Saturday, August 1, 2009

Puzzle Boxes: You'll Never Know

Rob reviews the remarkable new release by Carol Tyler, YOU'LL NEVER KNOW (Fantagraphics).

Carol Tyler is a unique figure in the world of comics. She's a sort of "cartoonist's cartoonist" in that she's not widely recognized by the average alt-comics fan but is deeply respected by masters like Crumb, Ware, Woodring and others. Being a single mother greatly slowed down the pace of her comics output, a subject about which she has written extensively, but certainly didn't affect the quality of her work. Best known for short stories (mostly collected in 2005's brilliant Late Bloomer), she's now put together the first volume of what promises to be her masterwork, a "graphic memoir" about her father's experiences in World War II that effortlessly mixes media in a charming, affecting, and devastating package. You'll Never Know goes beyond biography, autobiography and even as a means a therapy to ask a number of deeper questions that may well not have ready answers. It's a stunning achievement, a perfect marriage of form and content, and is my early contender for not only comic of the year, but comic of the decade.

Sometimes the answer to a single question can unlock a life's worth of mysteries. You'll Never Know is as much about Tyler's examining the choices she's made with her relationships as it is about her father, given the influence a parent can have on a child. The single question that unleashes a tidal wave of emotions for her family was made when Tyler was a teenager: "What was it like for you in World War II?" Her father Chuck sat on that question for thirty-five years, until one day he called her out of the blue and went on for two hours about rivers of blood and other horrors. When she later visited him to interview him and get more details, he froze up and couldn't talk about something awful that happened in Italy. It began to dawn on Tyler that this inability to process the horror and trauma that her father experienced was far from unique, and that men of that era were encouraged to bury those memories and pretend that they never happened. Of course, when such feelings are repressed, they surface in other ways...ways that have a profound impact on their children and spouse.

Tyler is quick not to blame her father for her own failings with men, but also notes that she wish she had had a guiding hand as steady as her grandfather was for her own mother. When her husband walked out on her and her child (for an ex-babysitter, no less), Tyler turned the grief of that experience into an art project: designing a scrapbook for her father. Unconsciously, Tyler tried to make sense of what she perceived as a personal failure of communication with her husband by deepening her understanding of her father--and giving him an offering of that understanding.

The title ostensibly refers to the song her parents fell in love dancing to, but it also refers to barriers of communication. Not only between generations (WWII and boomers), or child/parent, or those who experience war trauma and those who don't...but the impossibility of being able to fully empathize with another human being and understand their experiences. This book is as close a bridge as is possible to that shoreline that will never quite appear on the horizon, with Tyler building the bridge beneath her step-by-step with her pencil and brush. The book has a seat-of-its-pants feel to it as Tyler strings together images and memories and tries to impose structure and order on a complicated series of events and emotions. It's obvious that starting the book was problematic, as there are a series of false starts, awkward introductions, and images repeated throughout the book. It seems that Tyler wants to tell everything all at once (much like her father spilling his guts on the phone) and has to take a few steps back just to start the story. Her solution to the problem is elegant: noting that "you'd never know" that he'd fought in a war. That set the book's theme resonating from the very beginning, one that she would return to explicitly and implicitly throughout the narrative.

The book ends on a note of despair, as it seems far from certain that Tyler would ever be able to fully connect to the two most important men in her life. It's telling that Tyler's relationships with women seem to be on more solid ground, given the steadfast presence of her mother. Though the book is ostensibly about her father, her mother is a major figure in this story and earns a very affectionate testimonial toward the end, as does her wise older sister. Of course, Tyler's daughter Julia is the light of her life, and the warm & supportive manner with which she raises her was a direct reflection of the way Tyler was raised by her own mother. The hardships her mother overcame were an obvious inspiration for Tyler, and the fact that she manages to carve out a life with Carol's father had to be a further source of inspiration for Tyler's potential success in unlocking that puzzle box.

Tyler matches a remarkable array of formal tricks in framing her story with an emotional center that iss enormously powerful. Yet one never felt as though she is exploiting past trauma for dramatic effect; indeed, there's an easygoing nature, a folksy, warm and welcoming quality to her storytelling. The book's tone is self-deprecatory without devolving into insecurity; modest without being mawkishly self-effacing. The reader immediately feels for Tyler but she never stacks the deck against her husband or her father, and in fact went out of her way to emphasize their basic decency. Indeed, the book's subtitle, "A Good And Decent Man", is Tyler's attempt to shake herself out of blaming her father for her troubles and trying to understand the ways in which the war shook him and caused him to act out. She is trying to unlock the part of the puzzle box that connected the fun-loving scamp who went into the war with the self-described son-of-a-bitch who emerged.

The book is formatted in landscape, deliberately evoking the feel of an old photo album. Which makes sense, given that this is an album about family, old and new. The portion of the book devoted to her father's war experiences are numbered and drawn in precisely as though they were in a scrapbook, printed on tan paper. Tyler mutes her otherwise vivid palette here, giving these images the sort of sepia tones familiar to any who have seen old photographs. Flecks of color pop in here and there: her mother's red hair, the red on a Red Cross sign, hearts surrounding the loving couple as they dance to their song.

On other pages, Tyler pulls back for panoramic views of countryside, highways, Chuck's workshop and the day he moved an entire house, giving context and attaching temporality to her characters. The most effective pages are the vividly painted ones where she introduces clever symbols for her parents. Her father is depicted both as a steady tree (dependable but incapable of showing love) and a wily fox (always on the move and hard to pin down). She depicts her mother as a sturdy tree that grew straight and tall thanks to her father, while she depicted herself as a bent-up sapling that was whipped in the wind by her fox of a father zipping by.

You'll Never Know has drawn comparisons to other well-known graphic memoirs such as Art Spiegelman's Maus and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Both of those books find children trying to make sense of their relationships with their fathers, who are distant and unknowable in different ways. Like Maus, You'll Never Know explains the role of traumatic events surrounding war and the eventual effect it has on men who became parents. Tyler's approach to this subject and the conclusions she drew are radically different than Spiegelman or Bechdel. Her line is more lively and witty than the overly fussy and labored approach that Bechdel employs. She varies between an expressionistic and naturalistic take depending on what she was discussing, as opposed to Spiegelman's metaphorically anthropomorphic figures.

What distinguishes this book is the nature of the puzzle that Tyler was grappling with. Bechdel was putting together information from a man who was already dead, while Spiegelman had a willing (if difficult) subject. Tyler is trying to unlock the memories of a man who is reluctant to do so, unlock the secrets of her own behavior and unhappiness, unlock the misery of an entire generation and establish a bond before it was too late. She is under no illusion that she can entirely succeed or indeed that anyone could succeed, hence the book's title. We can never truly know another's mundane experiences, let alone the horrific and alien trauma suffered during war. At the same time, it's Tyler's very attempt at blind bridge-building that creates understanding and empathy, a glimmer at a time.

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