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She Has No Head! – Spotlight: Eleanor Davis

Thanks to being hopped up on cold medicine for the last few days you guys almost got an aggressive bestamericancomics1potentially polarizing article about objectification of women in comics and why I’m so sick of being told to ‘just accept it’.  Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed, and though I’m sure I’ll someday post some version of that article, a little time and editing will hopefully make it a more insightful and less instigating piece.  In the meantime I decided to post a positive column about one of the biggest rising stars in independent comics – Eleanor Davis.

For those of you that don’t read a lot of independent comics, Eleanor Davis is probably a new name for you, and it’s entirely possible her work won’t be your cup of tea (though I’d urge you to keep an open mind), but for those of you who do read a lot of independent work, you’re probably familiar with Davis as a powerhouse of a storyteller with an interesting perspective.  A graduate of my same alma mater, The Savannah College of Art & Design (we do not know each other), Davis combines subtle writing and superb illustration skills with a unique vision to create some of the most brilliant and insightful comics work I’ve read in the last few years.  Davis’ work ranges from the relatively dark like her short stories featured in MOME to lighter more uplifting fare such as her two most recent kids publications, Stinky and The Secret Science Alliance.Eleanor Davis Work

As an adult, I’m obviously drawn to her more adult work, but her kids stuff is quite frankly stunning, and is drawing her praise and high profile awards – this year she was nominated for an Eisner, a Friends of Lulu award, and won the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award.  In Stinky, Davis goes for a simple, yet still surprising story, where a monster and a kid battle for control of the monster’s swamp.  Despite the premise however, the story is full of heart and kindness rather than violence and meanness, and the attention to small details in the drawing, like certain animals with clothespins on their noses to protect themselves from Stinky’s unique aroma (he eats pickled onions like apples), makes the book a wonderful trip full of gems to be discovered.  It’s an exceptionally light read (ages 4+/K-2), but it’s the kind of book I would have loved as a kid and it’s no surprise that it has made several lists including Booklists Notable Children’s Books 2009 and been named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book.

stinky_sample_02

In Davis’ Secret Science Alliance (with assistance from her talented artist husband Drew Weing) Davis explores a more complicated kids’ tale that hits all the right notes of misunderstood misfits finding a place and purpose together in exhilarating adventures.  The story is just plain fun and Davis’ art is almost like Chris Ware for beginners – extremely detailed and comprehensive pages including cutaways of buildings and panels inserted to show details of other panels.  Davis has made the entire book like a giant game of hide and go seek, with sketchbooks full of inventions and illustrations with so many cool things hidden inside that she numbers them and gives a key at the bottom of the page – it’s an incredibly vivid world just waiting for more stories to be told.  Like Davis’ other kids’ work Secret Science Alliance is full of heart and goodness – almost as much as her adult work is full of ambiguous lessons open to interpretation – where monsters are never just monsters and where things aren’t what they seem, until they are.

secretsciencealliancepg49

note these two pages are not in order, I just picked them to show some of the great visual tricks Davis is using, but if you click the Secret Science Alliance link above it will lead you to a full excerpt from the book.

secretsciencealliancepg53One of the best examples of things not quite being what they seem to be occurs in an early work of Davis’ that she self published called Beast Mother, (there’s a seven page excerpt at the link) a tale in which a, well, ‘beast mother’ for lack of a better phrase is raising a whole tribe of young children while a man hunts them.  You immediately find yourself siding with the beast mother (despite her beastly looks) as she is obviously just protecting and providing for her children, but as the story evolves you come to see that things are not necessarily what they seem.  It’s an excellent example of an author pulling the rug out from under the reader, but only with good intentions.  Davis’ story manages to rather naturally force a reader to question their preconceived ideas about things.  It’s fantastic subtle work…well, the beast mother herself is not so subtle, but the messages within the story are.

