Short Works By Eleanor Davis Reviewed

I consider Eleanor Davis to be one of the five best cartoonists working today. I’m going to take a look at some of her older, shorter work here and also contribute new reviews of more recent comics.

Libby’s Dad. This 2016 Retrofit release is further proof of Davis’ versatility. Her issue of Frontier (“BDSM”) showed off her black & white chops, while this comic looks like it was done entirely in colored pencils. Davis’ comics are usually pointed in terms of her themes and the emotions she wants to explore, but she deflects away from hammering that point home through a series of interesting strategies. This comic is about the complexities surrounding emotional spousal abuse and how its fallout affects children. Davis’ strategy was to tell this story entirely through the daughter of that estranged couple (Libby) and her friends during the course of a sleepover. The essential conflict of the story is that one of her friends was forbidden to sleep over by her mother because Libby’s father had threatened to shoot Libby’s mom. The rest of the story (told from the perspective of Libby’s friend Alex) is essentially a debate as to whether or not that could possibly be true.

The genius of the book is Davis’ unfailingly accurate depiction of children and the way they interact, with all the innocence and casual cruelty that implies. Davis’ character design and her use of colored pencil gives the book the feel of a children’s book, with exaggerated facial expressions, cheery colors and uncannily precise body language that gets across the energy that kids generate when they’re in this kind of environment–especially since Libby’s dad bought a house with a swimming pool and bought them all lunch. A running theme in Davis’ comics is the way that adults try to keep secrets from children and fail to trust their ability to understand difficult situations. What the adults fail to understand is that children hear and understand far more than they might realize. However, without the full context of what something means related in an honest manner, that partial knowledge can be warped. That’s certainly the case here, as Libby’s friends debate whether or not Libby’s dad was nice or a monster and whether Libby’s mom was a potential victim or a liar (there was no middle ground). The comic comes to a head when night falls and the colors turn from friendly greens, yellows and light blues to dark and oppressive midnight blue. There’s another color whose presence is a constant in the book: blood red. It becomes especially prominent in the slumber party scene, particularly when a spilled bottle of nail polish splatters the carpet like blood. Suddenly, jokes about Libby’s dad and his gun turn into pure fear, as the white image of a gun against the dark blue background is a clear indicator of their mutual panic.

An exasperated Libby, who has been mostly silent up until this point, gets up and tells her weeping friends to shut up, and declares that her dad’s not scary. There’s a chilling two-page spread where her friends are in the bottom left corner of one page and Libby goes out the foreboding door in the upper-right hand corner of the next page, indicating a gulf between them as well as a sense of things not ever being the same when she returns from her dangerous quest. Their fears peak as the next two pages are devoid of backgrounds as they imagine her dad shooting all of them, shrouded in shadows. Davis comes back from that image with Libby’s dad cheerfully cleaning up the mess in a room with the light on, bathed in a comforting yellow. That act is “proof” to Alex that “Libby’s mom is crazy and a liar”, and the girls are now free to have a carefree good time.

Of course, what Davis is getting at is how women are made to feel crazy for responding to abuse, for people assuming they are lying or exaggerating and in general doubting the stories of survivors. There’s also a larger question of complexity: Libby’s dad may treat her well, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t abusive toward his mom, even if that threat was an empty one. The way the girls react can be explained in part because they are just children, but Davis’ larger point is that it wasn’t just them who reacted that way, as the parents of the other children had no problem with them spending time at Libby’s dad’s house. This is a story about abuse and the ways in which so many people prefer to believe that it doesn’t happen, and Davis’ use of color masterfully takes us through every element of the narrative, modulating emotion along the way.

