‘You’ll Never Know’: Carol Tyler’s family album of war pain

April 29, 2011 | 5:27 p.m.

Last year, “Asterios Polyp” won as the graphic novel category was introduced at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The five finalists in the category this year have been announced and the winner will be named Friday. Leading up to the awards ceremony, we will be looking at each of the finalists. Today: “You’ll Never Know, Book II: Collateral Damage.”

ykn2 67 Youll Never Know: Carol Tylers family album of war pain

Carol Tyler / Fantagraphics

Carol Tyler‘s graphic memoir “You’ll Never Know, Book I: A Good & Decent Man,” published by Fantagraphics, delved into her father’s experiences in World War II. The book was nominated for two Eisner Awards. Now, in the soulful second installment of the trilogy, Tyler paints a picture of the quiet pain her parents carried for decades, and the repercussions of war that, though not often talked about, still echo in the lives of the next generation. Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark caught up with Tyler.

NC: Your books tell the story of your family. You share some very personal experiences, and everyone’s not always painted in shiny light. How does your family, particularly your parents, feel about seeing themselves in your work?

CT: They know. They’re used to it. I’ve been telling stories about them for years, so they don’t have a choice. But you know, when I tell the story and when I use real people, I always look for the humanity there. I try to find the parts that are going to embrace the good in people. I’m not out to make people look bad or slander or get even. So my motives are that I’m trying to get to some truths, to something important that will be helpful in some way.

NC: What about your dad? For years he didn’t talk about the war, and now his story is published.

CT: When “Book I” came out, I had several copies sent to Mom and Dad. I kept waiting for a reaction. No call, no call, and I was like, “Oh no! They don’t like it, or Dad’s mad at me.” So finally I got up the courage, and I made a call, and my mom answered the phone, and I said, “Mom, hi, did you get the books?” And she said, “I couldn’t call you for crying. It was so beautiful.” And I said, “Really? You liked it? Oh my God! What about Dad?” And she said, “He sat down and read it from cover to cover, walked out to the workshop, and hasn’t been back since then. Six hours. He didn’t say anything.” All night, no phone call. I didn’t clear it with him, exactly what I was going to do. He just knew I was doing something. I didn’t know exactly what his reaction was going to be. So the next day I called and I said, “Dad, did you get the chance to read the book? What do you think?” and he said, “Oh, yeah, it’s wonderful. Now, when you get here next weekend, we gotta put those fence posts in.” He completely glazed over any emotional reaction to it. I have taken him to a couple of book signings. It’s so sweet. He dresses in his little VFW shirt with the suspenders and his hat with the VFW thing up at the top, and if a vet comes in, he just shakes their hand and they start laughing, and then they’re crying, so it’s always been very good.

NC: What about after “Book II”? You depict your troubled relationship with your dad, as well as your mom’s story about losing a child.

ynk2 cover Youll Never Know: Carol Tylers family album of war pain

Carol Tyler / Fantagraphics

CT: With Mom, you know, the fact that she never talked about it, and then when she did, it was just such a sad thing. Then I thought, you know, she’s held onto this story and this grief about my sister, but you know what? She’s my sister, too! It’s her daughter, but I finally had ownership of this person’s life, and I had to go through my own process of understanding the loss as an adult person instead of just being in the dark as a child about it. And then seeing, as I have my own daughter, how I could not fathom a loss like that. I try to be honest and fair and not hurtful. … I’m kind of glad I separated out the books, because “Book I” is like, “Yeah, Dad, you’re a great guy! Had some trouble, but you’re good.” And “Book II” is like, “Wait a minute. It wasn’t all that great for me.” And I talk about my mother as a way of talking about my fear for my daughter, remembering my mother and her grief for my sister. But no, my Mom just can’t deal with it all, and Dad is confused by it because it’s not rah-rah Dad, it’s the issues. “Book III” steers Boom!, right into war, right into the eye of that storm.

