In 2014, Fantagraphics published How To Be Happy, a collection of short comics by Eleanor Davis, which immediately established the cartoonist as one of the major figures of her generation. In the book, Davis jumped between styles and approaches, telling different kinds of stories ranging from the fantastic to realistic. Since then she made a children’s book with Drew Weing, Flop To The Top, for Toon Books. She also made the comics novella Libby’s Dad, which came out last fall from Retrofit Comics, and was recently awarded the Slate Book Review 2017 Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic.
Davis’ new book, out now from Koyama Press, is You & A Bike & A Road. The book is a series of comics about a bike trip that Davis undertook from Tucson, Arizona, where she grew up, to her home in Athens, Georgia. We spoke recently about the book, the journey, agitprop and more.
So what is You & A Bike & A Road?
I went on a solo bike tour last Spring. I started in Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up, and I was heading toward Athens, Georgia, my home. I carried a tent, sleeping bag, clothing, tools, food and water, and everything else I needed with me. I kept a comic diary while I was on the road and posted it online. When I got home I expanded it in a couple places, and it turned into a book.
This is a trip between where you live and your parents so I’m guessing you’ve driven this distance in the past. Did you have a sense of the landscape and the terrain, at least a little?
I took a Greyhound once, but it was a straight shot, mostly sleeping through shitty impersonal highways, mostly moving through north Texas. So I had the idea that Texas is very boring. Also people seem to talk a lot of shit about Texas, how miserable it is to drive through etc etc. I skirted more southerly while I was biking, and of course took smaller roads, so it was wetter & greener & far more beautiful. Texas was extraordinarily beautiful. It was one of the the most beautiful places I have ever been; in the springtime especially, it was like a dream.
You touch on this in the book but, well, why plan this very long bike trip?
I’ve always wanted to do it. Several women who I admire intensely have done long solo tours. I’d done an overnight solo trip, and shorter tours with friends, and wanted to do a long trip by myself. I was scared to do it, and I don’t like being scared to do things. And I had been very sad. It was the time to try.
Do you wish that you had stopped more or was the plan always, go through with few long stops?
I stopped a ton! I didn’t want to stop, but I was being slowed down by knee trouble. For me, when I stopped, I got bored and sad. Moving forward always feels like you are accomplishing something. When I was stopped I would start thinking “what have I done? Why am I here?”
How much of what’s in the book is what you drew during the trip?
I drew every journal entry (with a date & location & distance at the top) while I was on the road, until I reached Mississippi. I also drew the comic about the man getting arrested in Fort Hancock on the road. Pretty much everything else I drew at home. I think it’s about half of the book? I’m not sure. The stuff I drew on the road tends to be denser, though. I was trying to fit a lot in per page because I didn’t want to carry a bunch of paper around.
How did you decide on the style for the book, because it’s looser and rougher than what people who know your work might be used to?
You do what you can with a single pencil & pads of note paper you buy at gas stations. I tried making the cover very, very detailed and lush to make up for the sketchy interior.
Was one reason for the trip in part to draw the landscape a little?
Nope. I wasn’t planning on drawing as much as I did. I also didn’t expect it to be as beautiful as it was. Also, I am terrible at drawing landscapes. I am OK at drawing them from memory, but drawing them from life, forget about it.
Has the trip or the landscape inspired you in some way? Do you think it’s influenced your work in the months since?
Good question! I’m not sure. It’s been nice to think back and know it was a hard thing, and I was able to do it, or at least aspects of it. That’s good for the old self-esteem. It’s good to know you can just up and go on an adventure if you need to. That makes long hours at the drawing desk go down easier.
I wanted to ask a little about being alone for this extended period of time. I’ve never done anything on this scale but I’ve traveled alone many times over the years and I’ve done so while depressed and while not depressed and you seem to have ended in a more peaceful space than when you began.
Yes, I got home from the trip & felt very good. I probably felt good for about three months before I started feeling bad again. Then my husband and I had a big family emergency & the election happened and there hasn’t been time for feeling bad any more.
Being alone for that long was very intense. I got lonely. I wasn’t anticipating that. I spend a lot of time alone and I bike and hike alone a lot, so I thought I was immune. But also, being lonely is OK. For me, at least, it helps me remember how interesting and precious other human beings are, and how much I enjoy talking to and connecting with them. I talked to people a lot on this trip, partially because I was lonely, and partially because being someone who is just passing through gives you a magic power to talk to people. They feel safe opening up to you and you feel safe connecting with them. Many people told me their life stories; several people told me about loved ones who had died. There is no risk of attachment or commitment. You will be gone the next day.
There’s a scene where you’re visiting an athletic trainer and ask if you’re going to do permanent damage to your knees. He says “Yup. But you love it. You got to keep doin’ it.” I thought, well that sums up so much.
That guy was amazing.
Do you sometimes feel that way about drawing? Or is art something very different for you?
Art is more complicated because I don’t just love it, it’s all I know how to do.
You’ve been coming out with a book a year for the past few years – How To Be Happy, Flop to the Top, Libby’s Dad, and now this book. What are you working on now and what are you thinking about next?
I have an odd dreamy book coming out next year called Some Examples of Different Artworks. It’s more of an illustrated essay, really. I’m working on a lot of agitprop for different organizations I value; a group called The Bronx Freedom Fund that pays people’s bail who can’t afford it, and a local activist group called Athens For Everyone. I have a 80+ page proper Graphic Novel all scripted out that I’d like very much to start drawing.
You mentioned you’ve been working on a lot of agitprop. What kinds of work are you doing?
I’m doing some work for a local organization that I love called Athens For Everyone. They do local actions and campaigns, state lobbying, etc. I also drew some comics that have yet to drop for another amazing organization called The Bronx Freedom Fund. The Bronx Freedom Fund pays bail for people who can’t afford it in New York. The comics were based on interviews with some of their clients. That was especially wonderful because I’ve always wanted to try reportage comics, and this was a nice way to start.
I’ve also been really appreciative of TCAF and the band Sylvan Esso, who were down with me including some political overtones in posters I was making for them.
In general, I feel tired by rhetoric that overemphasizes the political power of art. Often it seems like an excuse for artists to stay in their comfort zone instead of exploring other ways to fight for political change. But it’s terribly, terribly important to do both. Speaking out won’t be enough to save our wonderful earth, and our strange, precious, awful country, but if we stay silent it will certainly be all over.
Let’s say that someone – I don’t know, an interviewer – says that he is thinking about chucking it all and going on a 500 mile hike or something. What would say, go for it, you only live once? Or something else?
That sounds incredible. I would say, if you can swing it financially, absolutely do it. But also I’d say to get your body prepared. If you’re at all concerned about your physical capabilities, seeing a physical therapist who can check you out & help you strengthen any problem areas would be extremely smart! I hope you go!
So are you going to do it again? Or maybe next time just a 1,000 mile ride?
I’m not sure. I am not a very reasonable person; I don’t live my life in a balanced way. I would be happier, I think, if I could figure out how to live more gently and slowly, not rushing around and being so extreme about everything all the time. But I haven’t been very good at that so far, so unfortunately the signs point to me probably trying again.