For fans of Davis’ short stories, this volume is the treasure we have been waiting for. For those new to her work, this is going to be a treat. Collecting a wide range of her stories from various anthologies, including Nobrow 7 (“In Our Eden”) and Fantagraphics much-missed Mome (“Nita Goes Home,” “Stick and String,” “Seven Sacks,” “Thomas the Leader”), along with several pieces previously only encountered online, How to Be Happy is the highly anticipated first volume of one of our most talented cartoonists.
Having read her work in small installments over the course of several years, I had not realized until reading them in How to Be Happy how much of a piece they truly were. As the title suggests, the stories are overwhelmingly about individuals trying to define and achieve happiness, and about all the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of that fundamental human fantasy. Indeed, as one fairly brutal short story, “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You,” reminds us, many of us owe our very existence to our parents’ fantasy that having a baby would compensate somehow for their own profound unhappiness (raising the inevitable question: if humanity found this happiness we are seeking, would we in fact have no future as a species?). However, “Darling” is relatively exceptional among the works collected in this volume in its bleak tone, and the majority of the stories—even as they present happiness as always slipping just out of reach or changing fundamentally its nature in the possession—celebrate the beauty of the pursuit.
It is only appropriate that the volume opens in a utopian community, where “Adam”—an ex-manager of a Bass Pro Shop in Tampa formerly known as Darryl—watches his fellows abandon his society one after another, until only “Eve” remains. “I’m ready,” he declares at the story’s end, “for the weight to lift.” Are we to read the final panel's embrace as a promise that this wished-for release might finally be coming? Or, an in “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You,” is this yet another retreat from the reality of the failure to achieve “bliss” on earth? Like most of the stories in this volume, Davis does not give us the answer. She neither condemns nor romanticizes her characters, but accepts them on their own terms.
In the science fiction story “Nita Goes Home,” for example, a young woman who has abandoned the hypermodern city of her childhood for a rural life returns home to say goodbye to her dying father. She is full of righteous contempt for the pop-ups that dominate every square inch of the city, for the hazard suits everyone must wear to go outside, and for the artificial fruits and vegetables that populate the grocery stores. But her own life on the farm—growing foods in the earth and living free of protective garments—is one that is possible only because of the full dome that protects its citizens from the elements and one financed by the extortionist prices they charge for their “gaiagrown” produce to those trapped in the city. Is one life more “pure,” more righteous than the other? More urgently, given the title of the volume, has Nita found happiness?
Once again, Davis doesn’t so much invite us to pass our own judgement so much as she welcomes us to engage the characters and their choices without judgment. In a society in which our every lifestyle choice is publicized on social media as if it were scripture and scrutinized by the mob of rival would-be messiahs we call “friends,” being asked not to judge the pursuits of happiness of others feels truly strange. And beautiful.
And the book is, in every way, beautiful. Bringing together works in color (often layers of color without lines) with black-and-white pen and ink stories that activate the narrative energy of negative space in surprising ways, the volume is a delight just to stare at. Even for those stories that did not for me rise to the affective level of “Nita” or “In Our Eden”—such as “Summer Snakes”—the visual storytelling is so rich as to more than compensate for an undercooked narrative.
How to Be Happy is a book I will be returning to many times in the years to come, not in the hopes that it will, in fact, teach me how to be happy (Davis offers a disclaimer to that effect in the “Author’s Note”), but with confidence that it will continue to remind me why the pursuit of happiness can be such a beautiful thing indeed.
NOTE: I do have one significant bone to pick with the volume, or its editing. A collection such as this demands a proper accounting of original dates and sites of publication for each of the pieces, along with a table of contents—and not only for old bibliographers like myself.