How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis Review

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<i>How to Be Happy</i> by Eleanor Davis Review

Writer & Artist: Eleanor Davis
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: August 6, 2014

To break the rules and still succeed, you have to know them well enough to quote them without even thinking about it. How to Be Happy, Eleanor Davis’ first collection of her shorter work (she’s also published two books for younger readers, Stinky and The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook, in addition to some artist gigs), serves as both an illustration of that principle and a portfolio of what she can do. There’s no table of contents to guide the way nor story breaks to delineate chapters, save the shifting visual styles. While enmeshed in this reading experience, you have no idea how long it will last or where it’s going. Unlike the classic 32-page floppy comic arcs, in which the reader harbors an expectation that a chapter or story concludes between two covers with obvious transitions, each of Davis’ stories exists in a void. They might be one page. They might be 16. They break off at strange, unpredictable moments, concluding their narratives without warning.

Absorbing Davis’ work can be profoundly, deeply unsettling, and not just because she effortlessly lulls the reader under her control. There are plenty of comics artists who explore body horror (Charles Burns most notably), but Davis combines the genre with great joy and wonder at the things our bodies can do. Similarly, her stories often feature tremendous longing and sadness, but they also lushly suggest what a blessing it is to be alive and in the world. She presents, in short, a more realistic picture of what it means to be a human, with our ever-present mind/body tug-of-war, than almost anyone else out there making art.

And what art it is: there may be nothing Davis can’t beautifully illustrate. How to Be Happy samples many of her styles: watercolor; fine black-and-white ink work; combinations of the two with delicate saturation; solid, blocky, thick-lined monochrome defined in extremely simplified forms; wild, sketchy, tiny panels; big pages with no panels at all; stories with no outlines and only colors to distinguish form (like Henri Matisse’ late collage work); and sepia-brushed fairytales. It’s all here, and more. Yet, there’s a consistency to the styles that makes then recognizably Eleanor Davis no matter the medium.

The thematic thread, which runs through her narratives as much as it informs her creation of images, might as well be called the Amy Poehler feminist battle cry: “I don’t care if you like it.” Davis’ work can be messy, dangerous, frightening, delicate, thoughtful, brutal, painful, esoteric, tightly-focused, weird and sometimes frustrating. It manages to be all of these things and more within the course of these sadly brief 146 pages. Most of all, How to Be Happy is fearless and fantastic, unafraid to break rules or to make new ones. All eyes are on Davis for her next step.