NC: Was that war experience different than today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

CT: We were in a world war. And we asked the generation that grew up through the Depression to then go and serve in the military. Most of the people who grow up today have had nowhere near the level of deprivation and cultural distance. … [Tom] Brokaw called them “the Greatest Generation,” but they just had a different experience. And today, oh I think the valor and commitment and all of that, yes, that’s there, it’s just that we’re in different generations. I still think though the core values of service prevail.

NC: Has writing and publicizing these books allowed you to reach out to the veteran community?

CT: It has been the great joy inside all of this. I knew that I was going to honor my parents to some degree, and yet look at what happened. I think I made it clear that it’s not because my Dad’s an a–hole, it’s because he had suffered some kind of trauma. Something happened to him that changed him. I had to read a lot of war books and Army accounts and talk to veterans and talk to Marines and everybody about what this thing is. Because it’s kind of aside from our culture. It’s not the dominant thing in our culture, so unless you know somebody in the Army that’s been there, it’s not something you’re going to come across. It’s a very nuanced, very difficult thing. It’s often stereotyped. So I was surprised to find the great humanity, the great story inside war service, whether you’re a World War II veteran or any other wars.

NC: Did you draw from that era for the artistic style of the book?

ykn2 86 Youll Never Know: Carol Tylers family album of war pain

Carol Tyler / Fantagraphics

CT: I had to come up with some motifs to carry through so that I can unify certain sections. If it’s the past, or Dad’s WWII era in the 1940s, I had to pick colors for those pages. I was thinking of an old file folder and those gummed stickers that they’d put on the file cabinets. They have a little, thin, black-and-red pen stripe. I had to investigate old-looking stuff. But I didn’t want to be completely derivative, like I did with the photo corners. I wanted to try and reinterpret certain things, so it didn’t look like I went to the store and bought a bunch of scrapbook-y stuff. I didn’t want it to have that vibe.

NC: Each page has so many little details, like little flowers or scrolls in the corners. How thought-out are your drawings?

CT: I am trying to communicate the idea and put the story across, but I’m also trying to keep it interesting for myself. … I really try to bring beauty to the process and to the work I do. If you’re going to spend time in your life, taking hours of your life sitting at a drawing table, make it worthwhile, make it great, make good stuff. I mean, don’t be making like bloody people — nothing against people that do that. It’s just that you’re going to spend an inordinate amount of your life at the drawing table, so you are going to miss going on walks and going and doing fun things, so make the best stuff of your life that you life, throw it there on the page.

NC: Has it been fun to draw create cartoon versions of your family members?

CT: First off, I said to everybody, “You have to get over this idea that I’m going to make you look exactly like you look.” I had to come up with a characterization of everyone that’s more from my mind’s eye than from photographs. So, in each case, I find things that are their salient visual characteristics. So like my dad, he always wears the suspenders and has a baseball cap. And my mom has got the curly red hair and the glasses. I tried to find some key things that I could draw on that kind of helped me get into the feel of the character more than a completely accurate depiction, though, well, they look pretty close. … I’m creating a cartoonish world, and I do try to draw accurately and make hands and gestures and stuff feel right. They’re not like stick figures. So I really do work on trying to find the right gesture and just the way kind of a moment feels.

NC: For the most part, your style is very straightforward.

ykn2 143 Youll Never Know: Carol Tylers family album of war pain

Carol Tyler / Fantagraphics

CT: Yes, I’ve taken the guesswork out of it. To me it’s like dancing or poetry, like music, in that I’m going to say something, but then I’m going to depict either the moment that follows it or bumps it to the next kind of beat. So there’s saying it and showing it and dancing back and forth throughout the whole thing.

NC: In a few places, you turn to metaphor, showing your parents as different animals.

CT:“Lady Manatee.” Now I thought my mom would be mad about that, so I showed it to my sister first, and she started crying, and she said, “Oh, I love Lady Manatee! That’s exactly how she is.” She’s just slow, and she’s a large woman, and when I showed it to her, she just kind of nodded, and I thought, “Oh she’s being Lady Manatee now.” She accepted it in that way. And my dad, I showed him to be a fox at one point, and another part he’s a shark, ’cause he’s kind of a little bit more edgy and cranky. I felt like I could do those things in those places. It’s just another way to help get across that feeling, to get people to understand these characters in so many different dimensions that I’ve experienced.

