You’ll Never Know Book One: A Good and Decent Man
by Carol Tyler
Fantagraphics Books, 104 pages, $24.99.
You’ll Never Know is, for good or ill, going to elicit a lot of comparisons to Maus. They’re both memoirs. They’re both about World War II. They’re both about the child-parent relationship, and they’re both about how the war changed the people who got caught up in it and continued to affect the generations that followed.
Yet while Tyler’s work, the first in a projected three-volume series, certainly deserves any accolades it receives, it’s a much different book — warmer, more overtly affectionate and more personal to a certain extent as well. Maus is a presentation, an eloquent statement, not just on potential of comics but on the staggering injustice of a mind-numbing horror. You’ll Never Know is more like the sort of tales told during a family reunion when the subject of the conversation has left the room.
Yet the thematic notion of scars, of hurts that linger no matter how we try to pretend otherwise, lie at the heart of both books. “Not all scars are visible” is the opening mantra of Tyler’s book. Indeed, the words are embedded in the landscape — via streets signs and clouds — as Tyler’s dad makes his way home from the local hardware store. Highlights magazine meets confessional comics.
Except that Tyler’s dad, Charles, doesn’t really want to confess very much. A loving but surly and taciturn man, he’s willing to talk about his days as a WWII soldier only to a point, though he hints at “rivers of blood” early on, via a preliminary phone conversation that basically was the impetus for this book.
What exactly that phrase means is the heart of You’ll Never Know, as Tyler plays both biographer, narrator and detective, all the while attempting to make sense of her own jumbled personal life, which has been turned upside down as her husband and fellow cartoonist Justin Green has abandoned her and their teenage daughter to shack up with a former babysitter. (It’s to Tyler’s credit, by the way, and a fine example of her ability to portray a well-rounded cast of characters, that Green, despite his despicable behavior, never comes off as a monster.)
Tyler’s art is constantly inventive and alive throughout the book. full of color and energy yet incredibly lyrical and graceful when need be. I was impressed with how she could move from a rigid structure — the scrapbook-like pages that make up her father’s narrative for example — to sequences that literally break through the borders in order to convey the emotional turmoil of the individual characters.
Of course, You’ll Never Know never moves beyond hinting at the demons that taunt Charles Tyler, not surprising since there are two volumes yet to come. Besides, with a title like that, did you really expect full resolution out of the gate?
Yet so much is revealed, both about Tyler and her family, and about the “huge, exclusive” community that fought back fascism that you won’t really mind having to wait a bit for the rest of the story.
Tyler has long been a cartoonist’s cartoonist, which basically translates as “Why is no one paying attention to the awesome stuff Carol Tyler is doing?” Both in subject matter and in delivery, she seems poised to finally break free of that term.