On the dedication page of “The Hard Tomorrow,” graphic novelist Eleanor Davis includes a message to her then unborn child: “I hope you will forgive us for bringing you into this beautiful and terrible world.”
The sentiment perfectly foreshadows the concerns of the book, and how having a child during hard times can be a leap of faith. “The Hard Tomorrow” offers a well-observed and at times suspenseful character study of two people trying to face the future.
The award-winning author of such previous graphic novels as “Why Art?” and “How to be Happy?,” Davis is a University of Georgia professor who lives in Athens. “The Hard Tomorrow” captures the vibe of an American college town small enough to be close to a wilderness, but large enough to support a diverse activist community.
Young married couple Hannah and Johnny fulfill what could be considered a hippie idyll, deeply in love and living in the woods with a shaggy dog in the back of a truck. A home eldercare worker, Hannah is the breadwinner as Johnny sells — and occasionally smokes — marijuana while ostensibly building their future house. Davis draws the black-and-white panels with fine, loose lines that capture the couple’s casual, bohemian lifestyle. They also seem just a little vulnerable: If rendered more heroically, they’d seem unthreatened by the trials to come.
Each of them grapples with adult responsibilities. Hannah worries that Johnny is too easily distracted to complete their house before winter. She is hopeful that she’ll become pregnant while Johnny, ironically, seems more invested in buying crop seeds than conception.
Between visits to a frail retiree, Hannah volunteers with an activist group called Humans Against All Violence (HAAV), which protests U.S. involvement in chemical warfare. While “The Hard Tomorrow” feels strongly informed by the political climate of the late 2010s, Davis hints at a near future that’s pushed modern trends a little further. The U.S. president is identified as “Zuckerberg,” implying that the founder of Facebook now sits in the Oval Office and that social networks can be used for government monitoring. Meanwhile, law enforcement is cracking down on public protests with new laws ruling that megaphones are “criminal instruments.”
At one point, HAAV leader and mother of two, Eun-Ha, gives a speech to a crowd while holding one of her children as Hannah watches, holding the other. It reinforces how, for Hannah, activism is about working to improve things for the next generation, that trying to get pregnant goes hand in hand with trying to fight social ills.
Hannah and Johnny each have friends who subtly pull them away from their marriage. Hannah seems to have a crush on her best friend Gabby, a naturalist, and when they go foraging for berries and mushrooms, she’s almost flirtatious. When Gabby lifts Hannah on her shoulders to pick fruit, Hannah extols how strong she is, perhaps in contrast to Johnny’s lack of follow-through.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s pal Tyler shares their belief in self-sufficiency and living off the grid, only carried to extremes. A survivalist and conspiracy theorist, Tyler seems to value guns more than women and questions the value of marriage by claiming that “women are 75 percent less efficient at burning energy than men.” Davis draws Tyler’s features with effective simplicity: narrow, slit-like mouth, eyes like black dots behind spectacles. Your muscles practically tighten whenever he’s on a page.
Although he’s a fringe figure, Tyler is not easily dismissed. Just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the use of devices or drones to keep Americans under surveillance. He shows a genuine concern over Johnny’s well-being, whether observing safe building practices or making sure he’s ready for the imminent fall of civilization.
One of Davis’ strengths is how effective “The Hard Tomorrow” subverts expectations. When Hannah gets pulled over for running a stop sign, she’s immediately defensive, only to find the police officer to be sensitive and easygoing. But while the first half of the book feels like a slice-of-life movie from a director like Tamara Jenkins or Richard Linklater, the pressures build until events come to a head, including acts of violence from seemingly out of the blue.
Davis’ cartooning is especially effective at capturing the rush of protest marches, with two-page, “Where’s Waldo”-like spreads conveying the activity of crowds and spiky word balloons reproducing the volume and rhythm of chants. A night-time demonstration in the face of a potential police crackdown proves breathlessly suspenseful. But Davis is equally good at using her pages and panels to zero in on small, quiet moments that can have equivalent impact.
The heart of “The Hard Tomorrow” lies in Hannah and Johnny’s relationship and their emotions. The book is not about providing clear-cut solutions. Multi-volume prose books struggle to resolve the sociopolitical problems of today, so no one expects Davis to solve everything in a 150-page graphic novel. The book so purposefully avoids tying off some plot threads that a reader might be initially frustrated.
“The Hard Tomorrow” does suggest that sometimes, in the face of adversity, clinging to other people may be one’s only option, and the book’s drawn-out, cathartic climax feels true to the characters, even as it avoids tidy resolutions. It can even leave the reader wondering if a sequel may be an option, which suggests a different kind of hope for the future.