Cartoonist Eleanor Davis Introduces Readers to 'The Hard Tomorrow'

The 'Why Art?' creator talks about her intimate and complicated new graphic novel, and the connection between the personal and the political.
Eleanor Davis/Drawn & Quarterly
The 'Why Art?' creator talks about her intimate and complicated new graphic novel, and the connection between the personal and the political.

Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow is a graphic novel unlike any other you’ll read this year. Focusing on Hannah, a home-health worker and political activist trying to build a future with husband Johnny, the book is simultaneously intimate and universal as the reader follows Hannah and Johnny’s attempts to conceive, build a home and find a space to exist come face-to-face with a reality that is far less kind and giving than the world they hope to create.

Released last week, The Hard Tomorrow marks new territory for Davis, whose previous books — including You and a Bike and a Road, Why Art? and How to Be Happy — have been met with critical acclaim. Heat Vision talked to the cartoonist and illustrator about the title, its origins, and how it feels to put such a personal work out into the public sphere.

One of the things that really struck me about The Hard Tomorrow is that it's not a book that's easily categorized or easily explained. It's a book that is very much about the experience of reading it and about the emotional experience that the reader has. Did you know that was going to be the case when you started it? Because it feels so organic.

I started working on the book — sort of putting together the different threads, the stories, the characters — in the fall of 2016. It was the U.S. election; Trump just got elected and my husband and I had been, for about a year, trying to get pregnant, and my mother-in-law got very, very ill suddenly. As her illness progressed, and as the Trump presidency progressed, I got more and more politically engaged and involved with activism, and just had a whole lot of those thoughts swirling around about hope and fear and loss and why one would want to have a baby, I guess. That’s a big part of what I was trying to rattle around with, with this story.

You're sort of talking about something that I was very curious about, which is how much of Hannah is you? It feels such an honest book, which did make me wonder how much of this book was, maybe not autobiographical, but very much, you've gone through similar experiences and this is born of you having to express that and put that into the world.

Yeah. The book is intensely personal and intensely autobiographical, but the details are very different. It's like if I took everything about my life and then kind of snipped it up into pieces and rearranged it and remixed it. So Hannah isn't really me, but she has a lot of aspects of her life, a lot of shared experiences with my life, and she has a lot of aspects [and] personality traits with myself. And, you know, other things — I'm not a home-health worker, but I was doing a lot of caregiving for my mother-in-law, so those experiences were shared, and I've done care work in the past.

One of the larger themes in the book was the march, the night march where the protesters were kettled by the police, and that was pretty much directly autobiographical based on a protest that I was sort of swept up in, like Hannah was swept up in, a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta.

And then, you know, my friends and I do a lot of mushroom hunting, and my husband isn't a stoner, but he does play a lot of video games, so you have a similar sort of a result. (Laughs.) So I was trying to capture, even though the characters are different from me, I was trying to capture the direct experiences that I've had in my life.

The world of the book is today; it’s all real; I think for some people it may come across as, you know, exaggerated in some way, but it's not —

Thank you. I see a lot of people describe it as a dystopia, and I'm like, what? That's now. It's not very different from now. (Laughs.)

I was reading a review of the book before I called you, and someone called it a dystopia that's drawn on things happening today. I was like, no, this is today.

It's hard to wrap your head around that.

The word I used to describe the book when talking to someone about this book afterward was, "kind." It's a very kind book. It's a very loving book, It is a very optimistic book, despite it being a very harsh world that they're living in, and there's no easy answers. I was going to say there's no happy ending, but there is — the book ends in such a way that is just astonishingly happy and beautiful, but at the same time, even that has the ambiguity of real life, you know that all these things are going to continue.

Where do you fall in this scale? Are you someone who finds yourself optimistic, and you want this book to be a statement of hope in these times? Is that something that you found yourself struggling with as you yourself were going through these questions?

Yeah, I don't think I'm a hopeful person necessarily, but I am a grateful person...? So I don't want the despair I so often feel to blind me to the beautiful and lovely things in the world. I guess I feel confused by the concept of hope and a little frustrated with it, because I often think that people use it as a word to think things are gonna be OK, if that's a concept that makes any sense, you know?

The future is going to have a tremendous amount of pain and loss, and it would have a tremendous amount of pain and loss in it no matter what happens. You know, there's no purely happy endings. And wanting that would be childish. It's dishonest.

So, yeah, if I don't know. I just had a baby, and my joy in him, and my hope for his future is despite not having a lot of hope in our ability to respond to global climate change, or in our ability to successfully grapple with with rising xenophobia, things like that, you know.

But it's a funny thing. One of the big parts of the book for me is, the joy that I'm giving myself by having a baby and the hope that I'm giving myself by having a baby is at the expense of the baby, to some extent. You're throwing this tiny little guy into this tremendously complicated situation and in a lot of ways, you're making the situation worse, even though it's a human and natural and just fine to want. Putting even more people into this crazy world is a pretty strange response but people do it.

There's a strange sense of, is it selfish?

Yeah, for sure.

