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One Good Thing: The future is uncertain. This graphic novel gave me hope anyway.

The Hard Tomorrow is about seeing dark times ahead and choosing to live.

An illustration of a woman standing beneath a tree, eating a piece of fruit.
The cover of Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow.
Drawn & Quarterly
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Hard Tomorrow, cartoonist Eleanor Davis’s 2019 graphic novel, is set in 2022. Some parts of it seem unlikely to be true by next year. (Mark Zuckerberg is president, for instance.) Other parts seem more plausible: In the book’s version of 2022, megaphones have been outlawed at protests, part of the government’s crackdown on dissidents and activists. And other parts seem certain — in 2022, there are still plenty of reasons to hold protests.

The Hard Tomorrow is the story of Hannah, a 30-something woman who lives in the woods with her partner, Johnny. They are deeply in love. He is (slowly) building a house for them and the baby they’re trying to conceive, but for now, they’re living out of a combination of their cars and a camper on the property next to the house’s foundations. Johnny spends his day plotting their garden and hanging out with a friend who’s really into conspiracy theories but also owns a lot of power tools. Hannah works as a home health aide for an older woman. She’s found community in the local HAAV (Humans Against All Violence) group, an anarchist activist group that regularly protests the US government’s use of chemical warfare, holding up signs that say “Chemical Weapons Create Hell on Earth” and “Who Gassed Gaza, POTUS?”

A black-and-white illustration of a crowd of protestors holding signs and chanting, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”
A page from Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow.
Drawn & Quarterly

HAAV is where Hannah met Gabby, a fellow activist who fills a big gap in Hannah’s life — part mentor, part idol, part best friend. Hannah cuts her hair to look like Gabby’s. They sing Spice Girls songs on the way to protests and stop in the woods to harvest edible mushrooms. Johnny accuses Hannah, only half-playfully, of scheming to leave him for Gabby. Hannah loves Johnny, but she definitely has a crush on Gabby.

The Hard Tomorrow catches Hannah at an inflection point in her life, when the relationships that anchor her life are starting to give way. The woman she provides care for is ailing more and more. HAAV is about to run into trouble, upending the community Hannah has found there. And she senses a new friction in her relationship with Gabby that leaves her uncertain about her own life.

Hannah is clearly an avatar for Davis herself. “I wanted to write a book about today, and my life, but I wanted it to have the flexibility of fiction,” she told one interviewer. “Working on the book was me working through my ideas of wanting to have baby, why my husband and I wanted a baby — what that meant to us, and what that meant to the baby to be brought into this sort of world.”

In the book’s dedication, she writes:

Thank you, in advance, to the person I hope to give birth to three months from when I write this. I look forward to meeting you. I don’t know what your future will look like. I hope you will forgive us for bringing you into the beautiful and terrible world.

That “beautiful and terrible world” Davis mentions in her dedication is the lurking shadow throughout The Hard Tomorrow. Hannah and Johnny both yearn for a baby. But they and their friends question whether it’s fair or just to bring a child into a world where all that looms on the horizon is environmental collapse, an encroaching militaristic police state, and very little reason for anything like hope.

Davis illustrates her story simply; her pen-and-ink drawings render Hannah’s world in black and white, which feels like an echo of Hannah’s inner life. She is struggling to determine whether the world is stark and binary, either good or bad, or whether there are shades of gray. Are her HAAV friends as committed to the cause as she thinks they are? What if she feels a moment of connection with a cop who pulls her over — is that okay? Could the darkness have cracks in it that her longing and yearning for a better world might widen?

Throughout, Davis subtly hints at a tension between Hannah’s idyllic, almost Eden-like existence in the woods with Johnny and the outside world, which threatens their loving harmony. (On the cover, in full color, Hannah stands beneath a vine plucking grapes and eating them — the echo of the biblical story of Adam and Eve seems explicit.) Is it possible to find your own private paradise, retreat from the world, and live in peace? Or is the world so far gone that a quiet life of community and happiness is impossible to find?

A friend recommended I read The Hard Tomorrow last fall, when I had just read Sophie Yanow’s newly published The Contradictions, which touches on similar themes and with a similar semi-autobiographical style, including a protagonist named Sophie. (In October, The Cut produced a great podcast episode about The Contradictions and the questions it explores.) Both are stories of young women who care deeply about the world but aren’t sure whether they’re doing enough to change it. No matter what they do, there’s always someone who sees them as not committed or radical enough. And the world seems to be collapsing around their ears.

In both stories, I found friends. My life looks different from Hannah’s and Sophie’s in many ways. But like almost everyone I know, I struggle at times to feel hopeful about the future and worry that I am not doing enough. Pew Foundation researchers found that a broad majority of Americans are pessimistic about our country’s future, though for wildly different reasons depending on our education level and political commitments. More than half (52 percent) of the respondents in my age bracket, 30 to 49, believe that by the time we reach retirement age, the Social Security we’ve spent our lives paying into will be wiped out. Only 11 percent of us think we’ll receive the same benefits as our parents. We expect our jobs to be taken by robots, our political polarization to grow, the economy to weaken, inequality to widen, and our standard of living to grow worse as time goes on.

What’s more, the Pew study was published in March 2019, a full year before a pandemic wiped out — as of this writing — 1 in 1,000 Americans over the course of nine months and decimated businesses, homes, and families. I doubt our optimism has grown in the past year. And while activism may have seen an uptick in 2020, so has uncertainty.

This is why The Hard Tomorrow, in particular, left me with a few scraps of hope. Not because it has a “message.” Just because it exists.

Pages from The Hard Tomorrow depicting Hannah in a state of uncertainty following an attack on the activists.
Images from The Hard Tomorrow.
Drawn & Quarterly

Last year, people who exhorted others to stay positive and make goals and keep moving forward became grating. For some, the positive talk is surely helpful, but after relentless bad news and a future dense with fog, it could seem like these people were ostriches, plunging their heads into sinking sand, not paying attention to what was going on.

But on the other hand, when everything around us seems tumultuous and chaotic and just plain bad, we also have to live. We try to read a book, or watch a good movie. We play a game with a loved one over Zoom. We cheer on our friends when they get a stroke of good luck and send love when the opposite happens. We give money to the local food bank. We read about people from the past who lived through apocalyptic times. We write letters to leaders. We have babies. We send gifts. We gather strength from spiritual practices, or religious traditions, or wise mentors, dead or alive. We drink a little wine or hot cider with friends around a backyard bonfire, shivering, glad to be alive and together. We wake up every morning.

On the first day of 2021, I have no idea what to expect going forward. I expect tomorrow will be hard. Where we will be in three weeks seems unknowable, let alone three months, or 12, or more. Everything is very hazy right now. Hope may not be accessible to us. But The Hard Tomorrow makes me feel understood, and it’s a reminder that even if everything is awful, much is beautiful. The world renews itself, over and over. Spring, at least, will come. We keep going.

The Hard Tomorrow is available from its publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, through Bookshop, and through your local bookseller. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.