Eleanor Davis Interview

I was so enthralled with Eleanor Davis's graphic novel The Secret Science Alliance and enchanted by Stinky that I had to know more about the amazing person who created these spectacular, perfectly balanced books that combine a very visual storytelling style and just the right amount text to make a new, for me anyway, kind of reading experience. As an art school drop-out, I was fascinated to learn the about the many aspects that go into creating sequential art (the fancy art school term for comic books.) As a lover of novels with almost no background in reading graphic novels, I was hoping for some education and maybe even a little instruction in appreciating the art of the comic book. Eleanor was extremely articulate, interesting and helpful! Lastly, I was very excited to discover that the British newspaper The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on Fairy Tales and invited Eleanor to illustrate Beauty and the Beast, Hans the Hedgehog and The Monkey and the Shark. I have included one illustration. Here is the link to the post on LiveJournal where you can also read the fairy tales!

(My questions are in yellow)

How did you decided to go to art school and did you choose Savannah College of Art and Design specifically because of the Sequential Art program they have?

I decided to go to art school because I wanted to go to college but I didn't want to ever have to write another school paper! But I did love art, and I was already really into comics and excited to pursue them more seriously.
Did you have a foundation year at SCAD where everyone took the same basic classes, regardless of major? If so, what was your favorite? What was the most challenging?

Yup, we all had foundation classes. Color Theory, Drawing 1, Life Drawing 1 and 2, 2-D Design, etc. My favorite were probably the life drawing classes. Life Drawing 1 might have been the most challenging, because I had to learn how to draw in new ways that I wasn't used to, and that initially I really struggled against - I was a very fast drawer, for instance, and the first time I had to draw a long 6 hour long pose I felt like I was going crazy! But one of the most important things art school can do is challenge you and force you to work in new ways. I ended up being very thankful for every teacher who would say "Good job. Now do it completely differently."

What were the names of some of the classes you took in the Sequential Art program?

Intro to Sequential, Pencilling and Inking 1 and 2, Materials and Techniques, Alternative Comics, Survey of Sequential Art.... there were a lot!

We live in a pretty work oriented society, one that does not always see the value of an education for the worth of the education itself but as a stepping stone to a job. Did you ever wonder/worry about what kind of career you would have after graduation?

When I was an undergrad, I was mostly too stupid to think much about what kind of job I was going to have after graduation! I just figured I would be a glamorous 'starving artist' type, I guess. (!?) Currently, I've found that working full time as an illustrator is way too much stress, so I work part-time at a really nice co-op grocery store and part time doing art and freelance work.
I don't know a thing about the world of zines and mini-comics, except that they are usually hand made, not produced by a publishing house. How do you share what you make with others? Do you have a Mini-Comicon? Have you ever had a booth at Comicon? I'm guessing that the internet makes the world of mini-comics and zines a lot smaller?

Yup, minis and zines are usually xeroxed or otherwise produced oneself, sometimes very simply, but sometimes put together very artistically with fancy covers, or fold-outs, or in interesting shapes and formats. People who make mini-comics can go to small press conventions like SPX, MoCCA, APE, Stumptown, or my hometown's own Fluke. You can sell over the internet, or at indy-friendly comics and book stores. My husband Drew and I go to some conventions and sell some over the internet. But the print runs of most minis are very small- from 50 to 500 copies would be about average, I would guess. The internet has really changed the mini-comics community. Back in the late 80s - early 90s, access to cheap xerox technology gave people a chance to be heard in a way that wouldn't have been possible before. Diaries, political opinions, ranting, comics, record reviews, anything you wanted could be put into a zine. These days, people who just want to be heard are more likely to have a blog or a Flickr account where you can reach far more people in far more places. Folks who are into mini-comics now are often attracted by the physical object itself, or the potential for papercraft, things like that.

Do you ever create artwork to that is shown in galleries?

Yup, I'm often in Giant Robot's group shows. I'm doing a show in Kate Guillen!

How did you connect with Françoise Mouly at TOON Books? I have read a few interviews with her, is she as cool as she seems?

Françoise found my website and contacted me about the TOON books project. And, she's even COOLER than she seems! She's not only a powerhouse and an amazing editor and art director, she's interesting and funny and really, really nice!

Had you written Stinky before connecting with TOON Books?

Nope! I came up with the idea after Françoise contacted me.

Did you draw, ink and color Stinky?


I was admiring your original art for sale at Little House Comics, the website you and your husband, Drew Weing who is also an artist, share. I noticed that there were no word bubbles in the art. What comes first for you, the picture or the words?

Many of my comics I go ahead and put the word bubbles, and words, in the original art. The exceptions are Stinky and SSA because we needed to be able to edit things up to the last minute. But when I create a comic, I'm usually thinking about the words and the pictures simultaneously. I sketch lots of little thumbnails and write down tons of notes before I go to finished art.