The relationship between Hannah and Gabby is something that feels lighter in a way, and yet that is one of the more — I hesitate to say tragic, but what happens in that particular story is very upsetting, to be honest. I’m trying to phrase this in such a way that it's not going to spoil anything, but the book builds to an emotional crescendo and then things go very wrong, and her relationship with Gabby is part of that. It feels at once tangential to, and entirely central to the book as a whole, and what Hannah is struggling with and honestly what you it as a writer and an artist are struggling with in the book.

Oh, gosh. I've had several relationships like that. Really intense relationships that end up falling apart because, I don't know what happens when, often when people love each other, you know, folks get hurt. And it's not that they don't love each other enough, it's that they love each other too much. I guess In my life, I've had a lot of just really strong friendships with people, and that's been a good thing and also, again, it can get kind of tricky sometimes when people need different things from one another.

It's such a complicated situation because, you know, neither Hannah nor Gabby is doing anything, quote unquote, wrong. It's not a relationship that can continue the way that it was going. I keep going like the idea of this book being complicated, and offering no easy answers, which is one of the things that I loved so much about it. Hannah and Gabby feel really central to the ambiguity of the book.

Back in the day, it was more of an expectation that men would be attracted to women, and women would be attracted to men, and they weren't allowed to be friends with one another unless they were going to be partners. Obviously that's wrong and stupid, but now, that opens up a lot of confusion when you're having friendships, where those boundaries maybe aren't set out, where you're not sure what the other person is feeling.

...I was trying to be very humane and talk about real relationships, but also to this greater purpose, which is I wanted to write a story about two people where it feels like they lose everything all at once, where everything is taken away from them all very suddenly in a scary and traumatic way. Both Johnny and Hannah lose their closest friends, and that's one of the hugest losses you can face, I think.

You mentioned Johnny’s loss, and although Hannah’s clearly the central character of the book, Johnny has his own story and, as you said, his own loss to deal with.

So, Johnny's arc — I was really proud of Johnny. I like him very much. But in the end, the really brave thing that he did — he did two really, really, really brave things. And they were both so small, but they were really big for him in the same way. The first really brave thing that he did was say that he didn't want to shoot the female mannequin. To me, the fact that he was able to recognize that doing that thing felt wrong to him, and then you will take a second step of saying, no, I won't do it, was not something that all folks are able to do, you know? So even though it's a really small thing, it's also a really big thing for him.

And then, the second thing was that he was able to cry when he and Hannah are in the trailer and having that awful fight and he's just hit her and she hit him. I think, if he hadn't started to cry, then the fight would have never been repaired, and they would have gone their separate ways. But, because he started to cry, Hannah was able to realize that he needed empathy then, and she was able to cry, and they were able to console each other.

I’m curious about the look of the book; you created a completely coherent world that draws you in, but it's stylized and yet there is a legitimacy to the way that the characters move, there's a verisimilitude — how did you decide on this style? It feels at once looser and also more detailed than some of your other work.

It was a really challenging book to draw. In my past work, I think I've tried harder to kind of have the characters be everymen, be more iconic, so that it would be easier for the reader to back into them. And I wanted to not do that. I felt like I had gotten overly simplified; in trying to create characters that everybody can relate to, I was creating characters that were dishonest, not imbued with the richness that I actually saw in real life.

But on the other hand, I think it's really important with comics to keep things loose in order to keep them alive. So I was trying to to put in as much detail, as much individuality as possible while still staying messy and alive and sketchy. That was kind of my goal for the artwork, which is more successful than others.

Was it a hard book to make?

Well, yeah. There's kind of two different questions there, too. I wrote it all at once, I roughed it out, and that was tricky; it took probably like 10 or 15 drafts, just sort of polishing and trying to get it to go right, and there are still things about it that I don't think they quite pulled off — plot points that I think I missed.

And then, after that, I just had to draw it, to do the final artwork, and then that was very hard, just in that sort of, like it's very difficult to sit down and draw for eight to 10 hours a day. For me, I get easily frustrated and bored with a project, and I want to move on to a new thing, so doing a really large project like this one is definitely personally challenging for me. And this is a small project compared to a lot of people who do graphic novels! It's a very short graphic novel.

What's it like, now that it's done and it's released. Are you excited or nervous for this to be out in the world? Is there a sense of relief that it's done? I mean, how do you relate to this book now?

Excited to be out, as you said. It's a tremendously personal work, and so it feels more vulnerable to share it with people than some of my other work has been. So I've been nervous about, you know, what people think of the politics in it, what will they think that I'm saying about police, and what they think that I'm thinking about Antifa and what will they think that I'm saying about queer friendship? Will I be misinterpreted, or will I be correctly interpreted but that interpretation will hurt somebody in a way that I didn't intend.

I'm also just really curious about how people will respond to it. I don't ever really know how successful this story that I've written is, until I start hearing people's responses and I think, OK, that landed the way I intended; that hit the mark and that didn't hit the mark. I know that not everybody is going to get each aspect, but one hopes that some people will at least get most of it, I guess. (Laughs.)

The Hard Tomorrow, published by Drawn & Quarterly, is available now.