Frontier #11 (2016),  “BDSM”. This comic is about appearance vs. reality, identity and (of course) sexual expression. On the set of a porn film, Victoria plays a dom and Alexa plays a sub. The director demands that each actress pay better attention to the details of their roles (Victoria must be crueler, Alexa must be more innocent) in order to create a more effective scene (for which he’s ridiculed by a co-worker). Throughout the rest of the issue, there is a tension between the two actresses as Alexa’s obvious delight in playing a servile role in real life bothers Victoria, even as Alexa sloughs it off as liking to be nice. In the final third of the story, Alexa loses her keys and has Victoria drive her home, where Alexa seduces her. Throughout the entire story, it’s obvious that Alexa was engaging in “topping from the bottom”, wherein the submissive partner is actually in control of the situation and manipulates the dominant partner. In this case, the reason she was doing this was spelled out quite clearly at the end: Alexa wants Victoria know that it’s OK if she wants to hit her–and it’s OK if she wants to be hit.

Davis clearly stages the story on a porn set as a way of first establishing these acts under the auspices of sex as a pure act of objectification–a job, as it were. Alexa is a character that transfers and transforms an act done for the pleasure of others (especially men), into a private, intimate and emotional act that is still highly charged. That she teaches Victoria to do this for her own pleasure and embrace this side of her sexuality is the truly transgressive act, and that’s what makes this such a sharp commentary. Davis’ figurework is brilliant in the way it recapitulates the essence of the main characters: Victoria is all harsh angles, and Alexa is doe-eyed and all curves. The way Davis spots blacks and makes extensive use of negative space further emphasizes the differences between the two characters and sets them apart from everything else in the comic. Davis prefers an economy of line in most panels, but her use of gesture and body language is so direct that she only needs a line or two to pack in a lot of information.

I originally wrote this next section back in 2006, when Eleanor was just starting out and Drew had some self-published work and a webseries to his name. Though now dated, I think some of the observations I had then about their potential are worth looking at now in retrospect.

Drew Weing & Eleanor Davis are graduates of the Savannah College of Art & Design, and are two of the most promising talents in comics. All four of the minis reviewed here are beautiful art objects on their own, with die-cut covers, innovative cover designs and beautiful uses of color.

Weing is best known for his Journal Comic and Pup, both of which drew a lot of attention when they were originally published on the web. Weing is an amazing draftsman and designer, merging a light, cartoony sensibility with lush backgrounds. His solo effort here, Blar, is a straight-ahead tale of a barbarian who kills everything in his path. Feeling a bit like Trondheim & Sfar’s Dungeon, Weing plays the action straight but ups the ante with ever-more ridiculous opponents and situations. Each story ends with an unexpected punchline, as Weing paces each strip with great skill. This is a modest but delightful comic.

Davis is a bit more under the radar at the moment, but not for long. Her comics often have fantastic themes but a melancholy tone; she reminds me a bit of Megan Kelso in that regard. The Beast Mother is a masterpiece in the use of negative space as Davis details the life of a female monster with dozens of children. When a hunter starts stalking her, our assumptions and expectations are quickly challenged. Even after the big reveal, there’s a sadness to the story that lingers. Mattie and Dodi is a very different sort of strip that evokes the same kind of feelings. It concerns a pair of sisters, the older of whom is taking care of both her dying grandfather and her younger sister, an extremely shy girl. This story is all about roles and responsibilities, as Mattie struggles to deal with her grandfather, her boyfriend (who wants her to sell the house), and Dodi, who is enormously uncomfortable with the outside world. While not as visually striking as The Beast Mother, it’s every bit as powerful. The final two panels, as we see the sisters in very different places emotionally, give the reader a number of clues as to where their stories might go next.

Davis and Weing collected several of their short stories in a mini called Bugbear. Life and death are the overriding themes in this comic. Weing does an odd story based on a dream he had after his father died, where his father comes back to life in a “soy-based” body. In the dream, Drew realizes that he can bring Eleanor back to life in the same manner. Davis has a story in which a young girl screams that there’s been a mistake and ventures with a creature to the local graveyard, where her dead grandfather is revived. The themes are similar, but there’s always an added distance present in Davis’ stories.

Both artists are self-publishing, but don’t look for that to last much longer. The only question is what kind of stories they’ll want to tell given the resources of a publisher. I sense that Weing has several big stories that he wants to tell, but Davis’ future might lie in being a short story specialist like Gabrielle Bell or Kelso.

— Rob Clough