Francoise Mouly and Jonathan Bennett are credited for Book Design on Stinky. What does this mean?
I only made the images and words; Françoise and Jonathan were the ones who put them together into a beautiful book. That's a big job including decisions about book size, paper stock, indicia, endpapers, color scheme, placement of spot illos, and cover design - those nice spines all the toon books have, the lovely matte hardcovers, the title design, etc.

For people like me who aren't familiar with the world of comics, what does "inking" mean?

Many commercial artists working in traditional media like their art to be easily reproduced - like nice, crisp, black ink. But working straight in ink is hard because you cant erase, so many artists do an under-drawing called 'pencilling', finish the drawing in ink, and then erase the pencils. In traditional comics, these two jobs have often been split between professional pencillers and professional inkers.

Your husband inked The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook. How/why did you decide to have him do the inking and have

I was running behind of my deadlines! And Drew is an amazing inker, and had been heavily involved with the book from the start. So when he offered, I jumped on the chance to be able to work with him on this project.

I know that computers are used for creating illustrations these days, did you use a computer for either of your books?

Computers are used less in most art than you might think, even art that's created using digital media - there's always a live person behind every line! For SSA, we used the computer in a couple different ways. I scanned my pencil drawings and printed them out in light blue for Drew to ink - I like to pencil small and Drew likes to ink big, so this way I was able to blow up my art. Drew's inks look almost computer-precise, but actually they are drawn by a metal quill pen dipped in ink the ultra-old-fashioned way. Then we scanned Drew's inks and our awesome colorists, Joey Weiser and Michele Chidester, colored them in in Photoshop. Finally, Bryant, our letterer, put in the words working from a script I had given him.
You mentioned in an interview that you do a lot of work with your husband, brainstorming and sketching together. I have always wondered how two artist collaborate on a piece? Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher are a team who have illustrated many children's picture books. When I read one of their books, I always scrutinize the artwork to see if I can tell who did what. Can you describe the process of working together for you and Drew?

Drew and I mostly brainstorm together, and give each other input and critiques. We fight a lot! (But mostly in a good, productive way ;) .) Or, we parcel out the work, like when I pencil and Drew inks. I think every artistic team kind of has to figure out their own way of working - it's a challenge for sure!

From reading interviews, I know that your parents were into comics, so you grew up with comic books in your house and expanded your interest from there. I grew up in a house with no comic books, in fact, I never even read the comics in the newspaper. I think reading Gary Larson's Far Side one panel comics has been the extent of my appreciation up until the last year. I have to admit, as someone who has a passion for reading novels, I feel like I'm cheating somehow when I read a book that has more pictures than words. I also feel like I am cheating (or being cheated?) when I read a book in one sitting, as I do with the kid's graphic novels I've been picking up lately. What's wrong with me? How can I shift my attitude so that I can really appreciate the graphic novels I have been reading and enjoying?

Well, every artwork needs to be judged on its own merits. But there are really good comics out that are excellent works of art. Most people think of film as being a fine art form, and most movies take under two hours to watch. A great piece of music can be only a couple minutes long. A timeless painting, or a lovely haiku, can be taken in even more quickly. Every art form is unique, with it's own benefits and limitations.

Likewise, when I first saw The Seven Samurai I felt weird - it was supposed to be a great film, but it was so fun to watch! The idea that anything good has to be hard work is pernicious for sure, and has resulted in a lot of bad art whose creators think they just have to be really boring and oblique.

Additionally, people new to comics often read them too quickly because they aren't used to really looking at the pictures - they just skip from word balloon to word balloon. It can take some time to learn to read comics slowly, looking at every image and letting it speak for itself.

Like any work of art, I judge a comic by the emotions it makes me feel, whether it stays with me and I find myself thinking about it after I'm done, and whether I find myself revisiting it again and again.

I read that some of your childhood favorites were Eloise, by the amazing team of Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, and Janet and Alan Ahlberg, creators of the incredible Jolly Postman Books, among others. I LOVED Eloise as a kid - I still have my mom's falling apart copy. I remember doing a 3-D book report on the book when I was in 5th grade (even though it's a picture book) and making a diorama of her very messy bedroom and a little Eloise doll out of pantyhose. I have a print Hilary Knight did in celebration of Eloise's 40th birthday with 40 different images of her. Hilary Knight's style is very illustrative, almost comic like. Do you think this is part of what drew you to the book as a child? I think that Janet Ahlberg's style of illustration is a bit comic like as well, with the inked outlines of her characters and scenery.

Cool! That diorama sounds great! Boy, do I love Eloise. I grew up reading the copies that my mother grew up reading when she was a girl, and I poured and poured over them. (A good example of the potential lasting value of a quick read!) Hilary Knight and Janet Ahlberg could be called cartoonists, if they wanted, not just because of the style they draw in, but because of what they draw, I think - they both do a lot of sequential storytelling within their illustrations. And their drawings are lively and inviting, and they put in so many wonderful details that multiple readings are really rewarding, especially for young readers. Eloise, the Ahlberg books, and kids comics are like magnets for kids that haven't quite learned to read yet because there's a lot you can get out of them even if you can't read the words.

