Cartoonist Eleanor Davis Captures a Shifting America in You & a Bike & a Road
“I’ve learned I’m not afraid to get arrested.”Comics Features Eleanor Davis
Is it an exaggeration to call Eleanor Davis the most renowned comics artist of her generation? It might not be. I have yet to talk to someone who makes or reads comics who doesn’t love her work, which is both wonderfully varied and instantly recognizable. Rather than put her energy into long-form works, she’s created shorter comics with a few exceptions. That makes her longer work all the more special.
In March of 2016, she decided to ride her bicycle from her parents’ house in Arizona to Athens, Georgia, where she lives. Here and there, she drew things she saw and put them on Instagram. Followers received little dispatches as she made her way from southwest to southeast. Sometimes she was discouraged. Other times she seemed overcome by the beauty of the world or the kindness of strangers. The story unfolds slowly, without a classical narrative structure or predictable spikes of drama. Now you can read her travelogue in her new book, You & a Bike & a Road, which collects those comics and captures the feeling of the journey, while compressing the time it took. It’s easily one of the year’s best books. Its most notable features—a sense of immediacy and unfiltered emotion—are rare and difficult to articulate well.
Instead of trying for a Joseph Campbell journey, You & a Bike & a Road focuses on small, specific moments. That’s an important choice, because it turns the reader’s eye to the individual instance rather than to generalities. A bird’s eye view can be useful, but it can also produce foolish stereotypes. When you move in a car, you see a lot of things very quickly, and the images run together. Twenty gas stations witnessed in quick succession become a type, and your mind learns to filter out the differences. When you move under your own physical exertion, however, whether that’s on a bike or on your own two feet, you don’t pass as many things, and your wonderful brain can let your senses encounter the world without processing what’s perceived into a set of rules. That may not be a way to live every day, but it is a valuable exercise and one of the insights of the book.
Despite a busy convention and extracurricular schedule, Davis answered Paste’s questions via email over a couple of weeks.
Paste: At the beginning of this book, you talk about why you undertook this very long bike ride, but you don’t talk about why you made the book. Could you talk about that now? Did you know it was going to be a book when you started making drawings (and posting them on Instagram), or is making drawings and sharing them just something you do and have to do?
Eleanor Davis: I started out drawing every day of my trip because I always wish I was the sort of person who draws every day on a trip. (I’m not). And I was nervous about essentially taking a two-month vacation—what if everyone forgot who I was, what if I lost all my clients, etc. So I wanted something to post online. I kept drawing, however, because my knees were slowing me down, and that meant I was spending less time biking and more time resting and bored. Otherwise I might have let the journal peter out, like most of my journals tend to.
When I got home, I wanted to collect the comics because I’m not productive enough to draw 100 pages of comics and then just let them blow away in the wind. At first I only wanted to put out a mini comic, but it was too many pages. I felt very upset about the idea of making it into a book because I didn’t think it had the merit to be a book. The comics are sloppy and self-indulgent, and collected together they have real life’s irritating lack of narrative structure. But once I filled it out a little it came together a little bit. And folks seemed to respond to the comics emotionally, so I thought it might work out.
Paste: Why publish with Koyama?
Davis: I love Koyama. They do exquisite projects that are often a little smaller and more personal. I wanted that feeling.
Paste: Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
Davis: I approached them because I thought they would be such a perfect fit for the project.
Paste: You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers. Do you prefer the freedom of moving around?
Davis: Yeah, I don’t know! Every publisher is different, and I like all of them. It just feels like getting to go to a lot of different dinner parties!
Paste: Have you ever done anything like this big ride before (e.g., the Bike Ride Across Georgia )? How did you know what to pack?
Davis: I had done two week-long tours with friends, and I did one overnight bike camping trip solo. I know a lot of people who have gone touring—my friends Kate and Laura and Maggie and Lacey, and my parents. I got a lot of advice from them, and online. Everyone has different strategies for packing for a tour, so you kind of have to figure out what your own style is as you go. Newbies like me tend to overpack and then mail stuff back home along the way, I’ve found.
Paste: Your parents are into cycling?
Davis: Yes, they went on a long tour of England in their 20s, and a shorter England tour recently. They ride bikes a lot. My dad especially was very serious about teaching me to ride and keeping me in bikes from when I was really little.
Paste: What kinds of art supplies did you bring with you and was it difficult to pick?
Davis: Initially I brought a lead pencil, eraser, pen, four colored pencils and a sketchbook. I mailed the colored pencils home along with much of my other (invaluable but also unnecessary) gear.
Paste: You can see variation in your materials in the book (some pen, some pencil). Did you go back and fix or redraw anything?
Davis: I tried doing the straight to ink initially, but that’s always just a lot more stressful. I think there are only three pages that are redrawn because the version I did on the road was crammed onto one page and the pacing felt off. I fixed like one picture that felt just unacceptably bad, and I had to rearrange pretty much every page. My first sketchbook was squarish, and after it filled up I bought a cheap notepad at a grocery store that was more of a rectangle so I had to get them to meet in the middle.
Paste: There’s parallel in the limitations of your art drawn in this context and the other supplies you could bring with you: no luxury, just basics. Yes?
Davis: Yup. That’s how I like to draw best anyway, though. I was mostly worried carting around the fragile pencil artwork over so many miles would make it unreadable, but it worked out.
Paste: Did you make the cover so colorful and full as a deliberate contrast to the more minimalist interior?
