Carol Tyler isn’t a member of the original comics underground, a fact that she’s quick to point out. Sure she’s the same age, and she’s got a picture of her sitting on Robert Crumb’s lap—oh yeah, and did I mention that she’s married to Justin Green? In an artistic sense, however, she’s a child of the 80s—the titular late bloomer of her 2005 short story collection.
Tyler did work on spec for the Crumbs’ 80s anthology, Weirdo, but in typical late bloomer fashion, its her work over the past two decades that’s really put her on the radar of so many indie comics fans, beginning with two short story collections released a decade apart on Fantagraphics and culminating with the release of this year’s You’ll Never Know: Book 1: A Good and Decent Man—the first of a three book trilogy, which landed her on a number of year-end “best of” lists.
The book explores the impact that her father’s post World War II life had on her formative years. Tyler explains that the first volume is only a warm up—the other two will delve into far more serious issues. She also assures me that, despite this (and the fact that she was recently discharged from the hospital after some rather serious surgery), she’s happy. Very happy
Given the enthusiasm with which she approaches every topic from post-traumatic stress to picking up dog poop, it’s hard not to believe her.
How are things going for you, at present?
Well, I’m between quarters. I just got out of the hospital. I had major surgery, a week ago. Today I went outside for the first time in ten days. That was good.
When these major events happen in your life, do you consider them fodder for future stories?
Absolutely! In fact, while I was in the hospital [pulls out a stack of papers], I was drawing comics! This one—I did a little video. You can take a picture with your camera and you take a 20 second or 30 second video. So I took this one in the hospital about how you have to draw, no matter what. I was going to show it to my students and say, “there’s no excuses.” I showed the hospital room, and I showed me with the IV, and I said, “there’s no excuses. You have to draw, no matter what.” This little six-panel thing that I’m working on called “Miami Nice,” will be in Mineshaft. It’s going to be one page, in black and white, and I told Gioia [Palmieri] that I would send it in. So, of course it’s all material.
And the story is, I went to Miami for the Miami Book Fair, and while I was there, I knew that I was going to have this surgery in a month, so I was really enjoying Miami. And just being awake to that, it just gelled into a little statement.
So it’s more about the lead up to the hospital, rather than the stay itself?
It’s not about being in the hospital. What I’m telling my students is, “I don’t care if you’re hospitalized, you’ve got to do your comics.” But the story is about being in Miami.
Is the actual stay something you might explore later?
You know, there are certain things—like, “who cares, you were in the hospital, lady. Give me a break.”
Do you feel like you’ve become more choosey over the years, in terms of the material you draw from?
Everything is more complicated. Everything is layered. I think as you grow older, you have this experience, but then you also, exponentially, have all of these others, due to the fact that you’ve just lived longer. You’ve met more people, and you’ve been around, and done all of these things. I try to boil it down and try to figure out the best way to do this. A collection of symbols and the right words—I really try to be a wordsmith, but I’m not! Argh! I try to pick the right words and the right way to get an idea across. Sometimes you just have to shoot it out there like bullshit and other times you have to make it more poetic. You have to balance that.
Do you have a lot of editors in your life to run things by?
No. That’s terrible, isn’t it?
No—whatever works, right?
Well, you know, I work with Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics, and I pretty much boss him around [laughs]. No, that’s not true. Look, I’m from the Weirdo days. Aline Crumb would say, [in Aline voice] “Caaaarol. Could you get something to me by Friiiiday?” I’d say, “sure!” Go home and draw something with the kid right there. We were neighbors in the central valley. Our kids were kind of raised up together. Aline never said, “change panels.” She trusted me. She said, “you do good work.” Robert said, [in R. Crumb voice] “great job!” So I never had anyone intervening, really.
Looking back, do you wish that you had had more guidance?
People were happy, and people just wanted to show up for the party. You’ve got to understand. There wasn’t a whole lot of pressure there or intervention. The pay rates were low—they’re still low. I’m not saying it was a lower art form or anything like that, but the pressure was on you, the maker, to try to make something great, because you’d do something and get it printed, and you’d either be shocked by it or be proud of it. I’ve always just been motivated by not wanted to be embarrassed by my work. And I am—some of it is shocking, some of the old stuff. I’ve always just tried to do a good job, tried to communicate a little bit. Be clear—I wanted to be clear. I work at home. I’m not working at DC or something.
When you say that you were, “shocked” by some of the work, do you mean the material that you chose to pursue? Or the rough aesthetic?
Are you happy with the direction you’ve moved in subsequently?
I hope I’m maturing.
What does that mean, exactly?
