Tag Archives: graphic novels

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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A Gotham Books Q&A with Ellen Forney

Been checking out Marbles,  cartoonist Ellen Forney’s latest book.  It’s a mature account of the period in which Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  The definition of that disorder is one thing to grasp; Forney’s work in Marbles gives any second-hand notion of it depth.  Untreated, it seems like being both in and part of a whirlwind.  Forney’s wrestling with such feels grounded by her sense of humor and obvious humanness.  Seeing her personally get those qualities in focus is poignant.

The first interview on here not by me–a Gotham Books Q@A with Ellen Forney:

What compelled you to write a book about such a difficult time in your life?

I feel like I had to. When I was first diagnosed, two memoirs about mood disorders were hugely important to me; they gave me company and the hope that things would eventually be okay. Through the hardest parts of producing MARBLES it was my resolve that the book could help others that kept me pressing on.

Plus, it’s my best story. MARBLES is the most wrenching, exhilarating and cathartic piece of work I’ve ever done.

Were you open about your bipolar disorder before you started your book?

No, it’s always been a personal, private thing. Putting my story out in the world now is totally new, and totally intense. And nerve-racking, exhilarating, empowering, and a zillion other things.

Since your diagnosis do you think differently about what “normal” and “crazy” mean? How?

“Normal” and “crazy” are fuzzy terms on a fuzzy spectrum. And getting fuzzier: a recent Wall Street Journal article said that one in five American adults takes psychiatric medications, which feels backwards, like “crazy” is being co-opted by people who are “normal.” Shortly after I was diagnosed, I felt personally wounded by the word, but it doesn’t have a specific meaning. Now, when I say I’m crazy, I’m saying I have a mental disorder, but I’m invisibly doing jazz hands at the same time.

There’s a lot of dark humor in MARBLES – did you feel that at the time, or is that just how you’re telling the story now?

My dark sense of humor is with me always, except when I was most depressed. Looking back at that time with a sense of humor has been incredibly therapeutic. Laughing at myself and the absurd things in life has long been an invaluable coping mechanism. Like, dealing with taking meds by pretending to be a pill-popping rock star worked pretty well for me.

You note that for research for this book you went back to friends and family to discuss your disorder. What was the scariest experience (or the one you thought would be scariest but wasn’t)? The most rewarding? The one you put off until last? Why?

I talked for hours with my family members and with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and with good friends after never having discussed their views on my behavior at that time. I remember resting my head on my desk for a long time after getting off the phone with my dad, after the longest and most intimate conversation we’d ever had. They were exhausting but those conversations felt very cleansing, like setting the record straight.

Why did you become a cartoonist?

I think I’ve always been a cartoonist. Even when I was small, I’d draw while telling myself stories. I love it, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Which is more important in MARBLES, the words or the pictures?

Both! They work together. The language of words gives the specifics of the story, and the language of pictures is more emotional. I need both for this story full of details and mood shifts. For example, I use sharp narration boxes on a stark solid black page for a scene describing my fall into depression, and lots of words and loopy, energetic brushstrokes on a two-page spread for a manic party-planning scene.

Is there a way that the comic form specifically is useful for telling your story?

Comics work well for memoir because they express facts and emotions so well. My thoughts come out in words and pictures; I can’t imagine any other way I could tell my story. I’m hoping this story in comics form will resonate for other people in a way that a memoir in prose might not.

What do you hope readers take away from MARBLES?

My hope is that MARBLES will appeal to many kinds of people. For people who are bipolar or have other mental disorders, I hope they will find comfort, company, inspiration, hope, self-acceptance; for people who aren’t bipolar, educational information, compassion; for everyone, a specific understanding of bipolar disorder, the value of art as therapy, yoga as therapy, doing comics as therapy. And if nothing else, a good read!

http://marblesbyellenforney.com/

By Ellen Forney

The Infinite Wait is over (kind of)

“The Infinite Wait” from Koyama Press.

More accurately, the wait for “The Infinite Wait” is over.  The latest collection of comics by Julia Wertz is now available for sale at her online store and other venues.   Her comics are frequently funny and never mundane — a combination well worth supporting.

A short excerpt from the interview that she was kind enough to do with me at this very blog:

“I made The Infinite Wait because I had been working on a book about sobriety that was really becoming too difficult to manage and I wanted to do something that was much more lighthearted. So, uh, I did a story about being diagnosed with systemic lupus. Yeah.”

For much more (with the added bonus of seeing her work), check out that interview:

Julia Wertz on The Infinite Wait, being off Pizza Island, and comedy with humanity and also http://www.juliawertz.com.

Julia Wertz on The Infinite Wait, being off Pizza Island, and comedy with humanity

Courtesy of Julia Wertz. Click to enlarge.

In September, Koyama Press is releasing The Infinite Wait, the latest comic collection by Julia Wertz.  Wertz’s comics are multifaceted–always contemplative and often funny on disparate levels.  Whatever she’s up to is worth a look, like this interview I did with her:   

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Your upcoming collection of comics seems like it’s going to bridge the gap between the younger you and a more whole, self-aware you.  (And, by the way, to that end, The Infinite Wait is a great title.)  When you get criticism like, “What happened to you?”, do you ever feel like growth isn’t something some people are crazy about?

It doesn’t really do that, even though I can see why you’d get the impression it would from what I’ve posted. It’s not a memoir that is supposed to cover from childhood until now, there are just parts of it that depict different ages but from a somewhat removed point of view. And it skips over most of the big events in my life that have shaped who I am. I made The Infinite Wait because I had been working on a book about sobriety that was really becoming too difficult to manage and I wanted to do something that was much more lighthearted. So, uh, I did a story about being diagnosed with systemic lupus. Yeah. But it was so long ago that it was easy for me to write about.

