A Spoked-wheel View of America by an Award-winning Comics Artist

by Chris Gavaler

3 May 2017

Eleanor Davis documents her up-hill struggle with America and her weak-kneed self in 'You & a Bike & a Road.
 
cover art

You & a Bike & a Road

Eleanor Davis

(Koyama)
US: May 2017

You & a Bike & a Road is Eleanor Davis’ personal exploration of roadside America, US immigration politics, and the autobiographical comics form. Unlike graphic memoirs, which allow authors to shape their narratives with the guiding awareness of their conclusions, Davis commits to the more challenging limitations of unedited diary entries that progress as she herself progresses on a 2,300-mile bike journey.

She, like her readers, doesn’t know whether she will be able to complete her planned Tucson-Athens trip or, more importantly, overcome her suicidal depression. When people ask, she says she doesn’t want to put the trip off until after she’s had a baby or, less convincingly, that she doesn’t want to ship home the bike her father made for her. “I don’t say,” she paradoxically says: “I was having trouble with not being alive.”

After establishing high personal stakes, Davis steers onto political terrain. Her 2016 journal begins on 16 March and ends on 13 May. During that two-month span, Donald Trump raced from front runner to sole remaining candidate in the Republican primaries. Davis never mentions Trump, but his presence haunts her narrative, if only retrospectively, since Davis doesn’t have her readers’ hindsight to know how his immigration policies would resonate a year later.

On Day 3, her thought balloon wonders “Border patrol?” as a helicopter—drawn not from her perspective but a higher, seemingly omniscient one—dwarfs her tiny cartoon self. Her narrating text floats in the open spaces surrounding the images: “They circled around tight and then flew down very low. I guess low enough to see the color of my skin.”

Day 4, a distraughtly drawn B&B owner warns her against sleeping in the desert, but Davis decides “not to listen to anyone who uses the word ‘illegals.’” On Day 6, she estimates one of every six cars is border patrol. The WUB WUB WUB of patrol copters follows her to the Rio Grande, where her carton self looks back to shout, “FUCK YOU, NEW MEXICO.”

But Texas proves worse. In the book’s longest multi-page sequence, she watches a patrol team try to lasso a man from a river: “I’d thought he was a big man, but when I moved around to see his face he’s thin and young.” A page later a patrol blimp hovers at the margin of an open sky.



Though Davis stays with a generous couple who “hate Republicans!”, she doesn’t vilify. On Day 30, she asks a border patrolman for water and he gladly gives it—though, she notes, without asking for her I.D., adding: “Why would he?” Patrols vanish once Davis leaves Texas, but Day 50 she rides through a Louisiana military reserve with Arabic signage and an empty “recreation of an Afghan town” that evokes a decade of war in the Middle East.

Five days later, Davis ends her trip in Mississippi as she waits in a “Historic Plantation House” with a Confederate flag hanging from a porch column. “Nostalgia for an evil time,” narrates Davis, but then she gives the widow who runs the B&B a seven-page sequence, the book’s second longest, ending with Davis in tears of sympathy.

Much of the journal is portraits of such strangers, usually people Davis chats with as she stops to eat or ice her knees: a moustached man in Starbucks asks about her preference for frozen green beans; two Hell’s Angels-like motorcyclists jokingly offer to pull her by a rope; a weightlifter-sized acupuncturist in granny glasses tells her to take better care of herself; a widowed bartender introduces her to his new wife; a fellow bicyclist teams up with her against the Austin traffic. “We’re both loners,” explains Davis, “so we like each other,” but she seems to have found the same kind of connection with everyone she draws: “Meet some strangers. Get to know them and they get to know you. Now they are your people.”

Older friends appear, and her parents, who drive twice to meet her, and her husband, who Davis draws always seated at his desk with their cat as they speak by phone but the core character is, of course, Davis. Her journal is not a sequence of drawn snapshots taken from her sketchbook’s roaming point of view. Instead, Davis consistently draws herself into scenes, imagining her appearance more than documenting it. Her physical self, even when not drawn, is always narratively present.

Her body is also specifically female—evoking fear on her behalf from strangers, as well as Davis’s own fantasies of stabbing would-be rapists in the face. She draws only slightly less blood when washing her hands off in an abandoned church yard after forgetting to put in a tampon. With the exception of a half-nude washcloth bath in a presumably locked public bathroom, Davis draws herself androgynously. She, like everyone else, is a few, gestural lines, rarely more than an outline with a minimal number of internal lines to define basic features.

Those features are intentionally cartoonish, with her head impossibly tiny atop a wide and often breast-less torso. Emanata radiate from her crosshatched knees—her most important body parts and the narrative’s most repeated heroes and obstacles. Shortly before Davis calls her husband to pick her up a month and a state early, her legs are ropes of skinless muscles, the journal’s most detailed drawing.

Her decision is anti-climatic, not simply because it ends the intended narrative prematurely, but because Davis depicts the event briefly and with little reflection: “Oh! It would have felt so good to bike all the way there! But if feels good, too, to let myself stop.” She acknowledges in her July afterword: “50-mile days for multiple weeks was too much for me… Learn from my mistakes!”, but the larger stakes she established in the opening pages receives no gestures of closure.

Formally, the graphic journal remains a success. By writing and drawing each numbered entry while in route, Davis interrogates the nonfiction norms of graphic storytelling. “On the map,” she writes on Day 1, “Marshstation looks like this,” and draws a single winding line of a road. On the facing page, she writes: “In real life, it looks like this,” and draws a vibrant landscape but rendered in the same line quality and with symbolically simplistic details that make the image in some ways less “real” than the accurately duplicated map.

Davis twice draws herself drawing journal pages, a meta effect heightened by the placement of the internal content—the carefully rendered border patrol scene—on the previous pages: “I spend all morning drawing a comic about a young man I saw getting arrested in Fort Hancock.” Day 55 she laments: “Well, if my knees weren’t slowing me down, I certainly wouldn’t be drawing all of these comics,” emphasizing that all of the images of Davis in motion were drawn while Davis was stationary.

The paradox is common to comics, and Davis acknowledges it early in the journals’ only framed images. A three-panel row depicts a bird in motion, except Davis’ text contradicts the drawn effect: “There’s a bad headwind … Across the road from me is a hawk going my way. He’s flapping his wings but he’s just hanging there, not moving forward at all.”

Davis, however, does move forward—through space, politics, her life, and through the reinvigorated comics form.

You & a Bike & a Road

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