Eleanor Davis on “How to Be Happy,” a better “everyman,” and diversity in art

“Maybe when you have enough to be comfortable and you are still unhappy — that’s when you start thinking about gluten, and new-age workshops, and going ‘back to nature.'”

The preceding quote is from the following interview with cartoonist and writer Eleanor Davis, whose new collection of comics, “How to Be Happy,” is a fascinating exploration of people grappling with emptiness and a sense of self, in varied art and narrative styles.            

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 There’s only a few romantic pairings in “How To Be Happy,” but it seems like the least hollow one is because the pair share the same delusion.  

Which do you consider the least hollow one? My favorite romantic pairing is Jennifer and Matt in “No Tears, No Sorrow,” although that wasn’t really implied. I just had it in the back of my mind that they ought to fall in love.

My impression thus far of the least hollow relationship — or rather, least hollow interpersonal relationship — had been between Adam and Eve in “In Our Eden.”

Oh yeah! The Adam and Eve in “In Our Eden” is a pretty interesting and complex relationship. I don’t think it’s a very good one, though; Adam doesn’t ever ask Eve what she wants or needs, he just assumes she will go along with him, and she does. I don’t know if that’s because she shares his utopian beliefs or because she loves him, but in some way love is a utopian belief, I guess.

I feel like there’s this grappling with specific upwardly-mobile approaches to happiness, in searches for authenticity or something purer or the new mantra/motions of happiness. Do you feel that maybe this particular demographic has an obsession with “happiness”?

Well, if you’re struggling just to make ends meet, maybe your focus is going to be on making rent and paying your doctor bills, and that is plenty to be unhappy about. Maybe when you have enough to be comfortable and you are still unhappy —  that’s when you start thinking about gluten, and new-age workshops, and going “back to nature.” The kind of unhappiness I write about is real, but it’s also a luxury, I think.

 Maybe when you have enough to be comfortable and you are still unhappy, that’s when you start thinking about gluten, and new-age workshops, and going “back to nature.” The kind of unhappiness I write about is real, but it’s also a luxury, I think.

After I re-read it a few times, that part with that woman bawling, essentially about feeling the weight of a very disconnected world, only to be told about going gluten-free is kind of strangely hilarious.    

Thank you. I hope there is a combination of empathy and humor in my stuff.

There’s some interesting explorations of strength in “How To Be Happy” — the strong man with the deep cut who pretends like it’s nothing; and then there’s the sort of Hercules figure, the collection’s most jubilant figure. Does this rare example of happiness come from him being strong for others?

Oh man! I feel kind of weird about that story. It’s often cited as the single happy story in the book, while I think of it as one of the saddest ones. In that story, “Make Yourself Strong,” the muscle-man’s strength seems infinite; it’s a pleasure to watch him. But no strength is really infinite. A story about a superhero is only happy until the hero comes up against something he can’t overcome. In my mind, writing it, the strong man wasn’t able to lift that final toppling building. The building crushed him, and the last three images of the rescued people and the strong man’s laughing face are in some sort of happy afterlife.

Graphic novels, literary or otherwise, don’t tend to have a lot of diversity in story form or especially on a production level. Most are generally seen as being universal in nature, but how universal do you think something is that lacks awareness about privilege and the lack there of? I feel like what makes “How To Be Happy” universal to me is the bawling woman acknowledging a sense of disconnection with the world that speaks to, among many things, that divide.

This is an excellent question. It’s one I grapple with a lot.

When I was a young artist, a lot of my fictional stories were about men. I was trying to speak my own truth, but I didn’t feel that everyone could relate to a female protagonist. Especially in the simple allegorical stories I was telling, I thought a male character could be an “everyman” in a way that a female could not. In art, women are wives or mothers or objects for sex. Women are bitches or goddesses or creepy old crones. Men are, simply, people.

As I gotten older I’ve realized how cowardly it was for me to go along with this idea. I’ve realized the harm it causes. I have been fighting the misogyny in my own heart and I’ve rejected the idea that the only everyman is male. More of my characters are women now. I am more willing to be a woman myself.

I have been fighting the misogyny in my own heart and I’ve rejected the idea that the only everyman is male.

Rejecting sexism in art has also made me more aware of the overwhelming whiteness in art. This problem is huge and it has terrible consequences. Media is the mirror a society sees itself in, and the majority of society is either not reflected, or is transformed into something warped and flat and hideous. This is harmful for the people who are under- and misrepresented, and it’s harmful for the people who think they know their neighbors and countrymen from these false representations. It’s also bad art. Art is a pursuit of truth. The truth is not white, and it’s not male.

 Rejecting sexism in art has also made me more aware of the overwhelming whiteness in art. This problem is huge and it has terrible consequences.

So we have this terrible situation, which is that we are consuming a huge amount of bad and even harmful art, and as artists, we are producing it.

My own comics are very white, and that’s something I’d like to change. I’m also very white, though, so I want to tread carefully. I don’t want to take one of my typical stories with a thinly veiled stand-in for me and just color the character’s skin cocoa and give myself a pat on the back. Cultural appropriation is also something I worry about. And I worry about speaking for other groups without having their lived experience. But in this case I think I, and other artists like me, need to risk f***ing up by trying their best to show diversity, rather than continuing to tell this easy White lie.