There are some readers who definitely don’t like growth and wish I would just keep making dumb jokes about my early 20’s. They have pointed out that they think my growth/maturity is selling out/losing my edge/etc…to which I say f*ck that noise. If that’s what they think, I don’t want them reading my comics anyways. A person who never ages past age 25 is a nightmare of a human being and I want nothing to do with them. I welcome growth and maturity because it means not being a miserable, self-absorbed 20- something twat who can’t see beyond her minimum wage job and drinking problem. I want my readers to grow with me, and if they don’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t bother me about it.

Since the home of the Pizza Island collective is no longer where you make comics, I’m curious how you’ve since managed to deal with the reason you once mentioned for its existence–the detrimental state of isolation that a cartoonist (or a writer or artist or anybody else) deals with to produce long-form work.

Isolation is a big problem with cartoonists. We tend to work all day/night every day/night because we can, and it can be even worse if we don’t have roommates or relationships to break that up. If left to my own accord, I will work on projects from right after breakfast to right before bed, and it’s a very unhealthy way to live. Now that Pizza Island is gone, I try to keep it in check by making sure to plan time to hang out and do nothing. I just finished a huge project so I plan on trying to do that all summer, but turns out “relaxing” is very difficult. But it will be good for me to re-enter the social world and be around people for awhile. Cartooning is a precarious balance between isolation and awkward socialization.

If left to my own accord, I will work on projects from right after breakfast to right before bed, and it’s a very unhealthy way to live. Now that Pizza Island is gone, I try to keep it in check by making sure to plan time to hang out and do nothing. I just finished a huge project so I plan on trying to do that all summer, but turns out “relaxing” is very difficult.

You occasionally host a show of stand-up and comics.  How do non-stand-up visual comics come into play?

We just use a projector and go slide by slide, panel by panel, and read along with it. It doesn’t fit everyone’s work, but usually it’s pretty informative and entertaining because you get an idea of how the cartoonists wants you to read and hear their work–not how you interpret it. And it makes funny comics even funnier to hear goofy voices and have the timing controlled for maximum hilarity.

You’ve mentioned your affection for Louie CK’s show in a past interview.  What is it about it, and feel free to give an example, that engages you?

I think (as has been said many times before) that he’s doing something very new to television that is entirely his vision and it works really well to point out the awkwardness of just being a human being trying to get shit done without any dramatic Hollywood flare. But his flights of fancy are amazing and touch on every idea that’s ever popped into anyone’s head but they couldn’t formulate it right. And I like how he’s not afraid to not be funny. I hate comedies that are all for laughs and have no humanity to them.

I often think about the segment where he puts a shirt over a water puddle on the subway seat and everyone praises his heroism. Every New Yorker has had that fantasy. I also think he has a great respect for women that comes through in his writing. Some people might disagree but to me it’s obvious that he’s a gentleman and a scholar. Also he’s disgusting, which I love.

 You’re just about the only person with a blog I’ve read who has witnessed the OWS protests firsthand and mentioned the antagonizing of police by some of the protesters.  For my part (and yours, I’m sure), saying as much isn’t to criticize the reasonable protesters–but, rather, speak to some small part of a bigger picture . . .

I actually have a lot of criticisms about how OWS was handled and I think it ultimately failed despite good intentions. And I think a lot of that was due to the lack of education of protestors. There were definitely people there who were informed and had valid and intelligent opinions, but the majority of protestors I encountered couldn’t really explain the intricacies of their stance beyond economic inequality. And a few protesters were clearly just there to be dicks opt the police, who are just working class folks with families. Yes, there was corruption and mishandlings amongst the police, but that’s true with any group of power, and even within OWS. I didn’t mean to ramble on about it, and I do want to say that I mostly support the sentiment of OWS. I just think it was poorly executed and the majority of participants were ill-informed.

You seem to be a pretty big reader.  What books have been engaging you lately?

The last book I read that really stuck with me was Stephen King’s 11.22.63. It was completely engrossing. I find that I enjoy non-fiction much more these days, but this (obviously fictional) book is based in real events, which makes it delightfully absurd. I’ve always loved Stephen King even though he has many cringe worthy moments in his books. But when he’s good, he’s so f*cking good. Also, anyone who wants to write or is currently writing should use his half memoir, half instructional book On Writing. I learned more from that book in a few hours than years of high school English.

… Anyone who wants to write or is currently writing should use his (Stephen King’s) half memoir, half instructional book On Writing. I learned more from that book in a few hours than years of high school English.

What do you think you’d be doing if being a cartoonist hadn’t worked out the way it has?  Would you still be chasing “the dream,” so to speak?

I don’t think I ever really had “a dream” to chase. Comics kind of fell into my lap. I knew I wanted to do something creative but I couldn’t quite narrow it down until I found comics. But I really have no idea what I’d be doing if I hadn’t gone that route. I was a waitress for 10 years before I became a full time cartoonist, so who knows?  But if I could do anything in a fantasy life, I always wanted to be a speleologist (cave explorer) and a cabaret dancer. Obviously those would never have worked out.

Well, not with that attitude, but the worlds of speleology and cabaret dancing’s loss is comic’s gain, so check out Julia’s work at http://www.juliawertz.com/The Infinite Wait will also be on sale there in September at http://www.juliawertz.com/store-2/.

Thanks to Julia for her time.