beastmother

My favorite of Davis’ adult work is Stick and String from MOME Vol. 8.  In Stick and String a wild woman is lured to a man’s house by lovely music he plays on his guitar, but she’s out of her element and when the music stops she panics and tries to escape, only to be lured into calm again with more music.  One of the most wonderful things about Davis’ work is that her stories are open, allowing a reader to project themselves into the story and draw their own meanings.  It makes reading her work very personal.  For me, Stick and String, is a tragic and familiar tale about the draw of love and even domesticity and the almost unnaturalness of it, that it’s something people often resist, but are continually lured and bound by.  I suspect it’s a story that resonates for me particularly as a woman, as I battle the duality of choices in my life such as career or family, but I suspect it can be just as powerful in the same or different ways, for any number of readers regardless of gender.

Stick and String 1Stick and String 2

Davis has another story called Hobo Bones that hits similar notes for me, but in a whole new way, and the fact that she can tell what I perceive to a very similar “lesson” again, but beautifully new, well, it’s wonderful.  Life (and art) has become so full of clichés these days that it’s refreshing to experience an artist that can find unique and wholly original ways to talk about things as simple as being free and alone or being tied down and in love, and the wonderful conundrum that those choices create.  Certainly I’d take Davis’ heartbreaking and honest tales over the chick flick dreck that is shoved down my throat repeatedly in what we laughingly call the modern romantic comedy.  Check it out:

cleanbone1

cleanbone2

cleanbone3

Equally as dark, but perhaps even more open to interpretation is Davis’ wonderful Seven Sacks.  Originally featured in MOME Vol. 7, but also featured in the collected The Best American Comics 2008 (which Davis also did the cover illustration for), Seven Sacks is the tale of a simple ferryman, taking a variety of strange customers across a river, to a mysterious event, all of them bearing sacks.  The story seems to me a commentary on the state of the world, and personal responsibility, how much a person can or should do about a situation they know or suspect may be “wrong”. But it also seems to be about the judgment of that situation, and to a larger degree the judgment of different cultures and where you can or should draw the line in doing that.  But to someone else, perhaps Seven Sacks means something else entirely.

Seven Sacks 1

seven-sacks1

Seven Sacks 3

I think what all of Davis’ work has in common, whether it be sweet and simple like Stinky or dark and introspective like Stick and String is the magical quality.  Whether she is telling fantastic tales that skew towards the disturbing or to the upbeat and hopeful, they all come with an almost fairy tale atmosphere – as if Davis’ head is its own rich mystical playground on which all these stories are born and frolic freely together.

If you happen to live in Los Angeles, or plan to be there in the next few weeks and you like what you’ve seen of Davis’ work, make sure to stop by Giant Robot Los Angeles GR2 Diplopia(GR2), to see Eleanor Davis’ current show Diplopia with fellow artist Katherine Guillen.

You can shop for Eleanor Davis’ work at Little House, and find all sorts of excerpts and drawings and delightful tidbits on Davis’ website: Doing Fine.

And back issues of MOME are available at the Fantagraphics website.  Davis is featured in MOME #7, 8, and 11.

16 Comments

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I love Eleanor Davis’ work. I’m glad you are highlighting it and bringing it to the attention of some of your readers. I am disappointed that more people aren’t on here discussing Eleanor’s work.

I had read and enjoyed the “Seven Sacks” story from the Best American Comics anthology, but had never taken the initiative to look up Davis’ other works. After reading this, I will likely seek out some of her work for children, as I am always looking for good, age-appropriate books to share with my four-year-old daughter.

Have you ever read Soulwind by Scott C. Morse? One of the character resembles one of Ms. Davis’ character (in the boat).

Adam: Yeah, it’s too bad that more people aren’t familiar with her work and/or don’t have more to say here, but I knew this post would be sadly low on comments I guess.

Neal K.: I definitely recommend both Stinky (which would be pretty age appropriate for your daughter) and down the line a bit, The Secret Science Alliance. Both are really lovely. And if you liked her Seven Sacks, definitely check out her other MOME appearances – and her website which has tons of hidden gems.

