Self-help books are so subjective. Sure they promise the world, but can they really work for everyone? Fantagraphics Publishing’s book How to be Happy was on my best of lists last year, but it is very up front on how it’s not a self-help book. Frankly though, art is so therapeutic I’m not sure I agree. This book is an anthology of sorts of Eleanor Davis’ work and there’s about 15 of them. Some are sad, some are happy, but all of them bring a strong sense of humanity and examples of pain, loneliness and many more emotions we all can relate to.
How to be Happy (Fantagraphics Publishing)
One of the most interesting aspects to this book is the variation in art styles Davis uses. Two major styles that are repeated are a block print-looking style in vivid color, and pen and white paper doodle or journal-type drawing. There’s also use of watercolor and some inventive styles, one of which uses red pen. The latter style reminded me of Asterios Polyp and its inventive use of color to tell the story. Every story seems to toy with storytelling via its art style to convey either an emotion or an atmosphere. In between longer stories there are black and white pen and paper drawings, some brief and others telling a bit more of a story. These give the book the feel of a personal diary, and that further hammers home Davis’ touching on the frailer parts of humanity.
Davis opens her book telling us this book is not meant to be a self-help book and recommends a few books dealing with depression. This gives one the impression that maybe Davis has dealt with depression, so when the topic comes up later it feels incredibly real and revealing of Davis herself. In one story for instance, characters attend a camp in order to learn how to cry. It’s odd and bizarre, yet uncovers characters who wish to be unhappy on purpose. It’s a clever idea and conveys the complexity of humanity isn’t always so obvious.
Davis shares drawings of character in deep depression or sorrow as well, sometimes unconnected from any story but in only a sketch or drawing. It makes one wonder if she’s shared images she drew for herself here, which makes this anthology feel even more raw. It makes you approach the read carefully, as you must take it seriously because we are being given something so personal.
Nice line drawings within.
Two of my favorite stories in this book, and coincidentally the least unhappy of reads, are both cast in brown and told in a more traditional way. The first is about a man who plays a guitar as he walks through the forest. He encounters monsters (or are they forest spirits?) who are dancing around a fire making their own music. They are scared off by the man but the sound of his guitar brings back a female antlered creature who he takes into his cabin. He shows her his fire, feeds her and they presumably make love. Late in the night she attempts to flee but his guitar brings her back. The story captures a sense of lonlineness of the man and the magic of music, but also the things that bind us in relationships and keep us together. It’s a beautiful story and well worth the price of the book alone.
The second of my favorites is about a ferryman who is asked to ferry a fox, then an odd creature and then even more strange monsters. They all carry a sack and won’t reveal what’s in it. The man collects his fee and ignores any foolishness they may be up to, but there is definitely something going on. The story is innocent in nature, even though evil things are going on, and it captures the wickedness one might have seen in Labyrinth or Jim Henson’s Storytellers.
Other stories include children entering a house they think is haunted, how to skin a fox, and a man who is constantly making his group live by harsher rules in order to escape society’s bad influences. They all capture a different sense of humanity, but all of them come across as incredibly genuine and meaningful. Because of this the read makes you feel reflective of yourself and humanity as a whole which makes for a fine lesson of the world.
Monster mash dance!
The human experience is beautifully illustrated in this book and should be required reading for anyone who needs a reminder that we’re all frail creatures trying to make the best of it. Recommended for those who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
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