DIY Therapy: Eleanor Davis’ You & A Bike & A Road
One reason why Eleanor Davis is such an intriguing cartoonist is because her output is so unpredictable. While she has explored everything from science fiction to kid lit to satire and beyond, there is a constant theme running through them: mental health. That includes the ways in which it’s warped, the ways in which we find ways to repair it, the ways in which art addresses it, and much more. Her travelogue You & A Bike & A Road (Koyama Press) is very much about her personal fight with depression. Her decision to bike from her parents’ home of Tucson, AZ to her own home with her husband in Athens, GA was about many things, but her mental health was one of them. The physical exertion of biking combined with it allowing her to slowly take in her environment was something that made her feel good. This isn’t surprising, considering how many mental health professionals emphasize exercise as something that can improve mental health, but this trip felt like an extreme prescription for perhaps what felt like an intractable state of mind.
The book is in black and white, and Davis uses her loosest, chunkiest, blockiest lines that rely on basic shapes and expressive techniques. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Davis’ art just brings me pleasure to look at from a sheer, aesthetic standpoint. Her use of gesture is so true to life that it’s almost painful, even as she takes her rock-solid understanding of anatomy and distorts it. I’ve always disagreed with the notion that a single image can’t be used to portray movement and time passing. The McCloudian idea that time can only pass in a comic by use of panel breaks is reductive and ignores years of cartoonists using single images to tell a story. Davis can do both with ease; there’s a scene where she’s taking a break in a bar with a pool table that explodes with life—and it’s not a still life. There’s almost no use of a grid in this comic, as Davis prefers flowing, open-page layouts to depict action and dialogue.
Davis doesn’t hold much back in this book. It’s about doing something that’s really hard, doubting oneself and then finding the courage and resolve to keep going. There’s a real sense of finding one’s people out on the road and taking the risk to trust them, even as it was clear that so many people were vulnerable. There’s also the harsh reality of the border patrol, as she witnessed a young man managing a stand-off in the middle of a stream for a brief moment in a canal before he was arrested. Throughout her journey, the buzz of helicopters and the constant presence of the border patrol provided a grim backdrop, made all the worse by her own feelings of guilt over her privilege protecting her from scrutiny. She persevered, aided greatly by a man at a bike shop who miraculously let her open up to him, as he got her medical attention, a sports acupuncturist, and a place to stay for a few days to recover. It’s a remarkable sequence, because Davis realized that sometimes you have to open yourself up to others on the road.
There are a number of cartoonists whose work carries both a poetic quality and a scientific curiosity about the world around them, with John Porcellino, Oliver East and Jenny Zervakis among that number. With this book Davis joined that group, as so much of the book was simply about taking in the scenery around her and treasuring it. What’s interesting is that she traveled through a part of the country not necessarily known for its scenery in Texas. Davis played the part of naturalist in her painstaking recreations of the vegetation she encountered, depicting it as cycling through a harsh but beautiful alien world.
There were times when Davis didn’t feel safe camping alone at night, and she looked at those times when she got a motel room (always with a price tag) as losses of a sort. Of course, she told people she met (especially men) that she was travelling with her husband, with one memorable fantasy sequence seeing her stab a would-be assailant with a knife nicknamed “husband”. Though a loner, Davis nonetheless made unexpected connections. In addition to the family above, there was a woman who picked her up on the highway when Davis was struggling with high weeds; the curator of a local historical society that reserved rooms for cyclists; a couple of young goth kids in the middle of small town Texas who gravitated toward her; and the owner of a “historic plantation house” that was a B&B. Davis tried to avoid the noxious nostalgia of the place until she learned that the elderly owner’s husband had just died and she was desperate to talk to anyone.
That latter encounter was one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in comics, and it was so wonderfully simple. Davis brilliantly captured the love the woman felt for her husband, how much she missed him, and how he died in a series of close-ups of the woman taken from different angles. There’s an easy fluidity from image to image as she tells her story, culminating in the last image where she thanks Davis for being sweet and apologizing for making her cry. It’s a bold and expressive series of images that emphasize the sincerity of the moment, which was the key to prevent it from simply being sentimental or manipulative. Davis doesn’t editorialize or dwell on the sequence, because it didn’t need any further elaboration. From there, Davis makes a segue into deciding to end the trip and finally get to see her own husband again. It’s a deft transition that speaks to her command of the entire narrative, using serendipity and incorporating it as part of a larger structure.
Much like the trip itself, the book is filled with little, surprising treasures. Unexpected vistas of beauty, harrowing tales of struggle from immigrants, and even sharply funny pages, like a series of gas station food stops where she only eats things “shaped like dicks”. Davis’ book is at once a memoir of a transformative experience and a call to action for others. Her bicycle is a symbol of freedom; not just freedom of movement, but freedom from enslavement to cars and the harm to the environment they represent. The book is Davis at her most raw, most vulnerable and most transparent. It’s a beautiful gift from her to her readers.
Eleanor Davis on Wow Cool