Welcome to the conclusion of our countdown to the Small Press Expo (SPX), which takes place this weekend, Sept.13 and 14, in Bethesda, Maryland. Check out our previous articles in this series for interviews with some of the major guests at the show.
We conclude by talking to one of SPX’s Special Guests, cartoonist and illustrator Eleanor Davis (http://doing-fine.com/). Davis, who’s also illustrated the all-ages Secret Science Alliance graphic novels with her husband Drew Weing, has received wide acclaim for her just-published first collection, How to be Happy from Fantagraphics.
The book’s a unique showcase for Davis’ range, combining everything from minimalist, sketchy cartoons to lushly-illustrated full-color pieces and extended works – tales that explore the simple-yet-sometimes overwhelming problems of being human.
We spoke with Davis about her work, happiness, and why she’s glad to have a book at SPX this year.
Newsarama: Eleanor, tell us about How to be Happy and what all you'll have available at SPX.
Eleanor Davis: How to be Happy is my brand new book from Fantagraphics Books. It's a collection of all my best short comics from the last seven years. It's also my first book for adults.
At SPX I'll have How to be Happy, a couple art prints, and hopefully my 31 Drawings minicomic.
Nrama: How did you come to do this collection with Fantagraphics, and what's it been like collaborating with them?
Davis: I sent one of my minicomics to Gary Groth when I was in college, and he invited me to contribute to Fanta's quarterly anthology MOME. After that, Gary was consistently encouraging and often reminded me that he'd like to work with me on a book.
Working with Fanta is awesome. They're like your cool punk rock older brother who you never imagined would want to collaborate with you in a million years, but for some reason he does, and it's weird.
Nrama: You actually joke at the start of the book that the title is a misnomer. (laughs) So, why did you go with it?
Davis: I thought the misnomer was funny, in a hard way, and the book is a little bit funny, in a hard way. The book is about people who are trying to be happy. The book is for people who are trying to be happy. The book will probably not make you happy.
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge in putting the collection together, in terms of editing/design/new material/etc.?
Davis: I just threw everything together at the last minute. I tried to do as much new work as I possibly could, and then just kind of figure out what to do with everything I had laying around. It was challenging to feel confident, that the book was worthwhile and ought to exist.
Nrama: I do have to ask if you've ever had anyone encounter your more adult work after first seeing Secret Science Alliance, and if you had any blowback. (laughs)
Davis: Man, I live in fear of that happening, and so far it has not. Anyone who has seen my kids' work first has been very nice and understanding about my adult work being very different. Book people are mostly very, very nice.
Nrama: It's interesting how short stories have become more of a regular thing in the internet age -- what do you find interesting about working primarily in that style, and do you see yourself doing an extended work in the future?
Davis: I like doing short stories because I am in turn impulsive and compulsive, and neither of those things are conducive to long projects. Comics, also, are very suited to short stories because of the incredible amount of information that can be delicately conveyed through them.
If a picture is worth a thousand words and an average comic page has 6 panels and 100 words, a 12-page comic could be equal to a 73,200 words, or 146.4 average pages of prose…I don't actually believe this, but it's an interesting conceit.)
I would like to do longer work but I would like to do a lot of things.
Nrama: Why do you feel people are so obsessed with the idea of happiness, and how do you define it personally? That’s right, we’re getting DEEP.
Davis: People are obsessed with happiness because being unhappy is painful. Unhappiness is a kind of pain.
In some ways, I'm more heartbroken by the number of people I see who are unhappy but who for some reason don't believe there is another option for them. These people are smart, and they are possibly right. But there is a horror to this dull acceptance.
I don't know how to define happiness. My experiences of happiness are frequent, and brief, and brilliant. It can't be held on to, but you can practice it, and listen for it, and make space for it. It has something to do with beauty, and with not feeling alone.
Nrama: What do you feel is important about shows such as SPX and what they represent for comics?
Davis: SPX is an opportunity to connect in real life with a huge, wonderful, inspiring, amazing, supportive, passionate, loving community which exists most of the time entirely on the internet. It is exciting, and frightening.
This is the first SPX that I'm looking forward to in a long, long time. I didn't go for many years. Year before last I had a mild panic attack and slunk out of the convention hall nearly crying. I was overwhelmed by the number of people there, especially the number of people who are important to me and who I value, both as artists and as friends. I was also overwhelmed with the frustration and shame of not having anything new to share.
This time I'm feeling stronger, because I have something new, and I've done a lot of work on not being taken over by negative and anxious thoughts. Also folks have been super, super kind and supportive about the book. These things all help.
Nrama: What are some other creators/comics at SPX that you'd advise people to check out, or in general?
Davis: Oh dang, man, I don't even know. That would be a list of like 5 thousand people. That's like asking me about which of my loved ones I'm most excited to see at the hugest family reunion. Look at everything, say Hi to everyone. Pick up the scrappiest minis. Say howdy to folks who look scared.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Davis: I'm happy and excited about almost making enough money off of freelance illustration right now to live on. I'm also excited to start making regular minicomics again. I have a project for kids in the works with my husband Drew Weing for TOON books, and another YA GN called Catta of Samarkand that I'm working on with my mother, Ann Davis.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Davis: At this point the only thing I can think of that I haven't talked about is my last trip to the gynecologist, so, no.
How to Be Happy is in stores now; Eleanor Davis appears at SPX tables M3-M5A this weekend. Davis also appears on the panels “Sex, Humor and the Grotesque” in the White Flint Auditorium at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and on a special spotlight panel in the auditorium at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
That’s it for this series – but be sure to check out these creators and their books at SPX, or if you can’t make to the show, in bookstores and online.