My father died five years ago this month. He and I were not especially close; we got along fine after sorting out our difficulties a couple of decades ago, but we had little in common. I liked him well enough but didn't have any especially strong feelings for him. My mother died thirty years ago last month, when I had just become a teenager. There was no one else in the world I was closer to at the time. My reaction to the two events could not have been more different, though not in the way one might expect. As a teen, I was not able to fully process my mother's death. I simply retreated to my room for a week and read stacks of comic books. I never experienced a demonstrative emotional reaction until the day before my wedding, over twenty years later, when I saw an old black & white photograph of my fiance's grandmother on her wedding day, standing next to her mother. Something about that sense of familial continuity stirred an emotion in me I heretofore had never truly felt: grief. I sobbed uncontrollably, unable to contain the buried emotions for another moment. It took me a while to fully process that experience, given the intensity of the emotions that surround one's wedding day, but I knew that it felt cathartic.
When my father was dying, I traveled a great distance to see him in his hospital. There was a look in his face of wonder and almost gratitude when he saw me. None of my feelings had really changed regarding him, but I knew I was entering a new kind of emotional space, albeit one that was familiar and from an earlier life. I spoke at his funeral and was sincere in the way that I praised him, the way he lived his life toward the end and how he battled depression. After the funeral, I collapsed into my brother's arms, once again sobbing uncontrollably for a few minutes. After that release of grief and the subsequent, low-key wake, I had a number of personal epiphanies regarding why all societies and religions have grief rituals. It's not so much the substance of the ritual that's important, but rather the chance as a family and community to engage that grief, to be present and truly feel that grief, rather than let it fester. It was also at this moment that I realized I was ready to become a father.
When my daughter was born, I intellectually understood what I was about to receive: the gift of unconditional love. It's one thing to know it and quite another to actually experience it. It was powerful and ecstatic, and I've come to understand it as a remarkable tool for the survival of our species. Raising a child is such difficult and unrelenting work that this gift is sometimes what keeps a parent going. Of course, the flipside of this love is grief; losing someone that you give or gave this unconditional love to is devastating, even if that bond one feels as a child ebbs over time. Losing a child as a parent is the most unthinkable disaster of all; a gift cruelly and randomly snatched away. As a father, it is what I fear most.
The world of alternative comics is starting to see more personal narratives directed toward child-rearing and the emotional complexities thereof. As a reader, I feel especially drawn toward personal narratives that speak a kind of truth about the sheer terror of the parenting experience, especially the sense that one is somehow doing it wrong. Comics have the power to speak to this experience with a particular kind of power, given the way that they can be more or less naturalistic in style and modulate emotion with any number of visual & narrative tricks. The work of art that speaks to me the most in how it runs the gamut of emotions regarding being a parent is cartoonist and fine artist Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know series.
You'll Never Know (Fantagraphics Books) spans three volumes, 350+ pages and eight years. All of that work, a career-topping labor of genius, stems from a single question: "Why is my father incapable of showing me love?" That single question mushroomed such that Tyler found herself having to explain everything: her father's service during World War II, the stormy but steady relationship of her parents, her wn failed marriage and subsequent time spent as a poverty-stricken single mother, the mental illness of her daughter, the slow and uneasy reunion with her husband, and her own status as daughter, mother, sister, wife and artist. If this sounds a bit all over the map, that's because it is, but Tyler slowly pulls the strings of her narrative taut in some astonishing ways, especially in the third volume.
Tyler's theory regarding why so many men from the "Greatest Generation" were incapable of showing love was that the war was horrific but that the soldiers were discouraged from processing their trauma. Unprocessed trauma, like any strong negative emotion, never really goes away. Tyler set out on a quest to get her dad to talk about his experiences and document them in her loose comics form that mixes and matches collage, painting, drawing and craftwork. That quest was a way of distracting herself from the mess her own life was in after her husband left her and their young child for another woman, as well as a way of trying to examine her own emotional state. Her father finally did open up a bit to experiencing horrific events like witnessing "rivers of blood", things that transformed him from happy-go-lucky to grim. Tyler curses the specter of Hitler and war in general at the end of the first volume, "A Good and Decent Man", trying to reconcile her father's emotional deadness with her image of him as a good person.
The second volume, "Collateral Damage", examines the grief of wives and mothers. It discusses the many ways in which Tyler's mother had to put up with her father's rages and unpredictable moods. It also goes to the heart of her mother Hannah's grief in "The Hannah Story", which was about her mother finally coming to terms with the death of her young daughter Ann decades later. This story is all about repressed grief and the toll it takes, as she was never allowed or encouraged to mourn. Instead, she was pressured to think about her duty and moving on, an attitude that served no one, especially as the other children were forbidden to say her name. In one of the most powerful sequences in comics history, Tyler depicts her mother allowing herself to feel that loss as she went through a box filled with Ann's things, with Tyler noting that Ann's name will always be nestled inside her mother's.The third volume sees Tyler trying to find herself as a woman in a marriage whose boundaries were nebulous, tending to her daughter's obsessive-compulsive disorder that had gone unchecked (unbeknownst to Tyler) for far too long, and attempting to wrap up this project with her increasingly cantankerous father. There's a moment of closure when Tyler takes him to the WWII Memorial but not in the way she expected. When her father breaks down in tears in their car, it's not because of the memorial, but because he too was wrecked by the death of his daughter. Tyler skillfully depicts the way in which her father is stunned by his own connection to that long-ago grief and what it made him become. The war may have left a terrible mark but not one worse than the devastation he faced at home.
The overriding theme of the book is that "you'll never know" the feelings of one's parents, of other people in general. Tyler manages to bridge that gap in attempting to grapple with her own grief regarding her marriage and her daughter, knowing full well that the dread of potential loss lurks in the shadow of the everyday joy of having a child. The book represents a grueling but priceless experience of knowing that she may not be able to relate to her father's experience during war, but she certainly understands the feelings associated with not being able to protect or save one's own child. It's a remarkable example of an artist being totally honest about their own feelings of grief and joy in a manner that provokes growth and fully embraces the relationship between the two. It's also a scathing rebuke against the societal forces that pressure us to withhold grief and fear. Tyler experienced both on a regular basis as a mother, during and after her postpartum psychosis that she touches on in this book as well as her other major work Late Bloomer, and it's clear that only through allowing herself to have felt strong negative emotions toward her baby was she able to move beyond them and the guilt associated with those feelings. In the end, Tyler emphasizes the joy of her relationship with both her daughter and her parents, relishing giving and receiving a deeper and richer version of a child's unconditional love.