Tom Fitzpatrick: I read Morse’s Soulwind several years ago…I don’t remember a resemblance…but that could just be my old lady memory failing me… :)

This stuff looks pretty killer. Do you know if all of her work has been collected into one place yet?

P.S Next time you do a spotlight on someone I would LOVE to see one done on Gabrielle Bell. She’s basically amazing.

Chris Jones: A Gabrielle Bell post is already in the works. She’s one of my absolute favorite writer/artists working today. I have one more book of hers I’d like to read before I do a post though, so I’m trying to hold out.

I don’t think Davis’ work has been collected in one place yet, and assuming it is one day, it will likely not be all of it, since she seems to rage pretty broadly between adult stuff and kids stuff. But you can have a pretty awesome tour of her work (and brain) just by following her on livejournal (which you can get to through her website).

I really like Eleanor’s work, as well as husband Drew Weing’s, and am pleased to see it featured here. Thanks for providing a look at those pieces from MOME issues!

i feel really crummy that i’m only just recently becoming aware of Eleanor’s work despite having gone to school with her (don’t think we had any classes together though) and her work being great. i also feel dumb because i coincidentally was reading about Secret Science Alliance recently and that i should get it, but i just didn’t put two and two together that Eleanor Davis was the same Eleanor Davis until i read your post today, Kelly.

i’m sorry to everyone involved. i just don’t know what’s cool anymore. anyway Beast Mother is awesome.

Tom Fitzpatrick

January 18, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Ms. Thompson, trust me — you’re not old, I am.

The character I’m referring to in Soulwind is Cernenos (not sure how it’s spelled), sort of like the wizard Merlin. If I remember right, he showed his true self in book four and five.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe they don’t look alike in shadowy figures.

They say the eyes are the first to go …

Thanks for this…I think you definitely deserve a week off from fighting the good fight! Like Neal, I really liked Seven Sacks but never followed through to check out Davis’ other work (or even noticed that she did the cover of Best American Comics 2008). There’s just so much stuff out there – and so much of it good – and so little time. Anyway, my niece turns ten this weekend and I think she might be getting a copy of Secret Science Alliance. And I will definitely be reading it, too. Those pages you sample are the kind of thing I would have spent days with when I was a kid as I created my own invention notebook while being envious of their underground lair.

I could probably find this out on my own, but I’m lazy…does Davis color her own work? This may be a non-artist asking the wrong question, though, too. I’m really impressed by the variety of styles shown in the pages you posted; there’s definitely a through line that proves it to be the work of the same artist, but not similar enough that at a glance you say, “ah, Eleanor Davis”.

Also, like Chris, I was going to suggest a Gabrielle Bell column. I’m reading Cecil and Jordan in New York right now (having finished I Kill Giants from last week – loved it, and I immediately handed it to my partner who liked it too, and she’s a much harsher critic than I am). Also, speaking of the Best American series, I’d be interested in your thoughts on Jessica Abel’s work. La Perdida is an all-time favorite of mine, but I’ve had mixed feelings about other stuff of hers I’ve read.

Rich: Glad you enjoyed it! Drew Weing IS very talented – it was actually through his excellent journal comics that I originally discovered Eleanor years ago.

Ross: That’s alright Ross – I’m here to TELL you what’s cool. j/k. She really is amazing – I think the more of her stuff you read the more you’ll be into it – both the kids stuff and darker adult stuff. I think, other than you, she’s one of the most talented people to come out of SCAD in the last 10+ years.

Tom: I think I only read book one of Soulwind – so maybe that’s why the resemblance isn’t sparking in my memory (let’s say it’s that so I can feel less old and better about my memory) :)

s1rude: It did feel like a week off! I’m glad you think I’ve earned it – particularly since I was sick I felt like I needed it – whether I’d earned it or not. Next week is supposed to be Wonder Woman though, so there’s no REAL rest.

I think your niece would love Secret Science Alliance – it’s fun stuff.

