Carol Tyler’s 2005 book is appropriately titled “Late Bloomer. The talented cartoonist wasn’t published until her thirties, but she’s been making up for it ever since. Her new comic, “You’ll Never Know: Book II, Collateral Damage,” is her third book in less than a decade and the second volume of a trilogy addressing her family history, revolving around her father’s service in World War II. The first volume, subtitled “A Good and Decent Man,” tells the story of her father’s war service, her parents’ courtship and her own youth. This latest volume, also published through Fantagraphics and named one of CBR’s best books of 2010, goes even deeper into her parents’ life.
Tyler, a veteran of anthologies like “Weirdo,” “Wimmens Comix,” “Drawn and Quarterly” and “Kramer’s Ergot,” has been probing her own life for years, but in these books she manages to dissect her family while also arguing that WW II has shaped all of us in ways that are both small and large.
The book is also notable as being arguably one of the most beautiful comics of the year. Tyler was trained as a painter and her use of color and working with 10.5″ by 12″ pages mean that they don’t quite look or feel like any other books. Tyler spoke with CBR News about her work, the Veterans project she’s started with her students at the University of Cincinnati and more.
CBR News: What has the experience of telling your father’s story in “You’ll Never Know: Book II, Collateral Damage” been like?
Carol Tyler: Probably the most difficult thing I’ve done on every level — mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually — but it’s also been the most awesome thing, bringing joy and highs and insight. I’m dealing with the primary themes of one’s life, and to do these themes justice, I really have had to fully go there. So I’ve been to war for quite awhile now.
There’s a piece I did for “Kramer’s Ergot” #7 in 2007, back when I got started on this epic effort. It pretty much says, “Nuts! I will not be defeated by the burdens and distractions trying to keep me from finishing.” Although I knew what it meant back then, I really know what it means now.
A lot of your previous comics work has been autobiographical stories, and “Collateral Damage” is as well, but it’s also about your family, your generation and bigger issues.
True. I widened the circle a bit, because I thought Dad’s story was important to future generations. I saw his era and the people from that time passing into oblivion in so many little ways. I just hate it. I know you can’t stop time or deny change. I’m for change. Change is good — and it’s the nature of reality. I guess I just wanted to hold on to them a little longer.
And, once I’m gone, they are really gone, as I’m one of the last witnesses to their history.
When you were first working on these books, did you think of them as three volumes — or at least three distinct parts — and how they would relate? How did the structure of the project evolve?
In the beginning, I was so unaware of where I was going! I had a general sense, but not a specific plan. I knew what the ending would be and how to start it and then I just had to jump in and untangle the middle. At a certain point, I knew how to proceed.
One of the reasons I broke it up into three books had to do with my parents both being 90 somethings, with the precariousness of their age and all that.
How did your parents react to the first volume and was it different from their reactions to the second? Your father becomes a much more complex character, but it is a warts and all portrayal.
Definitely! They were proud of the first volume — I mean the book is subtitled “A Good and Decent Man.” Book II, they had a harder time understanding what was going on there. It’s tough reading of how your child was hurt by your actions. My Mom can’t deal with the Hannah Story. It just became this wave of “too much” that turned to fog.
As for creating a realistic portrayal, that’s how I roll, baby! How can you show a person without dimensions? The trick is to not be mean spirited about it. That’s all.
Your daughter was listed as one of the major characters in the first book, but it’s in the second volume where she really becomes a central character. Did you always know that her story would be a key part of this project?
I knew that her story would be important, that her experience would serve as a metaphor for the dysfunctional dynamic and bad decisions she had no control over. She’s the real time kid for the reader to identify with.
This volume really makes the connection between this tough, stoic, can-do attitude and this cold, unemotional distance that your father had. What’s interesting is how that attitude has been elevated to this ideal in a way that’s really shaped all of us since. When you started working on this project, were you conscious of the idea that the defining moment for them and all of us since has been World War II?
I have said that all along. I believe the damage leveled upon an entire generation of (primarily) men by WWII absolutely defined our Baby Boom generation. All that so called indulgence we’ve been accused of. Emotionally shut off children love hula-hoops! And drugs! Look at the bloody trail of bad relationships and general self-destructive behaviors we got into. Book I says, “I hurt you to harm your children.” This is the legacy of war.
So how far along are you into the third volume?
I’m about a third of the way. [I’m dealing with many, many justified distractions at the present time having to do with family and health. It’ll get done.
What will the third volume look like and what will be its defining theme?
Gosh, I hesitate to give away too many details. To be brief: resolution of issues and the nature of forgiveness, to name two. A few surprises, also. Some driving around in trucks to key places.
Now, in your old story “The Outrage,” which was collected in “Late Bloomer,” it ended on a “To Be Continued.” Going back and re-reading it, “You’ll Never Know” really feels like the extension of that story. Was that conscious or intentional?
“The Outrage” was the beginning of a longer story about the crisis that came up with Justin leaving. But then I realized how much my Dad’s opening up about war really did dovetail timewise with my personal drama. I had them in my mind as separate stories but then it became obvious that they were truly interconnected.
How do you work? Because your pages really do stand out.
I work in colored ink that I custom mix. As for the layouts, it’s an idea in my head first followed by tight pencils, then background ink washes, finished with top inking, usually the dark lines. That’s it. And it’s all done by hand. I clean up splotches and mistakes in Photoshop after scanning, but really, that’s all there is. It’s very labor intensive, but I guess that keeps me out of trouble.
“You’ll Never Know” is likely the first time many people have encountered your work, and I’ll be honest, I never knew your work before “Late Bloomer,” which would have been in 2005. I know you weren’t published until the eighties. How did you end up becoming an artist and turning to comics?
Like most comics people, I started as a child, took art in high school, went to college for art, etc. In graduate school in the early 80s, I started adding text to my paintings about the same time I was re-introduced to comix. I read comix in my hippie days and left them behind. I didn’t read comics much as a child. The Sunday Funnies of course — I followed “Nancy” in the daily paper in the 60s. But I had no aspiration to be a cartoonist. I still don’t think of myself as such. I wanted to tell stories, so I got into doing it with pictures and came to see how language and text could coexist with imagery and convey meaning. It’s a funny little dance.
You teach at the University of Cincinnati and have done an interesting project with your students and veterans. I was just wondering if we could wrap up with you talking a bit about that.
I’m an adjunct. I teach one class called “Comics, Graphic Novels & Sequential Art.” Usually, by Spring Quarter, my students have been trained in enough basics to handle a bigger project, so they are paired up with a Veteran who comes to the classroom to be interviewed. The students then take the information, create a two-page story and present it back to the Veteran about a month later in a nice booklet format.
See, many of the lessons in class up to that point have been sort of autobiography-based. With this Veteran project, by emphasizing the meaning of service to something other than oneself, the outcome is always incredible. The Humanities meet the Arts. Then comes Comics Presentation Day, usually around Memorial Day, and the families come along to the classroom with the Veterans. We have a little flag ceremony. It’s just wonderful. It’s very moving.
The thing is, I’m completely for peace and non-violence, but I’ve been involved with this army stuff for a while now to understand it. I really appreciate the soldier.