After many years of warnings, mainstream culture has finally awakened to the urgency of the environmental and political crisis mankind faces. Parts of the final season of the Showtime series The Affair take place several decades into the future, in which climate change has submerged portions of Long Island. First Reformed, one of the most acclaimed films of 2018 (including on this site), dealt with a priest experiencing a spiritual crisis as he realized the full weight of the problem. Now, Eleanor Davis, one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary graphic novelists, has put her characters under the pressure cooker of rising fascism amidst dire inequality and a collapsing ecosystem.
The world of The Hard Tomorrow is our own, but set in an unspecified future and just slightly worse in every respect. Mark Zuckerberg is president, it’s possible for one’s citizenship to be revoked by the government, and new anti-protest legislation has classified megaphones as “criminal instruments.” Blight threatens to drive oak trees to extinction within a few years. Passionate activist Hannah somehow manages to keep her optimism in the midst of all this, explicitly symbolized by her dogged efforts to conceive a child with her husband Johnny. The couple live out of their truck on the land Johnny is supposed to be building them a house on, though he continually delays progress in favor of getting high and trying to cultivate an “apocalypse garden.”
The question of just what can be made of the future, and whether anything is worth fighting for, haunts the book. The arc of the story sees the rest of the cast retreat from their convictions, whether due to arrest or sheer exhaustion. Johnny’s conspiracy theorist survivalist friend Tyler advocates pure self-interest, while Hannah’s best friend Gabby has resigned herself to the end even as she continues to fight for what she believes in. Through the story, Davis mulls this spectrum of responses to seemingly intractable social issues. The thing left out of most dystopian stories is that people still have to get through everyday life in a dystopia.
The Hard Tomorrow’s vision of how that dystopia works (our own, ratcheted up a few more levels) sometimes feels politically iffy. There’s a subplot with a “friendly” cop that goes exactly where it obviously will, and the book’s depiction of “Antifa”-type protesters is almost risible, blaming them for the violence the police inflict on peaceful protesters. (As if they ever need any such excuse.) But Davis thankfully takes no shortcuts in delving into her characters, refusing to allow anyone to be less than what they may initially appear to be.
Davis is mainly known for experimental and vignette-based work, like 2014’s How to be Happy and 2018’s Why Art?. She brings that same sensibility of flexible reality to this story, freely altering a simple drawing style with pops of vivid detail emphasizing big moments. When two characters have a falling out, pieces of the background fade away with each successive panel as one stutters to get her words out, the emotional devastation of the scene rendered literally. Fitting with her themes, Davis uses repeated beat panels to express hesitancy, uncertainty, or ambivalence, whether internal or situational. The book’s ending presents such a moment, focusing on a character simply looking around them for five splash panels spread out over ten pages. The suggestion is of pure possibility and potential, and all the anxiety and hope that comes with it.