Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You'll Never Know, Book Two: Collateral Damage

Carol Tyler's first volume of her masterful trilogy, You'll Never Know, establishes a journey that begins with a single question asked of her father as a teen-ager: "What was it like for you in World War II?" The answer to this question winds up being overwhelmingly complicated, involving her parents, her husband and her daughter in unexpected and frequently upsetting ways. When her father, a notably cold and distant (but frequently funny and always steadfast & capable) man, calls her up and starts ranting about "rivers of blood", it sets Carol on a quest to finally gain some sort of understanding and connection with him. At the same time, it leads her to an understanding of why she wound up in dysfunctional relationships with men who were emotionally withholding. The book ends with Carol hoping for a breakthrough with her father Chuck but instead gets faced with him ranting at her mother, Hannah.

The book is titled "You'll Never Know", a phrase that takes on a number of different meanings throughout the book. It's Chuck & Hannah's favorite song, for starters. It refers to the average person not knowing that Chuck was a solider who faced horror. At its core, it speaks not only to Tyler's inability to truly "know" and connect with her father, but how impossible it is to every truly know another's pain, self and emotions. The second volume is titled "Collateral Damage" and it aims to get at the damage that Chuck unknowingly causes to his wife and children.

Throughout the first volume, "A Good And Decent Man", Tyler makes a point of noting that her father lives up to that subtitle and refuses to blame him for her own mistakes with men. The second volume begins with her frantically driving to Indiana to see her parents and to make sure that her mom's OK. Unsurprisingly for a couple that made a habit of bottling up emotions (only to have them explode from time to time), both pretty much act as though nothing has happened. Carol sees a house and a couple in bad shape, with mice having eaten through their pantry. Her mother's stroke diminished her activity and mental capacity, while her father always expected this sort of work to be done by his wife. An unbelievably harsh dismissal from her father comes on the heels of the true reason why he called her and started talking about the war: his belief that the army owed him disability money. Her "failure" to prove this for him brought about all sorts of unkind cuts and brought Carol to one of several crises points in the book.

That particular crisis brings a lot of unpleasant feelings about her father to the surface. Tyler admits the resentment she feels for her father's distance, cutting comments, disinterest in taking care of her, crazy mood swings and most damning, never showing or expressing love in any tangible fashion. This is one of several emotionally brutal sections of the book, as Tyler condemns herself for her own dumb choices made once free of her parents as she became a self-fulfilling prophecy of what her father feared: a wild child. It's almost a relief for the reader when Tyler turns back to the sepia-and-olive drab tones of the "photo" scrapbook section of the book depicting his tour of duty. The high spirits and tomfoolery of the first book are replaced with hellish depictions of not just combat, but being placed in a position where his men have to destroy the lives and livelihoods of civilians.

A seemingly innocuous scene of chatter with her cheery teenage daughter is a portent of something far heavier later in the book, as Tyler recalls how she came to leave California after her husband left her for another woman. A full-page, light-hearted drawing of the pair floating outside their apartment building as they head downstairs takes on a double meaning considering that later section of the book. In a narrative sense, the interlude reminds readers that Carol at this time (in the early 2000s) is still holding out hope that her ex will return to her, as much as for the sake of her daughter as herself. It's a crucial scene for a book that, up until this point, is much more fractured and all over the place than the first volume.

The next section of the book is a long account of when Tyler stayed with her parents when his father battled cancer but somehow built a house from scratch out in the woods. It fills in some blanks in terms of their personal narrative (especially in the way it fills in the picture regarding the true state of her mother's health) but otherwise merely serves to support and amplify the points she makes earlier in the book regarding her father. The next segment of the scrapbook ends with Chuck (thinking that the war was nearly over after D-Day) being mustered into fighting the brutal Battle of the Bulge. That segment ends with Tyler getting a fateful phone call.

