I was first introduced to Eleanor Davis’ work after someone posted one of her short comics at an illustration blog. The comic, The Beast Mother, is a black and white mini-comic about a monstrous creature who seems to have kidnapped children and is now raising them as her own. While its cutlass and pistol-wielding hero echoed sword and sorcery, the comic resonated on a deeper level for me. It’s a strange mix of a stand alone hero story blended within a universe that is deeply grim and brimming with untold history.
The same can be said for much of Davis’ work. Her projects, even when presented as simple story, are loaded with a sense of a real past. We are rarely told the whole tale, but that’s the point. Her comics are meant to present us with a portion of time, a sliver of history shadowed and hidden. We aren’t the archeologists digging into Davis’ work. Instead, we are the museum patrons gazing at dinosaur bones from a distance.
I spoke with Davis recently about her career as an independent illustrator and artist. She imparted some really brilliant knowledge about creating not only comics, but artistic expressions. Davis also included an FAQ she shares with students, which includes some choice advice regarding a career in illustration. We’ll add a few questions from that at the bottom of the page.
I’ve read that you’ve been drawing and writing comics practically your entire life. What attracted you to comics as a young person?
My family has always been into comics. I grew up in a house full of them – my mom collected Little Lulu, my dad was really into Pogo, Popeye, Little Nemo and all the rest. I read and re-read all those comics until I had them memorized. I’m not sure if I was drawn to them because I had an innate love for comics, or if my love for comics came from reading them so much?
You’ve primarily worked in independent comics or self-publishing. What about indie comics appeals to you over something more mainstream?
I’m not a mainstream lady, I guess. I like the rawness and punkiness of indie comics. I like that indie comics don’t tend to be gender-normative; that’s very important to me. And although I see the value of fantasy & escapism, it’s not what I’m interested in exploring in my own work most of the time. I’m mostly interested in making art as a form of self-expression, & indie comics has a strong tradition of that.
You style has a dream-like quality akin to that of Winsor McCay. How did you develop your specific artistic style when drawing comics or creating illustrations?
Thank you! That’s high praise. I draw what feels true. I draw dream-like images because life is dream-like.
Do you first remember when you knew you wanted to pursue comics professionally? Was there a watershed moment that steered you in that direction?
I’m not actually a professional cartoonist, depending on your definition of professional. I’ve tried living off of the money I’ve made making comics in the past, but it was too hard! Too much work for not enough pay. Now I make a living doing illustration and I make comics for myself.
I think I realized that I was making comics that were good enough for other people to be interested in reading maybe my Junior year of college. Some cartoonists I really admired – Chris Wright, Lance Simmons and David Youngblood – asked me to put together a mini with them. That was thrilling, to get that sort of affirmation. But before that, I never doubted that I would be making comics. I just didn’t know if anyone would be reading them.
We have readers who are artists and would likely be interested in your process. How do you develop a comic like The Beast Mother from start to finish?
I did the Beast Mother my junior year of college, I think. I was in a psych 101 class & drew this image of a giant woman-beast covered with babies. As soon as I drew that image, I knew what the story would be. I just had to sort of shake it out. I thumbed the comic out in a day, then had my husband (boyfriend, then) Drew Weing read them & I edited it a bit. Drawing the whole thing took about a month, I guess. I wasn’t very fast back then. I remember all those pine trees being a real headache.
Do you have any advice to impart on up-and-coming comic creators? What would you go back and tell yourself? Would you go back and tell yourself anything at all?
A young illustrator just asked me this question; it’s a good one. Here’s what I told him, about a month ago – not much has changed since then, but ask me again in another month!
I don’t know what advice I’d give myself. My career trajectory so far has been irritatingly round-about and inefficient, but I think maybe I had to do it like I did. The big mistake I made was rush into things too fast at first & burn myself out. I tried to embark on a long series of graphic novels – my kid’s GN The Secret Science Alliance was supposed to be the first in a series – when I wasn’t fully developed as an artist yet. I signed a two-book contract & only did one book and it’s been a real headache since then. But that’s a choice other artists have made and it’s worked out very well for them.
Figure out how to be happy and have fun. There are easier ways to get love and money so if you aren’t having a good time you should rearrange your life and work process so you are having fun, or you should quit.
There’s no shame in getting a part-time job. If you aren’t strong & developed as an artist & you’re trying to make a living right away, you’re not going to make the work you want, you’re going to make work you think other people want. And that work will not be very good. If you focus on making the work that excites you, that’s important to you, that will be your best work. And then you’ll get jobs. You might need to buy time to focus on that, and in that case getting a pleasant low-key job that will get you out of the house & around people will take a lot of the pressure off.
“Don’t try to imitate another artists’ voice. Find your own voice. And don’t go looking for your own voice. Just draw and think and draw and think. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t avoid pain. Feel those feelings and draw them. Your voice it will come out on its own. Then, when it comes out, trust it.” That’s what I would tell myself. That’s what I would tell anyone, I think.
From the FAQ:
What advice would you give to an illustration student?
My advice is to have a simple, professional website that you update frequently, a decent web presence, and constantly, constantly strive to produce the best, most interesting, most honest work you’re capable of. Don’t try to do what you think other people want. You simply won’t be able to produce your best work that way. Make art that speaks to you and comes from your heart. Be true to yourself. Remember why you’re doing this. Also, live cheap and get a part-time job. Don’t think you have to make a living on art right away. It’s okay not to. Once you build up enough clients decide if you’re ready to live off of art alone.
What do you think of the current trends in illustration and where do you think this field is heading to?
I have absolutely no idea. I don’t think anyone does. People have told me I’m part of a new wave of illustrators who get more professional jobs through art directors seeing their personal work. I think that’s really neat and I’m excited to have had the opportunities I did.