that I had drawn in my sketchbook for myself and realized it was a good way to open up a book of the sort of strange half-fiction and half-autobiographical stories that I do. A lot of the stories stem from my experience with going to therapy, and that was one of them. The idea that you can change your own narrative.

It was a good opening, and then the book ended with characters struggling to be present. The one-page comic that closes it out and its final line, "So that nothing stands between you and this beautiful world." It really felt like a journey.

Thank you. I'm glad that worked.

Of course, you weren't writing a self-help book. Are you prepared for people on Amazon who will give it one-star reviews saying, 'I bought it because of the title and I didn't read the description?'

Yeah, that's why I put in the author's note suggesting other books that actually are self-help books. You know Lisa Hanawalt's book, "My Dumb Dirty Eyes?" She's gotten bad reviews from people who looked at the cover and thought that it was a book about dogs and ordered it and found that it's not a book about dogs. [Laughs] There are dogs in it, but the other stuff in there is probably going to overwhelm the casual dog lover. [Laughs]

The book may not be self-help but it is sincerely interested in the characters and takes their efforts to be happy seriously.

That's why I guess I thought it was an honest title, even if it is a trick title at the same time.

As far as the styles you use, do you prefer working in color or ink?

I like both. They're very, very different. Most of the black and white stuff was done very quickly. A number of those comics were done directly in ink in my sketchbook, just writing them as I was going along. There's a much different feel to a lot of that black and white stuff. It's more raw and direct whereas the color work tends to be pieces I've crafted out ahead of time, I've thumbnailed them out, I know exactly what I want them to do and what I want them to say. They have a gentler, more careful touch aesthetically, I think.

Is there a lot of planning for longer stories, and is the color part of that planning and thinking?

Not necessarily. Often, I feel like I decide to use color for pretty dumb reasons. Like with "No Tears No Sorrows," it's a story that's entirely about middle-aged people in a small room sitting on folding chairs watching a PowerPoint presentation. [Laughs] I needed every trick in the book to make sure that it wasn't agonizingly boring to look at, and boring for me to draw. Color was a way of making that work, making it beautiful rather than repetitive.

The longer stories tend to have a long, arduous writing process that involves doing a lot of thumbnails and then making my husband read and edit them. He's an excellent editor, and he's very patient. He gives suggestions and then I re-do the thumbnails. That involves a lot of cutting the thumbnails with scissors and then pasting them back together and taping and stapling them and rearrange everything. After I've figured out exactly how I want the story to go, I start the final art. Whereas with the shorter stuff, I can just dump it out without thinking about it too much ahead of time.

When you thumbnail a longer story, are they detailed or loose?

They're pretty loose. I try to make them just detailed enough that my husband can read them. I really value freshness in a final piece of art. I try not to redraw things too much. I don't want things to get too tight, so keeping the thumbnails loose is important. Also, if I make the thumbnails too tight I get bored by the time I get to the final art and that's not good for anybody.

I don't know why exactly this would be, but if I am engaged in making artwork and emotionally involved with it, I find people like it. If I am not, then people don't like it. Even if I'm just kind of bored while I'm inking, that comes through and dulls down the work in some mysterious way.

One of the longest black and white pieces is a comic about skinning a fox, which was fascinating and educational, as I've never skinned a fox.

It was an educational experience for me as well. [Laughs]

Did you draw the fox piece at the time you were watching it, or afterwards?

I drew it the next morning. It was a very vivid experience, and I was paying very close attention at the time. The next morning I realized that if I didn't draw it right away, I would forget it. There's a lot to be said for figuring stuff out and editing and having tight stories. Some of my best work is done in that way, but with the fox story, I didn't really think of it as a story. I just had these strong images that I wanted to draw for my own sake, and then, when I finished it, it came together in a way that I wasn't expecting when I'd started. It was very satisfying.

You mentioned your husband helps you in the editing stage. Is this something you do with each other's work?

Yeah. His name is Drew Weing, and he's also a cartoonist. He did a book called "Set to Sea" for Fantagraphics and he's doing an all-ages book called "The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo" now, and serializing it online. He's very, very good. We both went to SCAD for sequential art and met and fell in love because we both loved comics and loved making comics.

