Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Why Art? Written and drawn by Eleanor Davis (How To Be Happy, You & A Bike & A Road), this original graphic novel details the necessity of art with a blend of philosophy, spectacle, humor, and heart. This review reveals major plot points.
The life of an artist is one of uncertainty. It’s not a stable profession, and it requires considerable labor and luck to achieve success. The benefits of art on the observer are difficult to measure, and some of the most influential artists in history only gained recognition after their deaths. This career path is typically associated with young people who don’t know better, but that naiveté only lasts so long as they discover the myriad challenges of surviving off their creations. The odds are stacked against the aspiring artist, but for some, there’s no other option.
Why do people dedicate their lives to art? Why do we seek it out? Why does it make us feel things? Why does the world need it? Eleanor Davis seeks to answer these questions in her new Fantagraphics graphic novel, Why Art?, which starts as a tongue-in-cheek guidebook and morphs into something much more poignant and affirming. The scope dramatically expands on narrative, visual, and philosophical levels, and by the final page, Davis has put the fate of all humankind in the hands of artists.
I’ve previously written about Davis’ thoughts on the unique properties of comic books, originally published in Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years Of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, And Graphic Novels, but her words are so insightful that they’re worth repeating every couple years:
“Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawings are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours.”
These ideas inform Davis and Keeli McCarthy’s design for Why Art?, which has smaller dimensions (5.5 inches by 6.67 inches) akin to a pocket book. It’s a portable, sturdy paperback that fits easily in a purse or bag, but the size is also tied to its thematic content. The entire book is approximately the size of an adult hand, reinforcing the concept of holding an entire world when reading a comic. Davis wants the reader to be thinking about this, hence the cover showing four hands reaching toward a shadowbox. There’s a relationship between the physical object and the person experiencing the art, which is why seeing an original piece in a museum is different than looking at a picture of it. There is a digital edition of Why Art?, and while it’s $5 cheaper than the printed version, some of the book’s soul is lost in translation.
Why Art? begins with the titular question asked four times in a row. First on the cover, and then on the first page, where the question drifts over a small statue of a baby and a crow. This could be considered the title page if not for the formal title page that immediately follows it, which also states that this is the fourth edition of the book. The story hasn’t technically begun at this point, but Davis is engaging the reader by giving them new questions to ponder as they read. The biggest question is the title, along with smaller ones that put the reader in a more interpretative headspace. What is the importance of the statue, with its contrasting symbols of life and death? Why does Davis label this the fourth edition if it’s a brand new work?
These questions won’t necessarily pop up on the first read, but this is a book that is significantly enriched by a second pass. The importance of the statue is that it triggers personal interpretation, which is deepened the second time around after the reader has more information about the piece. The statue appears early on when Davis is organizing artworks by color. This is the most basic category, so basic that Davis doesn’t even bother coloring the objects on page. Instead, she asks the reader to project their own concept of orange and blue onto her drawings. (There is one colored sequence in Why Art?, but it illustrates the emotional qualities of color rather than their usefulness as a distinguishing surface feature.)
The baby and crow statue is both blue and orange, and on second pass, the first illustration gains the extra dimension of color in the reader’s mind. A piece of art is constantly changing, and the context of the first read makes the second a different experience. The “fourth edition” plays into this idea, suggesting that this is an updated version of a pre-existing work that has already gone through two other permutations. Even if Davis never returns to Why Art?, the reader will get an updated edition each time they return to it because so much of the book is shaped by the reader’s personal point of view.
The guidebook section kicks off with the final “Why Art?”, and the first half of the graphic novel analyzes different kinds of artwork to give readers a foundation before diving into this central question. This analysis is all done with a winking sense of humor, and the flippant tone sets a point of contrast for the harrowing story to come. Simplicity is key to Davis’ work, and this opening section reads like a children’s book with bits of text accompanied by full-page illustrations. The subject matter becomes more complex once Davis moves beyond superficial characteristics to explore the role of art in shaping identity and stimulating emotions, but she keeps the text sparse throughout to place emphasis on the imagery.
One of the most powerful images in Why Art? is also the plainest: a two-page splash of solid black that appears at major turning points in the book. The solid black rectangle represents “artworks that are meant to remind the audience of things we’d rather forget, things so awful they shouldn’t be true,” and it’s introduced with an illustration of a man clutching himself as he looks at a black rectangle hanging in a gallery. Davis expands on the devastating effect of this work in one of the longer text passages, paired with an illustration that removes the man and enlarges the black mass.
The darkness eventually takes over both pages, accompanied by a concise, highly evocative caption: “Many people try hard not to look at this sort of artwork.” The darkness will mean different things for each reader, and Davis is forcing them to engage with the awfulness. This sequence creates associations that will factor in later when the two-page splash returns, signaling the end of days for a group of artists introduced in the middle of the guidebook section.
Davis’ talent for bold, expressive character design is highlighted on the pages revealing the cast. Only some of these characters play prominent roles, but Davis imbues each of them with a distinct spirit through her costuming, body language, and facial expressions. The storytelling becomes more personal from this point forward, and Davis delves into the pressures faced by the working artist through the character of Dolores. She makes people feel loved with her art, but is forced to abandon her successful project when audience expectations diminish the truth of her vision. She goes off to create something new, but her old fans don’t want to see something that reflects her growth over time. They want something that was made by a different person, but Dolores is an agent of change, a role that will give her godly power in the book’s final moments.
Dolores and her artist cohort are about to debut their new show when the apocalypse comes, signaling the end of the guidebook section and the start of a chronological narrative that recounts how these artists escape the cataclysm and create hope for the future. The storm begins with the second all-black splash, and while there’s a literal onslaught of rain, wind, and locusts, that storm is also a symbolic overflow of all the awful things we’d rather forget. The storm is the total collapse of society, and when it all comes crumbling down, art holds the key in building it back up.
With this shift in the story, the prose becomes more descriptive and the illustrations more dramatic. Intense angles and expanded depth of field pull the reader in, giving a stronger impression of the destruction surrounding the artists and the splendor of the utopian paradise they enter when they escape into a shadowbox artwork. This is all a metaphor for finding solace in art during times of crisis, and inside the shadowbox, the artists gain the clarity and drive needed to find a potential solution to their doomsday problem.
They do this by rebuilding their old lives, eventually reaching a point where they’ve recreated the entire world they left behind. The building process satisfies most of the group, but Dolores knows there’s a greater benefit in this sprawling new artwork they’ve brought to life. She reaches down and becomes the force of destruction, delivering a mission to these tiny people: “Show us how to be brave. Show us how to save ourselves.”
This is Davis’ manifesto. Why art? Because it shows us how to be brave. It shows us how to save ourselves. She uses the end of the world to get this across, but the message resonates on a personal level. Throughout the book, Davis is exploring how art creates a bridge between the creator and the observer’s experiences, and that connection can be life-changing. At the end of the story, Davis has the artwork become a replica of the artist, but every piece is a reflection of the person who created it. Why Art? reflects the combination of empathy and imagination that has made Davis such a compelling cartoonist, and this graphic novel is an inspiring call to action for artists to create and audiences to engage.