Now, on to The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook! I have to say, one of the things that drew me to Stinky right off the bat was the map of the swamp at the front of the book. I am a huge fan of maps and will buy almost any book with a map in it, even if it is a map of a kitchen. In a way, many of your illustrations in The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook are maps or map like. What role did maps play when you were illustrating The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook?

I love maps! I love how long you can spend looking at maps, and just how much information they can show. In a way, comics are one of the few art forms that can seamlessly incorporate maps and diagrams, and the reader themselves can pour over them and appreciate them. I liked using maps and diagrams in SSA for many reasons: they're great for clear storytelling, they add to the scientific feel of the book, they are uniquely suited to the comics medium, and kids really like them.
As I said in my review of The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, I felt like I had read a 200 page young adult novel when I turned the last page of your book. Aside from a really great plot, I think a large part of this comes from the extremely well developed characters of Julian, Greta and Ben. What went into thinking up these three? How did you decide to give Ben the big eyebrows? How did you decide to make Greta African American? And motherless? How did you decide to make Julian the main character and new kid at school rather than Greta or Ben?

Aw, shucks! Thanks for the flattery. And I'm glad you like Julian and Greta and Ben! Character development is interesting, because it happens kind of while you aren't looking, and characters take off on their own in directions you weren't even expecting. Greta I wanted to have be the sort of butt-kicking super-girl I idolized when I was little. Greta's crazy personality stemmed from drawing her riding bikes a lot, and suddenly she was wearing her bike helmet all the time, and saying crazy stuff about protecting her brain, and getting really into security. I wanted to show with Ben that just because you get bad grades in school doesn't mean you're dumb - and then that led to exploring why he got bad grades, and just who was telling him he was dumb anyway. Julian was introduced first because there's such an incredible thrill to finding friends when you're friendless. And I wanted to include black and hispanic characters because I just think it's really weird for white people to only write about white people (lame!).

I read in an interview that you were and are still a bit of an inventor - a Kleenex box with a secret compartment for snacks, a desk-bookcase-bunk bed and a tiny house with wings, to name a few. When you were creating the inventions that Julian, Ben and Greta come up with, how closely did you feel you had to stick to reality?

Drew and I both felt strongly that there was a thin line we wanted to walk where the inventions in the book were thrilling and fantastical, but still realistic enough that a normal little kids might really think they could build that stuff themselves. Most kids believe they could probably build an airplane if they wanted to, although they probably know they wouldn't be up for building a rocket to the moon. I wanted young readers to feel like they could be friends with Greta and Julian and Ben, and be inventors with them.
When you were conceiving The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, how did you figure out how many panels to have on a page, or per scene?

Lots and lots and lots of thumbnails. Thumbnails are very tiny sketches of each page. It was like putting together a giant puzzle where some pieces kept getting taken and out and new pieces kept getting put in. In general, I tried to fit 5 to 6 panels on a normal page.

Writing SSA - the thumbnailing part - took about a full year. We didn't even start the final art until that stage was completely finished! The final art took another 8 months or so. It was a time consuming project!
I have to say, in addition to your great story telling in The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, I am sure that part of the reason I felt like I had read a traditional novel by the time I finished was because of the sheer volume of images, information and detail included on every page! How on earth did you manage to pack in so much detail and keep the illustrations looking so crisp and easy to follow?

It took a lot of time! I love drawing little details, but I knew I couldn't let it distract from the story, so I always tried to make sure each page was clear first and foremost. Drew precise inking and Joey and Michele's coloring also kept things from looking messy.

Is The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook going to be a series?

I'm afraid not! Although I loved working on SSA, it was a time-consuming book, and I'm excited about moving on to other projects.
I know that you are collaborating on a book with your mother, Ann Davis. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yes! I'm very excited about it. It's a YA murder mystery set in Samarkand in 700's, starring a girl named Katta. My mom's a history teacher and it's been really exciting working with her on it. If it's half as fun to read it as it's been to write it so far, it'll be a doozy!

Thank you so much for opening up a new world of reading to me with The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook and Stinky!!! I am really enjoying the graphic novels I have been reading - Amulet by Kazo Kibuishi is one of my favorites so far. I also really like The Fog Mound Trilogy by Susan Schade and Jon Buller. Where should I read next in my auto-didactic exploration of the world of graphic novels?

Oh, golly, there are so many!!! For kids: Little Lulu by John Stanley, anything by Carl Barks, anything by Raymond Briggs, The Little Vampire Series by Joann Sfar, Dragonball and Kowa! by Akira Toriyama (these contain some mild nudity), Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Bone by Jeff Smith, TinTin by Herge, Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo, and many more! For grownups: Anything by Dan Clowes, Gipi, Joann Sfar, Gabrielle Bell, Art Spiegelman, Lewis Trondhiem, Rutu Modan, Joe Sacco, Dan Zettwoch, Kevin Huizenga, Chester Brown, Michel Rabagliati, Abouet and Oubrerie - the list is impossibly long.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and I look forward to your next book!

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