So we can try to help the terrible situation we’re in by encouraging existing artists to bring more diversity into their own art. I think that’s great. It is a giant step in the right direction and it could have a lasting impact. However, it’s not enough. For art to be true, not only the characters need to be diverse, the artists making it need to be diverse too.

 For art to be true, not only the characters need to be diverse, the artists making it need to be diverse too.

Making art is often a privilege. Making art takes time; becoming a really good artist takes an incredible amount of time. Time is expensive. Formal art training is insanely expensive. Most art jobs are vastly underpaid. All these factors make becoming an artist an iffy financial investment, and making iffy financial investments is easier if you’re in a position of privilege. And, of course, jobs themselves are often more readily available to people of privilege. Consumers, art directors, and clients are often unwilling to hire artists whose voices are different from the ones they are used to.

Here is what I think can be done. As consumers, we can proactively support diverse creators. As artists we can reach out to diverse creators within our own communities. As artists we can refuse to do low paying or unpaid work which devalues all art and makes art a “hobby job.” We can donate to organizations that support diversity in art, like We Need Diverse Books. We can fight for better funding for the arts in public schools, and for more grants for the arts in higher education. And we can fight for economic justice and equality for all people; for our own sakes, for the sake of our world, for the sake of art, and for the sake of truth.

Check out “How to Be Happy” at http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/how-to-be-happy-pre-order–5.html. For more on Eleanor Davis, visit her site — http://doing-fine.com.

Much thanks to Eleanor for her time.

Amazing, in a one-sided kind of way

Even with the way that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ phones in an attempt at deep characterization with its antagonists (Electro and Harry Osborne), it’s hard for me to see the movie as a failure.   Its being chalked up to that is more about it not being exponentially profitable, rather than its critical reception. But as much as I appreciate a big screen version of Spider-Man so close to the one in the comics, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ just isn’t as cohesive and thematically sound as its predecessor.

What shines through in the sequel is the buoyancy of a character whose life could easily be defined by tragedy. The Andrew Garfield iteration of Spider-Man has that in an extroverted way that’s thrilling to see in a live-action format. And between him and Emma Stone playing Gwen Stacy, they form the movie’s most successful dynamic — one that’s particularly refreshing in the framework of what Spider-Man movies have been, as Gwen is this amazing young woman who would have fallen in love with Peter Parker even if he had never become Spider-Man. It’s hard to the say the same for Mary Jane as written in the first “Spider-Man” film.

There’ve been a few great versions of Peter Parker outside of film (mostly animated), and a hallmark has been that Spider-Man, for all of his joking, is a character who genuinely tries to reason with any villain he can see some good in — or at least this is where some of his more interesting, endearing moments have come into play. Comics can feature a pretty black and white kind of world, and if all there is for Spider-Man to do is web indistinguishable thieves and beat nefariously one-dimensional super villains, that’s just not a solid platform for storytelling that speaks to the human condition.

The scene in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ where Spidey saves the life of Max Dillon (the future Electro as played by Jamie Foxx) is a solid attempt at making Spidey likeable, but after Max’s transformation — when Spider-Man is getting through to a pre-rampaging Electro until an overzealous cop sends him reeling — that’s it. Spider-Man doesn’t try to reason with him ever again, which isn’t the case with how he relates to the Lizard (who was the villain in the first film). Of course, Max is (a bit) more of a stranger than Dr. Curt Conners was to Peter, and there’s less of the Jekyll and Hyde dynamic.   But Max all too quickly becomes an embodiment of bitterness, with the reasons for this having been set up as minimally as possible: a balding black man with a comb-over (though that much was supposedly Jamie Foxx’s decision), someone with self-image issues who is obviously partly defined by frequently being ignored and powerless. Harry Osbourne (the movie’s other underdeveloped antagonist) can make an appeal to Max-as-Electro’s humanity, but Spidey can’t? After Max becomes Electro, Gwen is the only character who keeps cares the tiniest bit about who he was before that.

More than in any other Spider-Man movie, this Peter Parker has a chasm between his world and those of his antagonists. As affecting as the Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy storyline is, it would have been even more so if more time had gone into developing both the antagonists and the idea that, as hard as he might try, Spider-Man can’t juggle everything. The movie’s script isn’t deep enough to show him trying.

Even coupled with that, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ is still enjoyable thanks to Garfield, Stone and company. There’ve been rumors that Garfield will be replaced in whatever the next Spider-Man would be, and that’d be unfortunate. He’s already done a thoroughly great job with whatever material he was given. And as much as he’s a fan of the comics character, he’s a fan of the idea of Spider-Man, whom he said “maybe … represents the underdog and those marginalized, those who come up against great prejudice…”

(The source of that one quote:  http://collider.com/andrew-garfield-jamie-foxx-interview/ )

lightness

Have you ever started a post and thought, Nah, this is really not substantial enough. (?) The idea that everything needs to have the utmost weight can be pretty counterproductive — at least when it comes to blogging, which in the long run seems to do well with the occasional sense of lightness.

