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.

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