Comics artist Eleanor Davis: ‘How to be Happy’ in a toxic world

In a new book, illustrator and comics artist Eleanor Davis explores everything from future dystopias to current psychologies. Her colors are rich, with forms evocative of Japanese block prints.
(Eleanor Davis / Fantagraphics)

In the story “Nita Goes Home,” the title character leaves her world -- a protected biodome where trees grow tall and bushes dispense berries -- for the outside world, where humans must wear face-covering “toxoff suits” that protect them from skies filled with blood-red pollution.

This dystopic short story is part of “How to Be Happy,” a new collection of comics by Georgia-based artist and illustrator Eleanor Davis. The stories in the collection (the book is many comics in one) run the gamut of topics: an odd flirtation between two teens, a fable about a man who transports animalistic monsters on a boat, a visual travelogue that chronicles a bus trip between Georgia and Los Angeles, and a self-help guru who sells salvation through the act of crying.

Though Davis’ tales can be wildly different in look and narrative, they are united by themes of yearning, of characters searching for the thing that will make their lives better.

“I’m looking at this very humorous urge we have to search for these magic bullets,” she said, “an instinct that is sad but understandable.”


In the past, Davis has created books for children: “The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook” and “Stinky.” But in her new collection, she’s examining more adult topics.

In “Nita Goes Home,” Nita searches for escape in an agricultural dome that is physically and psychologically disconnected from the realities of everyday life in a world in which the air cannot be breathed. In another story, titled “In Our Eden,” a group of rugged idealists attempt to live off the land. But as they aim to create a new society, they can’t get away from the all-too-human act of bickering.

“There are people who get obsessed about the idea of going back to nature and that everything will be perfect when they do,” Davis said, “that if we live simply enough, basic human flaws -- discord, anger, hierarchical behavior -- can be washed away. But things don’t quite work that way.”

Also remarkable: a series of simple, pencil-sketch pages that tell the story of the skinning of a fox. These are accompanied by short texts that have the effect of turning the skinning into poetry: “Two very careful cuts and suddenly there he was, his dark jelly eyes watching the mask of his own face pulling downward.”

But what grabbed my attention above all was Davis’ exquisite use of color and form. The story “In Our Eden” features people drawn in stark shades of blue and red, figures that evoke the drama of Japanese blockprints (as in the image at top).

“Nita Goes Home” is unusual in that it doesn’t portray dystopia in dim shades of black, gray and blue. Davis’ polluted future is brightly colored: Characters wear dazzling suits to protect themselves from the air in a place where the skies are always crimson. (Think: L.A. sunset during a smog alert.) It is beautiful. But it is also disconcerting -- in the same way that Edward Burtynsky’s lush photographs of our soiled landscape can be so unnerving.

From story to story, Davis varies her technique. Some (like “In Our Eden”) are rendered digitally using programs such as Photoshop. Others, such as “Nita Goes Home,” are done in warm watercolor. A few are hand-drawn in black ink.


But “How to Be Happy” left me wanting more. The book feels like an appetizer for something bigger, something bigger that doesn’t quite come. When I spoke with Davis, she said she found the idea of a full-length graphic novel a bit daunting. (She works professionally as an illustrator, doing work for various magazines and the New York Times. She has also done Google Doodles.)

“A graphic novel is a huge project to take on,” she said. “It’s such a tricky thing. So, I’ve kept doing short work.”

That’s too bad. Davis is a good storyteller, and her color panels are stunning. Here’s hoping she changes her mind.

“How To Be Happy” ($24.99) by Eleanor Davis is available from Fantagraphics Books this month. This week, Davis is also doing cartoon diaries about her life as an artist for the Comics Journal.

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