So in the vein of lightness, this post is partly to show the cover of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s collected poems. Dickinson’s poetry was, of course, extremely lighthearted. I think one of the original blurbs for this book was “In these pages, the glass is always half full … of delight!” And okay … probably not, though it isn’t at all uncommon for her writing to have this whimsical approach to wisdom — like, isn’t it funny to be wise in this particular world?

I was surprised by the kind of craftsmanship and design that went into the cover of something published in 1889. While this particular publication of her work featured tweaks to Dickinson’s poetry she didn’t sign off on, the cover really does evoke a sense of her poetry. Flowers that are a bit wilted, but hanging on.

I think she was a great writer, but I don’t think all of her poetry successfully communicates beyond herself (and not just because of the difference in vernacular from the late 1800s and now).  Some of her poems are probably a bit more tentative than others, and yet they’ve all been around long enough to be part of the canon and blindly esteemed as Literary. Apart from that, it’s pretty cool that someone can be a great writer and not always be great at creating work that clearly connects with people.

modernity

I had no stake in the recent Scottish election over independence. While I’m glad that the simple logistical upheaval it likely would have caused many has been averted, I do feel for those who perhaps wanted a more modern sensibility out of their country. I’ve read criticism to the effect that supporting independence was about nationalism (which can generally be a very exclusionary thing to the benefit of those who fit some wishy-washy notion of authenticity), but I don’t know how in play that was here. It certainly didn’t seem like Scotland was trying to have any of its once-upon-a-time royal families be a beacon of its past sovereignty.

the chicken or the egg

 

I don’t think most people work jobs that are, in and of themselves, fulfilling. On any less than pleasant journey to work, it’s not uncommon to see people enveloped by any piece of technology that can provide some escapism. But even while people are working they’ll sometimes try to enhance what can feel a bit stifling. There’s everything from the usual water cooler talk about pop culture, and then occasionally you might hear the musings about how some trope from escapist TV would fit into the day. “Hey, what if a pack of mutant bikers just came and started circling the place?”

Between the life that one populates with pretend scenarios to make easier, or the TV that we let act as the window to vicarious lives — what comes from what?  

a messy world, but don’t give up on it

The news about Robin Williams seems to have given millions of people a sense of pause, in a way that many people wish would happen for the loved ones in their own lives. Some have resented the enormous presence this has had in media, and such opinions have been dismissed as anything from insensitivity to the somewhat mythic “reverse racism.” But with the senseless shootings that take place everyday, such a reaction is hardly completely devoid of humanity. Maybe it’s not the beacon that the media likes to pretend humanity is when something senseless happens, but a little self-concern when your looks are demonized should be understandable.            

 As is feeling for Williams. I don’t know that people’s affection for him is generally about the admiration of stardom; he was a unique entertainer, somebody who mixed a lot of heart into that one-of-a-kind whirlwind humor. That he so obviously wanted to make people laugh and smile in a goofy kind of way might have worked against him a little career-wise, in an increasingly moment- and cool-obsessed media. The art of being a goofball is not one that always seems vital and contemporary, but the world would be incredibly dull without it. Quite possibly even to himself, Williams’ merits became underappreciated — in the way that most people juxtaposed with a one-sided notion of “vital and contemporary” often always are.

The tributes are understandable, but a substantial part of the media reaction is entirely about Williams’ stardom and what can be milked from the combination of it and tragedy. That this generally trumps the senseless shootings of people who aren’t stars or considered All-American enough is ridiculous. Even with what’s happening in Missouri, perhaps only such an extreme example of the kind of messy unfairness that happens everyday makes it linger in the media. There’s also a tiny bit of self-righteousness that gets to be utilized, with the crusaders of justice for all who are on the nicer side of some subdivision themselves.

The only positives from this all seems to be a greater cultural awareness of institutional bias and depression, neither of which should add up to someone being ostracized. Often it’s all a mess, but really, it’s not just a mess, and you’re certainly worth the fight to not be overwhelmed by acutely feeling the worst of it.  If it’s too much of one, don’t try to go it alone.                .   

emotional support

© pinero and me

While I was in this store that sold a few supposedly natural remedies for various ailments, there was a bald woman wearing a hat — likely undergoing cancer treatment — browsing with a friend of hers.   Even for the few seconds that we passed each other, it was hard not to notice the look of optimism and lightness the woman had. I just simply hoped she got better and didn’t think much more of it. But they could have easily been erroneous, is the thing — the woman likely having cancer and any sort of positivity. The emotional support she had, even just in the friend that was with her, had to have been a vital part of that.

 In the ad-driven world of media, emotional support seems like something of a commodity. But I think the kind that helps us the most doesn’t care if we’re coveted consumers or not. Having someone trying to relate directly to the way you’re feeling in a positive way (and no, “whatever you do rocks” doesn’t quite count) can simply be quite a boon. It may not make the world any more fair, but maybe it can make it just that much more livable.