I recently interviewed graphic novelist and University of Cincinnati adjunct professor Carol Tyler about her trilogy, You’ll Never Know (Fantagraphics Books), for the fall issue of Ghettoblaster Magazine (in issue 26…should be out this month). The Eisner Award nominee’s You’ll Never Know, Book I: A Good and Decent Man was released last summer to rave reviews. Book II: Collateral Damage is coming out this month. Only a small portion of the interview will appear in print, so I’ve decided to run the entire thing here. Enjoy!
Squee!: What has it been like for you to recreate your father’s story for print?
Tyler: Hardest thing I’ve ever taken on. So much to juggle: the storyline, the art. The mechanics of making a comic page/book. Oy! I’ve been at this for four years and I’m still not done! I love it, though. I’ve had to wrap my life around getting pages done. I said going in that I didn’t care if I had to live in poverty in order to make this work come to be and sadly, that’s been the case so far. It’s an epic struggle, although worth it a thousand times over.
Squee!: What kind of response have you gotten from readers since the first book was released?
Tyler: Since Book I was published in June 2009, I have had so much positive feedback, especially from soldiers and families. They love that I took on a topic that’s never talked about, I’m told. It has started important conversations because this book is not just a narrative about my dad. It’s about emotional damage caused by war and unfortunately many people can relate.
Squee!: What was your father’s response to Book One: A Good and Decent Man? Did he read it?
Tyler: As soon as it came out, I had copies from the publisher sent directly to my parents’ house. But then I didn’t hear from them. So about a week later I called and I said, “Mom, how’d you like the book?” And she answered, “I couldn’t call you for crying. It’s beautiful!”
“What about dad? What did he think?” She said six hours earlier, he read it from cover to cover, set it down, walked into his shop and was still in there. Later that day, I got in touch with him:
“What’dya think of the book, dad?”
“Wonderful. Now. That fence post you set in the back has got to go over about 5 feet, bla bla . . .”
I know he’s proud of it. At book signings, he comes dressed in his cute little VFW outfit and cries when he meets other veterans. It’s sweet. He’s 91 years old.
Squee!: In what ways did your father’s experiences shape your life growing up?
Tyler: This is the thesis of Book II where I discuss specifically how his emotional distance led to my risky behavior during adolescence. I never felt like I had power or control. I felt about the size of pocket lint and bottle caps. Having raised a child myself, I have to say that I did not get enough affirmation or attention. Dad was tormented. And Mom had issues, too, as you will read in Book II. Somehow, enough goodness prevailed so that I didn’t turn out completely psycho.
Squee!: Were you especially surprised by any aspects of your father’s story? If so, which part?
Tyler: I was surprised at how much tragedy he has suppressed. He and my mother. And so early in their relationship. I’m surprised they survived it all.
Squee!: Give me a quick overview of the second book. Where are we in the narrative?
Tyler: It gets to the root understanding of my life’s difficulties, how it’s seeping through to my daughter. My mom’s great tragedy explained in “The Hannah Story.” And it’s Dad’s tour in Italy and France, just before the Bulge.
Squee!: If you had to break each book down into overarching themes, what would books one and two represent? What about book three?
Tyler: Book I is denial about the problem between my dad and me. Book II examines the problem. Book III is about coming to terms with our issues and healing. [Interviewer’s note: When I saw Tyler at Books by the Banks earlier this month, she said she’s feverishly working on Book III right now and that it should be out early next year.]
Squee!: How does book two compare to book one?
Tyler: Book II is more about the emotional impact on the girl characters. It’s the yin to the yang in Books I and III.
Squee!: Do you think that individuals who have not seen war up close and personal have a tendency to romanticize it at times?
Tyler: Yes, I do believe this happens. Just take a look at returnees. They want to forget about it and get on with their lives. It’s these politicians and issues-oriented agenda people who use the service and sacrifice of our veterans to further their “reason du jour.” However, I will say soldiers are mostly proud of their service and they have/will continue to defend our country. We owe them a lot. I just wish that sentiment could be detached from the jaws of the political right. (And just for the record: my parents are life-long Democrats. They voted for Obama.) Nobody wants to relive the horrors of war. But remember, we must.
Squee!: How has your telling this story changed your relationship with your father?
Tyler: While he is proud and all that, he still isn’t very open with his feelings. He’s still kind of distant. Although he does consider me to be his closest Army buddy, which says a lot. And that means a lot to me.
Squee!: I’ve read about your project at UC, in which you have your DAAP students work with combat veterans. How many of these projects have you worked on so far?
Tyler: One of the coolest things to come out of doing You’ll Never Know is what I do in my comics class at University of Cincinnati DAAP School of Art. It occurred to me that if I got so much out of my dad’s war stories, perhaps my students could benefit as well. So every spring quarter, I invite veterans into my classroom and pair them with students who conduct interviews and produce a two-page comic for them.
It’s a transforming experience. The students are amazed at the adventures and the danger, and how young the soldiers were when they served. And the veterans are honored that someone has taken the time to listen. Over the years, I have learned that listening validates experience and deepens understanding more than anything. We are never going to resolve the difficult issues in this world if we don’t listen to and understand each other.
Squee!: How have these two books affected your interpersonal relationships?
Tyler: People are used to it to some degree. I’ve been telling autobiographical stories for almost three decades. My stories make people both proud and pissed. For You’ll Never Know, I told everyone going in that there were two rules: 1) Don’t bug me about wanting an exact facial likeness. 2) The characters have to follow the necessity of a story’s trajectory.
In telling a story, it’s my goal to be as close to the truth as possible. But, you have to reshape things a bit in order to make overall sense. So while everything is pretty much true, I have to bend things here and there. Story crafting, I guess you could say.
Squee!: What were you trying to achieve when you set out to create these books? Do you feel like you’ve reached your goal?
Tyler: I just wanted future generations to know my parents and me. I didn’t want this time and place to get lost in the shuffle of what’s to come. I wanted to honor their generation, examine the baby boomer experience and document the millennial decade before it all slips away into history.
Have I achieved my goal? I don’t know. But I’ll be glad when I’m finished. I’m ready for my next book about seeing the Beatles in 1965. And then there’s my sister’s book on Autism to illustrate. And then this story called “Tomatoes” about my culturally diverse neighborhood. And then there’s . . . It’s endless.
Check out Tyler’s work at www.bloomerland.com