Robert Crumb doesn’t have to pick up dog poop—this much Carol Tyler knows for sure. Neither does her husband, cartoonist Justin Green, for that matter, but that’s a different story. The point here is that Tyler does pick the stuff up, and while it may not be her idea of a good time, per se, she’s not going to let it keep her down. “Half-full, half-empty?” she tells me. “No, my glass is full. I don’t have a dime, but I’m happy.” She laughs—something she seems to do a lot.
Tyler has plenty going for her these days, of course—a steady teaching gig at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, a book on Fantagraphics that’s been garnering her plenty of accolades [You’ll Never Know: A Good and Decent Man], and, of course, a dog with a healthy colon.
In the second part of our conversation with the cartoonist (a word she’s hesitant to use when describing herself), we discuss Tyler’s life as an educator, what it means to be an “artist,” and her 90-year-old father’s reaction to A Good and Decent Man, the first book in a trilogy exploring his life after World War II.
You’ve got some messages that you’re attempting to get across with the text. Is it difficult to do that without coming across as preachy?
Well, I ain’t preachin’. I’m just trying to tell a damn good story. And I’m trying to give enough information to the readers so that they can feel what I feel. Let’s take a joke—if I was going to tell you my favorite joke, I’d have to set the stage and get you so excited about it that when I get to the punchline, you’re going to go, “wow!” because I have to take you there. So the same thing happens when you do comics. You have to get people to feel your character, understand your context, and have empathy.
With this book, I have five main characters, and I’m trying to explain why it matters—why I’m bothering to tell the story and why it matters. I can’t just throw a character in for jokiness—it has a role to play. Everyone has a little job. In this story, the outcome is that everyone has a huge transformation, based on the events that occurred all at the same time. I hope I’m not being preachy.
I read somewhere that you had done some stand up at some point. How important is humor to this book?
Humor is king! Or queen! Humor is what it’s all about. I try to do humor in every panel, but it’s not “ha ha” jokes. When I did comedy, I didn’t do jokey-jokes like Leno up on stage. I did character interpretations. I was in an ensemble group. If you sat there and watched, you’d laugh because you’d figure out what I was doing. I had a particle mask on my head and my hair in a ponytail and I played the lady who works in her yard next door. I melted into the group, because my job was—at a certain point in the show—I had the secret of life. I knew the answer to it. And I was into physics and stuff, and yet I was bent over, pulling weeds in the yard. So, I was the neighborbor who was the—
Yeah, the oracle [laughs]! But you wouldn’t be able to tell by my horrible outfit.
What is the secret of life? Have you carried that with you?
[Laughs] I…can’t…the secret of life? I’m not giving away the secret! I’ll just tell you this—it’s funny around here, because I have to go and pick up dog poop or something. And I’ve heard something like, “Robert and Aline [Crumb] are in the New Yorker, this week. Oh, they’ve got ten pages.” And I’m just picking up dog poop, but I’m happy, for some reason. I’m happy!
You don’t think Robert Crumb has to pick up dog shit, from time to time?
[Shakes head] Robert does not pick up dog shit. I know Robert—I wish I could find that picture of me sitting on his lap. No, Robert doesn’t pick up dog shit [laughs]. I’ll ask him. I owe him a letter. He wrote me and I need to write him back.
Yeah, if you could lead off with that, that would be great.
You pick up dog shit, Robert? He’ll say, [Crumb voice] “No!”
Doesn’t everyone pick up dog shit in some form or another?
[Laughs] I’ll give you the Justin Green method. I always have the plastic bag. I walk the dogs—I’m dutiful, I pick up the dog shit [laughs]. He takes the bag and kind of waves it over the poop and pretends. And smiles.
He leaves it for everyone to step in?
He doesn’t do it!
But you’re happy picking up the dog shit?
No, I’m not happy picking up the dog shit, but for some reason, my life always seems like a miracle! I’m always happy.
You said that there’s humor in every panel. If it’s not in the form of jokes, how does it appear in the book?
You have to look close, because I might turn a chair leg, because when it’s supposed to be like this, I might turn it like this. I just try to have fun with the visuals. I’ll have something that runs as a thread. You have to look. A lot of people who read my book a couple of times will see something on the fifth time. They’ll see something that they haven’t seen before. I spend a lot of time on pages. I’ll spend maybe 20 to 40 hours on each page I do. And I don’t just use black and white ink, I use 53 colors of ink. Everything I do, the lettering, the lines, I use a series seven brush. I use a couple of brushes, pen nibs. I do everything by hand.