For Secret Science Alliance, Davis’ pencils were inked by her husband Drew Weing and colored by Joey Weiser and Michele Chidester. For Stinky it looks like Eleanor was a one woman show, much like she is with her adult work that’s been featured on MOME and her exhibit and self-published work.

I’m glad to hear you and your partner loved I Kill Giants. And Cecil and Jordan in New York (which is fantastic). I’m kind of on the fence about Abel. I loved La Perdida and Mirror, Window, and considered myself a fan, and then randomly picked up this book called Life Sucks and it was one of the worst comics I’ve read in a very long time. I really hated it, and I thought it was pretty anti-female and ignorant in a way that I didn’t know it was possible for Abel to be. So I’m a little conflicted on Abel now. Was that just a one time misstep? Or is this a trend towards what she is doing now? She’s got something new out since Life Sucks – or rather it looks like it came out around the same time – and I thought I’d pick it up and see if it’s more like her old stuff…or like LIfe Sucks…until then though, I remain cautiously on the fence.

We SCAD Sequential Art graduates have some nice talent to point to as our contemporaries, Eleanor is a shining example. I can totally tell where Ross is coming from. When we are in a academic setting, often struggling to figure out ours and others work, it is difficult to envision where each others paths let alone ours will go. For those of us who are sticking with it, I expect we will have featured moments. Some of us may even make a carrier of it…Eleanor is certainly one of those.
We entered into comics at a strange time. A time where going to school pas perceived by some seemed to be cheating or something. I think it is great that all the amazing cartoonist before us where able to create, evolve and maintain this art form with no guidance, economic guidance, editorial guidance and/or undeclared art educational guidance. I am immensely prowled of these efforts, and they certainly continue to produce amazing talents. I also am proud of the diversity of schools that have come out of the closet as cartooning schools. Many have been involved in this process for a long time (SVA). Some have been a factory setting, nevertheless ground braking (Kubert). Some hove been complex and ambitious in their approach (SCAD) and some have attempted to learn from others lessons and focused on cartooning talent of teachers (CCS). The joury is still out on what the legacy of these institutions will be in the grand scheme of comics. And there are many more schools and classes offered then just these East Coast comics “new” schools. I think this educational revelation is vital for some cartoonists and helpful over all to the industry. Kelly points out Ross and Eleanor as top talents from SCAD’s Sequential Art Department’s 17 year history. I agree. However, assessment is far to early. In addition, the list has already grown greatly, and remains incomplete. As Ross pointed out, we took a lot of classes, not all with each other. When I arrived at SCAD for my BFA in 1997 the entire school had 1000 students. When I left in 2003 with my MFA in Sequential there were over 200 enrolled in the Sequential Art department alone…now there is the Atlanta Campus. Many of my fellow MFA graduates teach in both departments, which would speak to SCAD’s nepotism issue, but I happen to know these people as students, cartoonists and teachers and I wish I was going to school there now, despite being totally satisfied with my education during the earlier years. Some others to check out that I am aware of with are: Ben Towle , Robyn Chapmen, Benjamin Phillips , Max Clotfelter , Jason Axtell , Chris Wright , Drew Weing (already mentioned by Kelly), Shawn Crystal , The Luna Brothers , Les McClaine , and Jennifer Janviere Farrell .

[…] An interview with Eleanor Davis by Kelly […]

I read in PW that Secret Science Alliance has sold something like 40,000 copies. That’s a huge number for a kid’s graphic novel, and from basically someone who isn’t well-known, she must be thrilled. I read Stinky and thought it was great but did not enjoy it as much as Alliance. While I think her adult work is interesting, I think she’s doing the best comics for kids out there right now.

Eleanor Davis’ is, for me, one of the best alternative comics artists around. I think her work stands out because of it’s honesty, and generosity of spirit. I’ve managed to catch most of her ‘adult’ work, but I’m hoping it won’t be long before we get a catch-all anthology of her work to date.
I loved reading this article, thanks!

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