“Why do you want to have a baby right now?” It’s a common inquiry of parents-to-be that forces them to contemplate their overall “readiness” for parenthood. Though, at its core, the question is about the ethics and practicality of bringing a child into a less than idyllic world. Eleanor Davis, author of Why Art?, explores this question through the life of Hannah in The Hard Tomorrow, a stunningly detailed black-and-white graphic novel. The answer is a complicated blend of politics and naïve belief, but it emerges in a display of hope and audacious motherhood.
Davis began working on this novel in 2016 while she and her partner tried to conceive. The presidential election raged in the background, introducing a budding conflict between Davis’ desire for a child and the culture of fear that had arisen that year. Fittingly, part of the book’s dedication is to “the person I hope to give birth to three months from when I write this….I don’t know what your future will look like.”
A specific future Davis does have in mind becomes the book’s setting. Life is plagued by climate change and looming chemical warfare. President Zuckerberg has criminalized protesters, who storm the streets with megaphones and picket signs—now classified as weapons. Citizens worry about surveillance tactics and their safety seems uncertain under the protection of a militarized police force. It may initially seem dystopic, but if readers were to transpose this setting onto their own lives, they would discover that The Hard Tomorrow is a tale of today.
The novel opens with Hannah and Johnny waking up and then having sex in the back of the camper truck they call home. Just outside looms the empty frame of their dream house. When Hannah asks Johnny about his plans to resume construction on their home—”We’re still hoping to have the whole house built by December, right?”—he doesn’t respond. After she drives away, Johnny instead smokes marijuana and flips through advertisements for vegetable seedlings.
Hannah juggles her day as a home-health worker for the elderly Miss Phyllis and as an antiwar activist with H.A.A.V. (Humans Against All Violence). These scenes give Davis ample space to showcase her illustration skills as she depicts characters and objects with astounding realism. Bodies and words crowd the panels, taking up the literal and figurative space that characters fear the government will take from them.
While leaving an H.A.A.V. meeting, Hannah sees a couple playing with their child on the sidewalk. Davis uses several panels to slowly zoom in on the faces of the mother and child, and then she renders their joy with surreal detail. This intimate viewpoint entrances readers before they realize that this is Hannah’s perspective. The following panel then adds emotional heft, revealing Hannah peering out the car window with deep longing etched across her face. It’s a bit of sleight of hand. While focusing on the moment’s emotional weight the reader forgets to be wary. Soon a police officer pulls Hannah over for running a stop sign while she was watching the family. They have a mild confrontation that ends peacefully but paranoia follows close behind.
These first few pages are a representative microcosm of Hannah’s life and the book alternates between these different environments. Readers quickly become familiar with the protagonist’s relationship with her husband Johnny, Miss Phyllis, her best friend Gabby, and Johnny’s best friend Tyler. The scene transitions aren’t always smooth and where there is conflict, Davis jumps to another hour or day with different characters, leaving us to assume the resolution. It takes a few seconds to readjust from the transitions, but nothing is ever lost. Instead, the reader must hold on to these building emotions and conflicts, adding to their ability to empathize with Hannah.
The characters are flawed but that’s essential to their humanity and engenders affection more than dislike. Readers can identify with their messiness. It’s not difficult to imagine themselves reflected in the characters. The characters’ interactions allow Davis to deftly interweave several dualities—life and death; fear and joy; love and hate; freedom and restraint; hope and despair. It is the last part that readers reckon with the most in the novel.
When Miss Phyllis inches toward death, Hannah frantically pulls her back to the present. It’s Hannah’s responsibility as a home aide, but she also needs Miss Phyllis. She can’t reconcile what’s unfolding before her. Miss Phyllis objects to getting strong again—she’s ready to die—but Hannah exclaims, “Don’t say that! ‘Thoughts become things,’ right?” Yes, but some things are beyond a person’s control. All they can do is find a way to exist within the cycles that life presents. Yet, Hannah insists on applying this unwavering optimism to all her decisions. “Thoughts become things,” and so she marches headlong in a fight for a better future.
Hannah is determined to get pregnant and raise a child in a different world, a better world. This hope often balloons and bumps up against reality, which readers see when Gabby mocks Hannah’s pleasant interaction with the “cool cop” who pulled her over earlier that week. Then later, while hunting for chanterelles in the forest, Hannah interrupts an intimate moment with her friend to express her disappointment that her period has begun. This irritates Gabby.
“Why would anyone want to have a kid right now?” Gabby snaps.
“What do you think everybody’s been fighting so hard for?” Hannah retorts. “For a peaceful future, Gabby! For the future!”
The two depart on uncertain terms until they reunite when one of their fellow activists is jailed. A major protest ignites, serving as a catalyst for immense change in the story. Tensions trembling beneath the story’s surface finally boil over and clash against each other more violently. The novel ends with a reckoning in Hannah’s marriage, friendships, and political activism, leaving the characters—and perhaps the reader—deeply changed forever.
The Hard Tomorrow is an impressively swift read that marries Davis’ storytelling and skilled illustrations. Her gorgeous line work underscores the heart-wrenching moments alongside fleeting levity. When the characters experience trauma and grief, large panels engulf the characters, allowing their emotions to swallow them and the reader as well. When a scene requires more weight, Davis gives it greater detail. And if immense gravity is required, Davis settles the frame squarely on the focus so that a handgun or pregnancy test or distressed face reverberates to the reader’s core.
The novel’s illustrations are the lifeblood of the story. If they weren’t drawn well, the storyline would not be as compelling. It’s one of the main reasons why the reader sticks with the story page after page. Hannah’s distress wafts off her in curling lines. Her joyous face encompasses entire panels. Her fight becomes the reader’s because it lifts off the page, allowing them to identify with her in a more tangible way than just reading a text.
Davis leaves a few questions unanswered at the book’s conclusion. This may draw some in for another read, while others may feel unsatisfied. Yet, there’s an overall expectation that tomorrow won’t be like it is today. This is essential to developing resilience in motherhood. There is never going to be a perfect moment to be a parent. No mother is ever going to achieve 100 percent “readiness” for whatever motherhood presents. However, a steadiness develops from the ability to move forward and confront the challenges that lie ahead—whether that’s with an abundance of hope or just the whisper of it. And as the final pages close on Hannah, readers are left with a lingering new hope.