Eleanor Davis’s new graphic novel, The Hard Tomorrow, due out in October from Drawn and Quarterly, is fiction, but she wove her story with threads drawn from real life: A couple trying to have a baby, an old woman facing death, and the spread of political protests over the last few years.
“I was experiencing a lot of things in my life that were happening simultaneously that were very messy,” she says. “I was becoming more politically active, my mother-in-law was very ill, I was wanting to have a baby, and instead of writing several short little stories about each experience, I decided to try to weave them all together, which was how I was actually experiencing them—not as individual experiences but as sort of a confluence.”
In just 150 pages, Davis creates a handful of compelling characters: Hannah, who works as a home health aide and spends her spare time protesting the use of chemical weapons; Johnny, who dreams of living off the land but spends his time getting high and reading seed catalogs; Gabby, Hannah’s friend and fellow activist; Tyler, Johnny’s survivalist friend; and the companionable group of anti-war activists. Hannah wants to get pregnant, Johnny seems determined to put off reality, Gabby’s feelings for Hannah go beyond friendship, and Miss Phyllis, the elderly woman Hannah cares for, just wants to die. As the story unfolds, each of them is tested in a different way, as politics and personalities mingle, and hopes clash with reality.
The Hard Tomorrow is a milestone work: It’s Davis’s first full-length graphic novel for adults and the first of her works that feels like it was conceived as a long-form story. “I think it’s the most ambitious thing that I have done and the thing I am most proud of,” she says.
“I had done two other short pieces that felt similar to this one, BDSM [a 2016 story about the complex relationship between two adult film actresses], and Liddy’s Dad [a tense story published in 2017 about pre-teen girls and a troubling rumor],” Davis says.
“They were both under 30 pages, but they were different from my other work in that they were less about interiority, more about unique characters—they were more character driven. Less about the inner life, more about the interactions between people. They felt a lot more ambitious for that reason, and more exciting also. Previous to that I had felt like I wasn’t up for writing something that was that character driven and that plot driven, and I stuck to these little short, carefully polished short stories. It felt really good to push myself and do something longer and messier and more honest in its length and its messiness,” Davis explains.
Davis is well known in the comics world. Her first two graphic novels, Stinky (TOON Books, 2008) and The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (Bloomsbury, 2009), were written for children, and Stinky won a Geisel Award from the American Library Association, one of the first graphic novels to be honored by the ALA. In 2009, Davis was awarded the Eisner Awards’ Russ Manning Award for Most Promising Newcomer. Since then, her published work has included numerous short stories, some of which were collected in How to Be Happy (Fantagraphics, 2014), as well as the diary comic You and a Bike and the Road (Koyama Press, 2017) and the extended essay Why Art? (Fantagraphics, 2018). She also co-created another TOON book, Flop to the Top, with her husband, cartoonist Drew Weing.
Unlike many comics creators of her generation, Davis was exposed to a lot of comics as a child. Her parents were longtime comics readers and she grew up reading reprints of MAD Magazine, Little Lulu, and Krazy Kat. The first comic she ever made, as a child, was a Little Lulu fan comic. “Little Lulu went to a haunted house and then her flashlight went out so I didn’t have to draw any more and I could just fill in black for the panels, which is a classic cartoonist cheat, which I figured out very early on in the game,” she says. Later on, when manga and anime became popular in the U.S., her family embraced them as well.
Davis studied comics and illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “It was before the economy crashed, and I was going to college to learn how to make minicomics,” she says. “It felt like a perfectly reasonable thing to do to me at the time. I was very into the idea of being a starving artist because I had never experienced what it was like to be a starving artist.”
Reality hit hard when she got a contract to write and draw The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook. The advance seemed like a lot of money—until she realized that it would have to last until she finished the book. “It took me a long time to finish, and in finishing it I realized I didn’t actually want to try to have comics be my job because it wasn’t fun,” she says.
“I was constantly feeling stressed about not working fast enough and watching the advance be less and less for how much time I was spending on it.” So she dropped the idea of making comics for a living and got a job at a local co-op instead. She also focused on her illustration work, and eventually she started making enough as an illustrator that she could quit the co-op. “I do make money off of comics, but I try not to think about it,” she says. “I don’t do comics in order to make money, and I don’t make very much money off comics.”
Davis does illustrations for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and private clients; her work includes the 2018 tour poster for the indie rock band The Decembrists. “Illustration is easier than cartooning,” she says. “It’s faster. Comics are a tremendous time commitment, whereas with an illustration, you get the job and it’s due in two days and you just get it done and you get a check later. It’s not something that’s as emotionally taxing.”
Since she started working on The Hard Tomorrow, in 2017, Davis has lived through her own version of the events she writes about: Her mother-in-law died, she became more politically active (she was arrested in 2017 while protesting the University of Georgia’s policies on undocumented immigrants), and she and Weing had a baby in August.
“I started writing the book when I was hoping to have a baby and thinking about why one would want to have a baby,” Davis says. “My mother-in-law started to get very sick. When I started working on the book she still had several years to go, but I had also experienced my grandparents dying and I sort of knew what that looked like, so a lot of it was just imagining the future that was ahead of me. It is very strange to have finished the book right as that future was playing out and seeing how different it has been in so many ways than how I imagined it.”
For instance, Davis feels that her depiction of death was too easy. “It’s hard because all death is hard, but in a lot of ways it was very easy. The woman who passes away had a very easy death, she’s not in a ton of pain, she doesn’t seem to have to suffered as much as in reality my mother-in-law did. And my own grandparents suffered far more. I wasn’t willing to show that. And with the birth of my kid, that was just so much more visceral and more real than anything I ever could have imagined, or that I did imagine in the book. He’s so much weirder than I ever could have imagined.”
While the couple in The Hard Tomorrow face challenges from within their own relationship as well as from outside forces, the book ends with them cradling their baby. After the turbulent events that precede it, it’s a moment of quiet hope.
“I don’t know how much it’s a happy ending as that it’s not an ending,” Davis says. “When my mother-in-law was first getting sick and Trump had just gotten elected, it felt like everything was so awful. Everything just felt impossibly awful, but you know in real life unless you die, there’s always a next day and something new happens and a day after that and a day after that, no matter how awful things get. Which is very hard to believe when you’re in the middle of it,” she says.
“I wanted to tell a story about a couple who feel like they have really lost everything, their lives have been torn apart, but the next day happens and the next day happens and their lives change, and the period that felt like the end wasn’t actually the end for them.”