We're very lucky, I think, in our working relationship. We show each other most of what we're working on. We have an unwritten rule that we take each other's advice seriously. If Drew says that I need to change something, if he says it's really important, then I change it -- and vice versa with the input I give him.

I think it's important to not have too many editors. You need just maybe one editor who's really good and knows what you're trying to do and who you can fight with. We do fight. It's a painful to have someone look at your work and critique it, but it's been extremely valuable, I think. At least, it is for me. I hope Drew feels the same.

The first time I think I came across your name was when Toon Books released "Stinky," which you wrote and illustrated. What was making the book and working with Françoise Mouly like?

Françoise is amazing. She's just an incredible person and super-passionate and driven and just really cool. She has a really strong belief in the value of literacy, and she has a strong belief in the ability of comics to teach literacy and help kids to have a love of reading. I feel the same way. Françoise saw my website -- I was pretty young at that point -- and asked me if I wanted to do a book, and of course I jumped at the opportunity.

It was really challenging. I had never written anything for kids before. Toon does easy reader books, so they have specific reading levels they are aiming at. They would take dummy books to schools and read them to classrooms to see what parts the kids weren't getting and what parts they were responding to. That was a really special experience.

Was there anything from your experience of working with her as an editor that stood out for you, or that you've kept in mind going forward and working on your own projects?

There was something I think about a lot -- not just about artwork, but in life. Françoise is very accomplished, and very powerful; you can feel it when you talk to her. She was driving me around Manhattan, and I was pretty nervous because traffic in Manhattan is scary. She was cool as a cucumber, not bothered at all by all the crush and the cars and just pushing her way into traffic. She was completely focused on getting to where she needed to be. I said, this is so scary -- I don't think I could drive in a big city like this. She said, "You only have to worry about what's in front of you. What's going on behind you is somebody else's business." [Laughs] "You just keep looking straight ahead."

I think about that a lot. I think that might be the secret to success.

Is there a lot of overlap between your comics work and illustration work?

I think that they inform one another. I think I can make smarter comics, because I know how to make good illustrations. And I can definitely make more effective illustrations because I have an extensive storytelling background from making a lot of comics and reading a lot of comics. I think it's good for me to be at my desk every day. That's the way I can get the most done.

What else are you interested in doing in comics?

Drew and I are hopefully doing another project with Toon Books. I'm really excited about that. I've done two books for kids, "Stinky" and "Secret Science Alliance," and those were fun but challenging in a way I didn't anticipate. I'm excited to try to do an excellent kids book this time, and give it my all.

I'm also working on a young adult historical murder mystery with my mom. She's a history teacher and we're writing it together and then I'm going to draw it. It's set in Samarkand in the 700s.

With my adult stuff, my more personal work, I'd always planned on making a graphic novel, but I'm coming to the realization that's maybe not my strength. I think my strength is these shorter, more poetic stories. Hopefully I'm going to keep on doing those. Maybe I'll make some minicomics again. Maybe then, after five more years, I'll have enough pieces for another book.

As much as this is the age of the graphic novel, there are a lot of people interested in and focused on short comics.

Big, long form graphic novels are a pretty new thing. French albums are only 50-60 pages -- not a short story, but shorter than what we think of as a graphic novel in America. Japanese comics are serialized in weekly or monthly magazines. American traditional floppy comics were serialized. Newspaper comics are serialized. Minicomics are by their nature small or serialized. Some people work really well at graphic novels, but it's not for everyone. Working on a long project can be isolating and exhausting. It's an incredible investment and an incredible risk.

I really like getting feedback from my stuff. I like putting my stuff online because often times I don't know if it's good or not until I hear from folk who have read it and say, this worked and this didn't work. If I do something long, I'd like to have a serialization aspect to it, either putting it online or putting out minicomics. I might just stick with short stories.

Short prose fiction can have a brittleness to it, a gotcha-corniness. But short comics are more like poems. My favorite short comics, by Tom Herpich or Sophia Foster-Dimino, shimmer; they are perfect little things. They are completely self-contained with innumerable facets, and when you look into them you can look a long way down.

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