[Pause] I’m thinking 50 years from now—this sounds weird. I’m thinking of the longevity of a piece, and who would read it in the future. When I started this new thing about my dad [You'll Never Know], I was thinking about the ancestors I don’t know yet—possible grandchildren, so they can have this knowledge about the family, and know me a little bit. “That was my grandmother who wrote that story about our great-great grandfather.” Because I’ve always liked history and ancestors. I’ve learned that from other cultures. There’s just a real appreciation of where people come from.
So, I’m trying, in this work, to speak to other levels. I’m trying to be mature. Who cares about a level of mundane stuff? Let’s get to the themes that hit people—universal themes. Other stuff that people care about. I know I talk about myself, but it’s not really about me. In the end of the book, it’s not about that. but I have to start with what I know, and a lot of people know me from my years of doing this, so I use this as my entre point for these bigger issues that will come up in books two and three. Book one is sort of an introduction.
What sort of themes have you been—or will you be—dealing with?
Loss. Grief. Seperation. Mental illness. All the biggies [laughs].
When you say that you worked on the book for your ancestors, that is, in a sense, a very private goal. You’re making a book for a very select group of people. Is that the feeling you had, when you first started work on the book?
No. It’s not really just for the family, because I knew that, selecting this topic at this time, that I was up against the clock, because a lot of people are losing their dads and grandpas who had served in World War II. And I knew that there was a new generation of warriors coming up that were dealing with the issues that my dad has been plagued with. I really talk about that more and more—the effects of mental illness and anxiety and what that does to families. So I knew that the audience would be part military, part people my age that have dads, people who are grandchildren—everybody, really. Because we’ve all been touched, in some capacity, by people who have to serve.
I hypothesize in this book, that the after effects of World War II shaped my generation and our culture more than we’ve ever admitted or looked at. Because none of those guys came back and talked about their experiences, and they were all damaged by it. All of them. They all carried this stuff when they came back that they gave to us children. For me—and I talk about this in book two—it was the damage of basically living with a stressed father, who drank too much and basically ignored me my whole life [laughs]. [Whispers] Thanks dad. I love him, but that was the theme for our generation.
It’s funny, because I was talking to Justin [Green] just the other day, and I said, “your dad was in the war, too.” And he said, “yeah, and we found his discharge papers.” Turns out this guy was in some serious shit. I said, “and you think you’re not affected?” And we both agree, we’re damaged.
When I talk to people who make comics, I generally assume that they’re making works for a comic buying audience. It sounds like that wasn’t really your intention.
Yeah, people who read comics.
I call them the “faithful 500.” There are 500 people out there, I guess, that comics—the kind that I do.
It’s probably more than that by now, right?
You’re thinking it’s 1,000? Should I call it the “faithful 1,000?”
Yeah, I think the number has probably grown.
Since the 80s? [Laughs] So let’s call it “the faithful 5,000.”
Sure, that sounds good.
I wasn’t realy thinking about them. I was thinking about people who [pause]—I don’t know who I was thinking about. I just had to tell a good story about dad. He’s gonna die and I’m getting too old for this [laughs].
Is it still hard to pitch comics outside of that 5,000?
Yes it is. Because here I am, doing this book about the military and post-traumatic stress, and I have to bop people over the head to read it. Because I think the faithful 5,000 thinks, ‘fuck history. I don’t want to read about World War II.’ So I’ve lost that crowd.
So you’ve alienated everybody.
And, oh, oh, it’s a woman. It’s gonna be about Kotex or something.
Feelings—fuck that! I mean, let’s just go down the list. I can’t get that on the SKU tag. I wanted them to put it in history/military. It’s on Military.com—somebody did have the foresight to put it there. Because when families of soldiers do read it, they like it, because it does talk about guys coming home and being gruff and still living out of their duffel bags. I’ve had woman my age come up to me and go, “oh my god! This is exactly like my father!” I’ve had people from Europe come up to me and say, “Americans don’t get it. You saved us. You’re our liberators. We can’t thank you enough.” And yet I can’t sell books here in America on the topic.
Obviously you’ve had some response. You’re getting some feedback from military families.
Today I’m pissed off. I don’t know why.
Is it liberating at all, to not be writing for anyone in particular?
I mean, I want them in. I want it to be 50,000. I want more people to read the book. And the graphic novel thing, a lot of people go, “I never would have picked this up.” If I find a person and they love the earnestness and creativity of the book, they say, “I would never know where to go into a bookstore to find this.” Because when you say “graphic novels,” they’ll avoid that. so I can’t connect my readers. Same thing happened with Late Bloomer. It’s got some great stuff and the faithful 5,000—or maybe it was 1,000 at that time—haven’t read it. Or they consider it chick-lit. Or something like that.
[Continued in Part Two].