There’s a common complaint amongst cartoonists—it’s an art form that take a tremendous amount of time to create, but it can be read in a few minutes. Is that part of the impetus for sticking these little pieces in there? Forcing people to go back in to rediscover certain aspects?
I don’t think that’s why. I do it just because I…part of it is to engage the reader, but part of is that I just want it to be fun for me to do. I’ll think, ‘yeah, yeah, I could put that out like that, but then I can go like this.’ I try to push it a little bit more. I want it to be a little bit more exciting, a little bit more challenging. Maybe I can do this better. I’ll think a page is done, but then I’ll just hate it. Change it! Do it over.
Roughly how much time did it take to create that first book?
Three years or so. Maybe four. I started in ’05 or ’06—I think in earnest in 2006. The whole thing is going to end up being a lot of years.
The three volumes?
Yeah. Just when I think I’m done with book two, I’ve been reworking it. I had a pretty major revelation on the operating table, so I’m reworking. I’ve actually added three key pages. It was a little thing. I knew it was A-. Of course, not everyone out there is going to agree. There are going to be people out there who will say, “Tyler [makes hissing sound]!” Whatever.
You managed to have that revelation before actually reading the book. Do those revelations ever come after the book is actually out in the world.
Well, I’ve been very careful on this one. I don’t want to go, “oh, god, I really forgot the main idea.” I know what the end is. You know I broke it up because my dad is 90. I did say, “dad, you can’t die until I’m finished.” But just to be practical, I broke it up. That gave me a chance to work on it. But it’s all scripted. I’m just working on it. It’s very tedious and long and all of that stuff. I’m definitely ready to get on to the next project. But I must finish. And I certainly am enjoying this time. it has allowed me to make a connection with [my father] and he’s not going to like book two. My mom is not going to like book two.
Was it important that the books actually start coming out while he was still around?
It was important that the first one went out, because that’s the cheerful dad one, the “I love you dad, you’re great!” In book two, I’m a little bit more harsh in my criticism of his treatment of me during my childhood. And then, in book three, we get to the truth in that, get him to accept some of that.
He has seen the first book?
And he liked it?
Yeah, he did. He was very proud of it. I had Fantagraphics send a copy to the house, directly, and I kept waiting for the phone to ring—“what’s he gonna think?” I kept waiting for him to call. I asked my mom what she thought. She said, “I couldn’t call you for crying—it’s just wonderful!” I said, what about dad? She said, “oh, he read it, and he put it down, and now he’s out in the garage.” I said, “well, could you have him call me?” And I spent a whole afternoon waiting. But he called up and said, “okay, yeah, Carol, the book is wonderful. Now, I’m working on that fence out that, and I want you to know…” So, he said. “wonderful,” but he did come to a couple of book signings, and he just weeps the whole time.
Did they encourage your art over the years?
No. My mom says, “honey, you’ll make it some day” [laughs]. No. This is all something I had to come up with on my own. It’s never been lucrative. Like I said, I’m 99-percent happy. People ask me, “how come you’re happy?” I don’t know. I’m just happy. I love life. The glass is over-filled. Half-full, half-empty? No, my glass is full. I don’t have a dime [laughs], but I’m happy. I do get pissed off, but I’m happy.
At what point did it occur to you that comics might be something you would want to pursue as a career?
I made a commitment at some point to be an artist. For me, this is art. This is art making. I don’t claim to be a cartoonist. I tell stories with pictures. The art world probably thinks differently. Maybe that’s my problem with the comics world. I see it as just my art. I draw. I don’t read comics, I don’t.
Is there a problem with being a cartoonist? Is there a reason why that’s a word you don’t use?
Yeah, because any time I say, I’m a cartoonist, they’ll say, “oh, I love Garfield,” or they’ll say, “oh my niece is a cartoonist, “or they’ll say, “my little grandson needs some lessons.” That has so much attached to it that I just avoid that by saying, you know, I tell stories with pictures in sequence.
Aren’t there still stigmas attached to the word “artist,” as well?
The same thing—“oh, my niece is an artist.” “Oh, would you do a portrait of my dog?” “Cartoonist” means you’re published in a daily paper. “Artist” means you dabble on Saturdays. They’re both bad.
Is there something more…professional about being an artist?
Well, now I just say that I teach graphics. I’m a teacher, therefore I’m more legit. To my students I’m legit because I’m published. And to the world, I’m an educator. But I really take education seriously. I emphasize literacy, and I have my students read a novel—you know, a book—because they don’t read. We meet on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the first 20 minutes on Wednesdays is sustained silent reading. They have to bring in a book and read it.
[Continued in Part Three]