If you care about comics as art, it’s likely you’re already familiar with Eleanor Davis’ work. She came to prominence with How to Be Happy (2014, Fantagraphics), a collection of short stories that was praised across the comics-reading spectrum—it earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and won an Ignatz Award, small press comics’ most coveted festival prize. Previously, she had created two graphic novels for children: The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (2009, Bloomsbury) and Stinky (2008, Toon). She is also known for her anthology contributions, such as her five pieces for Mome (2005-2011, Fantagraphics).
I’d like to turn the clock back and look at her early work, focusing on the comics she self-published between 2003 and 2006. Davis discovered zines as a teenager and had published several by the time she graduated high school. She went on to study cartooning at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and during those years she created remarkably sophisticated minicomics (and lots of them). These minicomics generally had a production value beyond your standard fold-and-staple zine. They were cut, punched, printed, stickered, and even burned—and these details were generally relevant to the story within. Her comics were each carefully constructed from cover to cover, and often printed on high-quality paper. So while I see these works as minicomics, those in the fine arts world would see them as artist books.
Most of Davis’ minicomics were printed in black and white. Sometimes her pages are spare and lack heavy blacks, and at other times they’re more stark. During this era she had a distinct and unflattering way of drawing people. Her characters have large chins, noses, and bellies—even the women. She also seems to enjoy drawing monsters, as they appear in her art often.
Her voice as a storyteller was still developing during these years, but you can see it most distinctly in her longer, more serious works. The stories unfold with a quiet significance—they are carefully paced and feel very natural and real. Often she focused on women, families, and relationships. By contrast, her shorter works are inventive and clever, often built upon a central idea or joke.
I’d like to profile four comics that represent both sides of this spectrum—serious explorations of the human condition on one extreme, and light experiments in form on the other. I’ll start with two of Davis’ early minis that both employ a hole punch in their production: I’ve Lost my Spots (2003) and Mr. Bloomburg Finds True Love (2004).
I’ve Lost My Spots is a charming picture book masquerading as a minicomic. The comic begins when a gentle monster proclaims, “Oh no! I’ve lost my spots!”
A friend employs a telescope to help in the search. A hole punched in the right-hand page acts as the viewfinder, exposing the colorful spots printed on the page underneath. There are blue spots, red spots, and yellow spots, but none of these are the right spots. It’s worth noting that the spots provide the only color in the book—the rest of the art is black and white. The monster finally finds his spots (which are multi-colored) and applies them to his fur in a polka-dot pattern.
Mr. Bloomburg Finds True Love is more sinister and more adult. A bookish and quiet loner, Mr. Bloomburg decides rent out his spare room. His tenant is a lovely young woman named Lacey Doil.
When he accidentally spies Lacey through a hole in the wall (again, a hole punch exposes the hidden scene), Mr. Bloomberg becomes transfixed. He creates more peepholes and even reads Lacey’s mail. With the secret knowledge he gains he is able to remake himself as her perfect suitor. The story end with this dark punchline: “Naturally, we lived happily ever after.”
The Beast Mother (2006) is my favorite Eleanor Davis comic of this era. It’s a melancholy story, almost wordless. The tri-fold cover is screen-printed and hand-cut. A lot of care is taken here: it’s flawlessly printed on quality paper.
The story opens on the Beast Mother, shown cradling her many children. She’s nude and somewhat grotesque, but she cares for her young so tenderly that she earns our sympathy. When a hunter appears and guns her down, we understand him to be the villain of the story.
But as the comic reaches its end, we learn that the Beast Mother wasn’t a mother at all. She kidnapped her children from a nearby village. Our hunter is the hero of this fairy tale who has been tasked with slaying the monster—but it’s not that simple either. The Beast Mother is without a doubt a monster, but her dedication to the children never wavers. She is not evil, just ruled by her own nature. The hunter takes no glee in her death and, perhaps in a final act of reverence, he builds her a funeral pyre.
Like The Beast Mother, Mattie and Dodi (2006) is printed on legal-size paper, so the pages are more square than your typical comic. It’s a slice-of-life story starring a young woman named Mattie and her imaginative but severely withdrawn little sister, Dodi. They live in a remote country home where Mattie is the sole caregiver of Dodi and their bedridden grandfather.
Mattie’s boyfriend wants the sisters to move to the city with him, but Mattie refuses to abandon the house. The story moves naturally from one moment to the next and doesn’t have much of a conclusion. Intimacy and the human body is a recurring theme: Dodi spies on her sister and her boyfriend as they disrobe, then she’s confronted her grandfather’s failing body (which terrifies her), afterwards she and her sister share a shower, and the story ends as they bathe their grandfather. Davis was perhaps suggesting an act of voyeurism with her cover design—a cutaway reveals a glimpse of the final scene.
This is just a small sampling of Eleanor Davis self-published work—she made over a dozen publications during her college years. Through these minicomics she experimented with form and told a variety of stories. It makes sense that some of her most popular works—How to be Happy and more recently Libby’s Dad (2016, Retrofit)—celebrate the short story form. It’s a form she’s mastered, but it was through minicomics that her skills were honed.
Eleanor Davis is a cartoonist and illustrator. Davis’ books include How To Be Happy, You and a Bike and a Road, and The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook. Davis live in Athens, Georgia.