The pursuit of happiness is a preoccupation that concerns nearly all of the western world – job satisfaction, thriving inter-personal relationships and a constant sense of well-being are things we’re all convinced we need to strive for. And yet so few of us ever really find that balance. This is something that Eleanor Davis knows only too well and has sought to explore in her latest collection of comics How To Be Happy, an amalgamation of short stories and sketches created over the past seven years. It’s a stunning body of work that brings together loosely personal and wholly fictional stories about joy, anguish, fear and loneliness – emotions all motivated by that essential quest to be the best you can be.
Needless to say the imagery is characteristically magnificent, but we wanted to find out more about the motivation behind Eleanor’s upcoming masterwork…
This is a collection of drawings and short stories rather than a graphic novel, how long have you been amassing all of these?
A long time! I think the earliest is Seven Sacks. That was the first comic I did for MOME, way back in 2007. Seven years!
There’s a lot of variation between visual styles in the book. Do you make a conscious decision to illustrate certain stories in a specific way?
My drawing style changes a lot both because different stories call for different styles and because I don’t want to get stale or bored. I don’t like to draw the same image twice. A good drawing is sort of mystical; it has its own life and existence in addition to being a representation of something else. A drawing that’s been drawn over and over again can turn into just a symbol – it stops being a living thing. Some stories are tighter and the drawings get tighter with them. Some are just drawings I spat into my sketchbook.
Some of the narratives inside appear as if they could be autobiographical. Do you write from experience or from your imagination?
Most of the stories in How to be Happy are fictional stories about my own experiences. Some of them are non-fiction stories on the same subject. None of the stories are not about me. I would like to write stories not about me very much. I’m not sure if this is something I might be able to achieve through personal growth, or if it is even really possible for anyone. Maybe really good artists just expand their definition of “me.”
The title of the book seems like a bit of a curveball. Does it refer to the stories themselves or more to you personally? (As in, is this construction of narratives a kind of therapy for you?)
I was trying to come up with titles for my books, which is a collection of stories that are mostly sad, or about people who are trying not to be sad. I suggested the title How to be Happy to my husband Drew as a joke and we both laughed and laughed. After we finished laughing Drew said; “But seriously, that’s a good title.”
I read a lot of self-help books. I think the struggle to be happy is an important and noble one. The stories in How to be Happy are a pretty motley collection written over the course of seven years, but most are about the search for happiness, the desire to be our best selves, the need to connect with other human beings, the struggle to become good.
What’s the one thing you’d like people to take away from reading your stories?
I am very glad, and thankful, when someone tells me they’ve read one of my comics and can see themselves in it. It’s good when a piece of art can make us feel less alone.
What else are you working on now? Do you have any plans to flesh any of these stories out into full graphic novels?
All the short stories in How To Be Happy are stand-alones. I think short stories are maybe my “thing.” I wish I would have figured that out about myself earlier. I would like to do more short stories and put them out more frequently; once a year or so, maybe in a zine. I’ve been wanting to do a regular mini-comic or a zine, like I did way back in high school. Thinking about that makes me really happy.
I’m also working on a TOON book for young comics readers with my husband Drew Weing, and a historical murder-mystery for young adults with my mother, Ann Davis. That’s called _Catta of Samarkand_. Drew and I are talking about making a video game together. We’d like to have a baby. I’m excited about so many projects. There is an awful lot I’d love to do.
How To Be Happy is available from July 2014 from Fantagraphics.