Davis: Pretty much. A lot of the trip was about the beauty and richness of the landscape I was traveling through, and on the road, I didn’t even try very hard to communicate that aspect. It was too hard to draw, and every day there was always some kind of little event I wanted to talk about instead. I wanted the cover to show just how lovely it feels to be on the road.
Paste: The book also has a meditative feel, or maybe what I mean to say is “mindful,” as with the sections in which you just focus on naming what you see. Have you spent any time on mindfulness exercises?
Davis: Yes! Trying to stay mindful is really important to me, because I’m so bad at it. Biking helps me become more mindful, but I still have to work at it with exercises like that.
Paste: How much time had you spent before this trip in the spaces between Arizona and Athens, Georgia? What did you discover about those spaces?
Davis: I hadn’t spent any time in any of those states. I discovered a lot. For some reason, for instance, I had thought Texas was going to be ugly or boring, and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve even been to in my entire life. It was greener and lusher than I had expected; even the desert plants similar to ones I was familiar with in Arizona looked more robust. The light was extremely good. There were flowers everywhere, to an absurd degree. The brooks and rivers were all stream-fed, and crystal clear. It was extraordinary.
By the time I got to East Texas, things were more familiar to me—more like Georgia, but the air was thicker and the growth was more dense. I loved that stuff too, but it was more familiar and less dream-like to me.
Paste: It seems like you didn’t really get rained on. Luck?
Davis: That was totally luck. I had only two really bad rainy days I think.
Paste: The flowers are a notable aspect of the book. It reminded me of what it’s like to step off a plane in California and be greeted by lushness reminiscent of paradise. Except that, as you say, you don’t really think about Texas being that way at all. Are you more of a city person or a nature person? How much do you care about flowers normally?
Davis: Yes! It turns out Texas is really famous for its wildflowers. They seed them by the sides of the roads, and in the springtime it’s just spectacular. I love cities and nature both. When I was younger I liked cities better because I like people a lot. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to be less scared of being alone and to enjoy being in nature more. And of course I’ve always loved flowers because I’ve always loved bright, gaudy colors.
Paste: Due to the places you were traveling through, there’s a lot about border patrol and immigration, drawn with a lot of sensitivity. Is that an issue you were really conscious of before? Or did the trip bring it to the forefront of your mind?
Davis: Growing up in Arizona you heard about border issues. Before the election I had been adjacent to the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition;—I designed their logo in like 2009 and had gone to some rallies and stuff. My best friend married a man who was undocumented, and I became friends with him and heard over many, many years about their struggle with trying to get him legal status. My sister spent a summer working with No More Deaths, a group supporting migrants in Arizona. My parents have a cabin in the Chiricahua Mountains in southern Arizona, and migrants pass through their property at night.
So I’ve been aware of immigration issues. This was my first experience traveling along the border, though, and that brought home its militarization. It is not a good situation down there.
Paste: You biked and drew these pages from March through July of 2016. Does it feel like we’re in a different world now?
Davis: Sure does. I remember feeling scared at the time, but it was the dread of a potential future. We’re in that future.
Paste: How much attention were you paying to the presidential election along the way?
Davis: A lot. I remember feeling heartened by only seeing one or two very small Trump signs over the course of my trip. Hah, hah.
Paste: You seem to have really upped your level of activism in response to Trump’s election. What’s that been like? What have you learned?
Davis: It feels very good to be more active. I’ve only become more active because of this really awful thing that’s happened, and I wish it hadn’t happened, but being active itself feels good. There is a clarity now that I didn’t have before. Before things seemed complicated. Now they are simple. It is very easy to see that we just need to fight as hard as we can, in every way that we can.
I have learned a lot about government—federal and state and local. I’ve learned it’s not the end of the world to talk with someone who disagrees with you or who thinks you’re stupid or who thinks you’re wasting their time. I’ve learned a lot about immigration issues. I’ve learned I’m not afraid to get arrested; in fact, I felt very proud. I’ve learned about all the vital work local groups and activists are doing every day. I’ve learned that I guess I should just go ahead and start calling myself a socialist. I’ve learned about my community, and the people who live here, and what they need and what they have to offer. I’ve learned a lot of good chants. I’ve learned that I am smarter and braver and more powerful than I thought I was, but that I’m smaller and more foolish than I thought I was, too.
Paste: It seems like there’s a parallel, then, between your increased level of political activism and your bike trip. Are they feeding the same part of you? It seems like the major advice for overcoming a kind of anhedonia and terrible, circular, self-conscious ruminative thinking is to get out of your own head, whether that’s through physical activity or making art or just connecting with other people.
Davis: I don’t know! Trying to get out of my own head certainly is a large part of my life. With the political stuff though . . . I felt like the election removed a block for me that I should have been able to get around on my own, but I hadn’t.
Paste: Is the present moment pushing you more strongly toward nonfiction?
Davis: I think so. I’ve been doing some reportage comics in support of groups I feel strongly about. As far as my personal stuff goes, my comics have always been thinly veiled autobiography, but it has usually been inward-looking autobio. Now the outside world has become a bigger part in my real life, and it’s become a larger part of my fiction as well.
Paste: Do you think these feelings are common among your comics peers?
Davis: With the cartoonists I’m close to, yes. That’s been very good. They are an inspiration to me.
Paste: How does making art feel now? Like a luxury? A necessity? Both?
Davis: It feels fine. It’s a gift when we get to do the things that make us happy.