NC: Your husband, Justin Green, helped pioneer autobiographical comics, and I understand your daughter is very creative as well. Do you work together?

CT: It’s so funny, because we sit down together, the three of us, and I wish we could record some of the conversations. It’s usually language, observation, crazy dream, scripts, lines of dialogue, character studies. It just is very fluent with creativity. Having said that, we don’t get together that often, and I pretty much am isolated from them. We’re all eccentric. … I work out my scripts, my ideas, and everything, and when they’re almost done, I say to Justin, “You might want to have a look at this, because I don’t want you to have a fit when this goes to press.”

ykn2 50 Youll Never Know: Carol Tylers family album of war pain

Carol Tyler / Fantagraphics

NC: Your book portrays a time in your life when your husband left you and your daughter. Was he OK with that?

CT: I know. Poor Justin. Well, he did leave us, it’s true. When I started, I thought, I’m going to tell it. He’s a person of note in the comics world, he’s kind of legendary, so I knew I was risking making a lot of his friends who are comics notables, maybe pissing them off a little bit. … I told him, “You need to trust my skills as a storyteller and my sensitivity as a human being to do right by it, and to do right by each other, because I’m fully aware of the fact that this story will outlive us, and that our heirs will be left to grapple with the consequences.” So I wanted to do right in terms of the truth, and he did not like the way he looked in the first part. In the second part, too, he was kind of like in a holding pattern. But I do, of course, visit in “Book III” the issues between us, and we have to figure out how we’re going to go forward. That’s kind of what “Book III” is about. … I tried to approach the subject of his leaving with sensitivity. I think I did it in a way that’s dimensional.

NC: What draws you to realism and to memoir?

CT: Ever since I’ve been drawing and making art or anything, I’ve always pulled from my own experience. … I started writing about my parents back in the ’80s when I started, because they were kind of odd or funny to me. And then I just kept tapping into that topic, you know, like what’s going on with me and my family or whatever. … I would do a cartoon or something, it would get out there, it was in popular culture, and people would read it, and I never knew who was reading it or what was going on. I just felt like I’d expressed myself, and now there’s like a gazillion people out there on blogs, expressing their mundane realities, which is what my comics are about.

NC: What’s next for you?

CT: “Book III” will be out in summer 2012. The only big concern now I have is I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Like I’ve built up this story, and there’s this expectation, and people are going to wonder what the outcome is. … I’ve also had to dig into some very, very deep sad stuff. I will be so glad to be finished with this book. I do want people to read my work. It’s not just making people sad just to make ’em sad. I’m trying to communicate something here. Hopefully, it will resonate with the reader, with you, the person on the other end, and that you will find something about it that you can then carry to your life to make it more meaningful, richer and better. … I’m telling a story about this family at this time in the late 20th, early 21st century, that came to terms with some of the issues in their lives. They happen to dovetail and all happen in this little frame of time, but they have roots that go way back, and now they’re going to go forward, because the world is definitely changing. I look at my parents, and they’re thankfully both still alive at 92, but they’re the only ones left of their friends. So I know that generation is passing, and it’s something I want to try to grab hold of as much as possible and honor as much as possible. These themes I’ve come to experience that continue to go on, I mean, the families of today, they’re reaching for the same things: happiness, wholeness, understanding. And so hopefully by looking back a little bit at this one little family, they’ll see themselves there, and they can take that future and make the most of it.

— Noelene Clark


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One Response to ‘You’ll Never Know’: Carol Tyler’s family album of war pain

  1. peter stampfel says:

    read all three. i've been a comics geek since 1944, and a weekly-pull-list geek since 1978. this is as good as it gets. volume 3 totally nails it.

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