The last two sections of the book are a devastating one-two punch, especially to any reader with children. Much of this book falls into a holding pattern, going back and forth about Tyler's mixed feelings about a complicated man. It's an assessment of the collateral damage that she took on as a consequence of his experiences, as well as what her mother went through. Forget about getting her father to say that he loved her; Tyler would have accepted a simple "I'm sorry" for his failures as a parental figure. That said, even a complicated relationship is better than no relationship, as the chapter regarding cancer underlines.

When a parent is faced with the prospect of their child having a serious illness, it's a devastating feeling. When it's mental illness, it's an even more helpless sensation. In a section marked by red panel borders, Tyler talks about the time her daughter was first caught violating school rules and then finding drugs, alcohol and razor blades in her backpack. Much more disturbing was her daughter trying to jump out of a window, claiming "the bird man" told her she could "suck in air by jumping". Carol literally had to tackle her daughter to bring her back inside before she took her to the ER. That experience causes Carol to think of her mother's own tragedy: the death of her young daughter.

This is where Tyler reprints "The Hannah Story", which is simply one of the greatest comics short stories of all time. It's about her mother living with Chuck's family during wartime, and it was not exactly a cozy set-up. Chuck's mother was a hateful woman who had it in for Hannah and even pronounced a curse on Ann, their first child. Two years later, Ann died in a hospital after scalding herself by accident. It's the way the story is structured that makes it so brilliant, as it's staged as a conversation in a garage between Carol, Hannah and Carol's sister Virginia. A long-buried pain finally spills out as Hannah finally talks about the burden she had been trying to forget all these years. But pain can't be forgotten and emotions can only be tamped down for so long: they always emerge somehow. There's another bit of collateral damage reported here, as Chuck slaps Hannah until she stops crying about Ann. Unburdening herself of the pain allowed her to remember the brief but beautiful moments she spent with her daughter, a moment she managed to achieve when she saw Carol give birth, asking "Don't I have a right to the good parts of her life...beyond the pain I feel." The final image of the story, featuring an oriental rug with the features of all the Tyler children, is bright and hopeful, and the final line "Hannah--whose name will forever cradle her daughter's" is drawn with a heart around "ann". Tyler's light and expressive touch makes this moment powerful and resonant without being mawkish.

Thinking of the story makes Tyler realize that her daughter is still alive and in need of her. Back at the apartment building to change her clothes, she catches sight of the window she almost jumped out of and is horrified. At the end of the first volume, Tyler used Hitler as a character designed to represent the toll of war itself. At the end of this volume, Hitler returns in the person of "the bird man" (in the person of the Eagle of the Third Reich), gloating over Julia's near-death experience. If there was a sense of feeling overwhelmed at the end of the first volume, the second ends in anger. Tyler took the time to process her grief over her childhood in this book, but its real power is in how she comes to terms with that quickly when the life of her daughter is concerned. There's a certain hokeyness in the way Hitler is used here so literally, but Tyler earns that on-the-nose metaphor with the wringer she puts herself and the reader through in the course of the book. More than anything, this segment once again circles around to the book's title: she didn't know her daughter was having these suicidal/psychotic thoughts, and there was no way she could have known.

Visually, Tyler's style is unique in the comics world. Only Vanessa Davis comes close to doing the sort of thing she does in terms of using a painter's sensibility while drawing comics. The scrapbook design of the book is just one of many remarkable decorative touches she adds. Color is tremendously important both in a narrative sense (identifying key times and characters) and an emotional sense (modulating feelings felt on a page in an expressive style). The complexity of her page design (changing formats on an almost page-to-page basis) is brought to earth by the simplicity of her character design. The result is what feels like an ornate, powerful and cohesive sketchbook/journal. Even when the story goes off an a tangent, Tyler always manages to tie things back into the main narrative. Jumps forward and backward into time never obscure the main narrative through-line. Visual call-backs abound in the book, both to the first volume and to key sequences in the book. Most impressively, Tyler manages to bring a static kind of craft (a sketchbook) to life with panels that crackle with energy and movement. There are no easy outs or answers in Tyler's attempts to create, maintain and understand connections with her loved ones, so I'll be curious to see what kind of conclusions she winds up with in the last book of the trilogy.

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