Artist Profile: Eleanor Davis

2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Eleanor Davis… The Athens, Georgia-based cartoonist and illustrator has been on a roll, with her work showing up in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Lucky Peach, and even on the Google homepage. This month, Fantagraphics Books has released How to Be Happy, a beautiful, career-spanning hardcover that Dan Kois of Slate has called “ an inspired and inspiring collection of short work clearly establishing Davis as a leading cartoonist.”

Scout Books has been delighted to collaborate with Eleanor on our edition of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Stories (which I recently chose as my #1 pick from our Short Stories series), and we are now releasing a pair of beautiful notebook designs from her, Dawn and Dusk. Eleanor was kind enough to chat with me about her artistic process, the metaphoric color of her thumb, and her impressions of the massive San Diego Comic Con, where she was a special guest.

—François

Davis-self-portrait

Your first collection of comics, How to Be Happy, was recently released by Fantagraphics Books. It’s a lovely, wide-ranging book, both in terms of the stories selected and the variety of art styles on display. What was the process for selecting the work in the book? Was there a particular feeling you wanted to achieve in the ordering of the selections?  

Thank you! I selected my best work that I felt fit together. All the pieces in the book reflect my own life experience somewhat. They are fictional nonfiction.

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You’ve done illustration work for a wide range of major clients, including The New York Times and an animated Google Doodle for the start of spring which must have been seen by many millions of viewers… How do you approach projects like that which will be in front of a mass audience? 

It’s something I’m still learning to do. Initially I think I tried to water down my stuff too much, which was a mistake. Now I try to be as much of my own voice as I can get away with. The art directors tell me when it’s too much. What I’ve found is that if I enjoy myself making a piece, people will respond to it. If I’m bored making a piece folks won’t like looking at it either.

Davis-Spring-Google-Doodle

Something that has always impressed me about your illustration work is the sense of inherent narrative, your characters and scenes often seem like silent images from some unknown book of stories. Do you have any “tricks” for injecting that narrative energy into a drawing?

Thank you! Rather than illustrating the piece itself, I try to illustrate the narrative my mind is telling me about the piece.

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Oversized, larger-than-life flowers and plants are a recurring motif in your art, including the pair of notebook designs you recently created for us,  Dawn and Dusk. Does your affection for flora extend to the real world as well? Are you a gardener?

Ha ha, no, I’m afraid I don’t garden at all! Several years ago I helped out at a small farm run by some friends of mine. That was when I started drawing a lot of flowers and organic things. But that was also when I learned that my thumb is black with ink, not green, so I stick to drawing.

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You seem to be a very prolific sketcher, creating lots of thumbnails and even finished work for your projects. Can you describe the role sketching has in your art practice?

Sketching is my real work, I think. When I don’t sketch for a while my work gets dead. But I often spend long periods without sketching! So then I have to carve some time out, to learn again, and make my work alive again.

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You were a guest at the massive San Diego Comic Con last week… What was it like being there? What was the response to your work? And most importantly of all… If you were to cosplay next time, who (or what) would you dress up as?

San Diego was intense! Everyone always says SDCC is a zoo, but I didn’t understand what they meant until I went there. The crowds are insane, a sea of people. The first couple days I really hated it, it was very frightening. But after a while I got acclimated and I felt less panicked.

Everyone I talked to was super nice about my book, although they were all already fans of indy comics. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of crossover between mainstream and indy comics at SDCC, even though we’re all in one gigantic room.

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My favorite thing about SDCC was the cosplay! Especially the people in elaborate handcrafted costumes, it was very inspiring. I’m not sure what I would cosplay as. Something huge and monstrous and fun. Something with a lot of teeth.

What’s next for you? Following the release of How to Be Happy is the world clamoring for a full-length graphic novel from you? What would be your dream project?

I’m working on a YA historical murder-mystery with my mom, Ann Davis, called Catta of Samarkand, and an easy reader with my husband Drew Weing for TOON books. I’d like to start making minicomics again. Drew and I have been talking about making a video game. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do!