Home > CR Interviews
An Interview With Carol Tyler
posted March 13, 2006
C. Tyler's Late Bloomer
may have been the best comics publication to come out in 2005; it was certainly the least celebrated of the year's top works. Primarily a collection of short stories, Tyler's completely unique voice for the medium shines through in small moments drawn from everyday life as seen with a decided sense of humor. A veteran of Weirdo
, Twisted Sisters
is also among the best artists in terms of utilizing color in her work. Her comics remind me of something you might overhear a gardening mother tell her helpful daughter through an open screen windown during the stillest days of summer. They are very dear and beautiful, and I jumped at a chance to run Bruce Chrislip's interview. -- Tom Spurgeon
Talking with Tyler
An Interview By Bruce Chrislip
C. Tyler, cartoonist husband Justin Green
, and model/fashion student daughter Julia live in a charming two-story 92-year old wooden house on a quiet street that borders the Cincinnati Zoo. Inside, the walls are accented with a dark brown wood trim, all original. Upstairs is Ms. Tyler's studio. Affixed to the wall behind her drafting table is a timeline assemblage of WWII-vintage photos of her father and narrative written on Post-It notes that detail his wartime adventures -- all part of the research for her next book.
The drafting table itself is enclosed in a grass-thatched hut with thick faux-bamboo supports holding up the roof. It was formerly a Corona beer display that she rescued from a local IGA grocery store. As I sat at her drawing board, she pointed out the many small jars of specially mixed colored ink that she uses to draw her comix stories. Her dog Baby came by to greet me before settling down to a nap.
Carol showed me some completed pages of her next book, You'll Never Know
The ink paintings were stunning. I particularly liked a moonlit forest scene. But we were here to talk about Late Bloomer
, which was released in November. It was an unseasonably warm 58 degrees on Saturday afternoon in late January when this interview was conducted. We set up two chairs near a sunny window and began.
BRUCE CHRISLIP: We are here today to interview C. Tyler, whose new book,
Late Bloomer, has recently been published by Fantagraphics. It's a collection of 35 short stories in comix form that retails for $28.95 and is available at finer bookstores or through Carol's Web site.
I have a list of questions here. I wrote a note to myself to approach this like a Book T.V. interview -- so here we go. That's where they'll review your next book.
Where's our audience?
CHRISLIP: They're reading this now (hopefully). But let's talk about the current book, Late Bloomer. What is the significance of the title? What are the implications?
If you were to get together at any type of family gathering, someone will invariably say, "Oh, he was a late bloomer or she was a late bloomer!" which means it took a while to come into one's own -- a delayed development. The term also applies to the plant world.
If you go on a nature walk in June, you're going to get this tentative, minty-green look. If you go in August, you're going to get the full-blown nature effect. Plants are just shooting up everywhere. This is it! This is the last blowout before the weather really starts to change and get colder.
The inference for the book is that there is a delay. You look at one's life, let's say the span of one's life. Even though we don't know what's going to happen from one minute to the next, we do have a sense of, "Well, I'm at this stage in my life." So we can pretty much say that there's childhood, adolescence and then you leave home in your twenties -- do your college thing or do whatever you do in your twenties.
Women who go to college defer their childbearing years. Age thirty is when that clock or chime goes off. If you're going to have a baby, have it now! What that really does is put you into a twenty-year deferral of anything that you were doing before that time. (laughs)
I've never been the type who could separate experiences so if I'm going to have a baby, it becomes my life. What's at the end of that? Thankfully, there's no end to my relationship with my child.
It's just that there's a time when I don't have to be on duty so often and she can take care of herself to some degree. And that freed up time at the drawing table. If you look at the trajectory of one's life its "Oooh, but I'm now middle aged," so I don't want to say that I'm now in the Frank Sinatra-like September years or something horrible like that. I don't want to frame it like that.
CHRISLIP: Yeah, leave Frank Sinatra out of this! (both laugh)
It seems to be that if you were to take a season, I'm not tulips anymore.
CHRISLIP: On the other hand, so much of what you do is autobiographical and you can't really write a good autobiographical story or novel or comic if you haven't lived a little bit, to have the experience. It's my own personal feeling that the stories gain if they're written years after the fact when you can look back on the experience and place them into the bigger picture, give them context.
Yeah, throw some wisdom in there. Perspective. Insight.
CHRISLIP: That's right, so if you're 19 years old and you start writing autobiographical stories, it's going to be a little different.
Yes, but now I understand about reincarnated beings and that concept explains those who have a great deal of wisdom at age 19, those who can do brilliant and insightful work.
CHRISLIP: I've heard such things. I never met them in my own experience.
There's some highly realized individuals recognized at age two for example.
CHRISLIP: Right, right. There's always prodigies. Damn them!
The Early Years
CHRISLIP: Let's move back. Let's talk about your early years.
(dreamily) The early years...
CHRISLIP: Where were you born?
I was born in Chicago with scratches all over my face.
Yeah, I had these long streaks on both sides of my face. I guess my little fingernails had grown and my hands were kind of up in a position where there was nothing left to do but flex my fingers and the nails made these groove lines. I was groovy! (laughs) And they took my little babies' nightgown thing and tied it over my hands.
CHRISLIP: Growing up what were your surroundings like? Like your neighborhood, house, that kind of thing...
Well, you know, it was Chicago. I lived right near Wrigley Field.
Yup, Addison Street. If you go out the front door and go left, you'll end up at Riverview Park -- "World's largest amusement park," the Two Ton Baker would shout (remembering), "Ha ha ha ha! Laugh your troubles away at merry old Riverview! Western and Belmont!" Okay, that was to the left and to the right was Cubs park (Wrigley Field) and we lived right next to where the elevated train let off, which meant a constant stream of foot traffic in front of our house. It created a barrier, a living fence, which with the buses and cars meant we couldn't cross the main street! We were forced to stay within the confines of our little 2 or 3 block area with all the alleys and side streets. That was the era where the moms stayed home.
CHRISLIP: So you were close to the elevated trains?
Yeah, you could see it. You could hear it constantly because it was right there. There were these massive I-beams holding it up and we'd get up in there. It meant stepping up about three feet to wedge your little body in there and as the train goes by overhead (imitates jiggling noise): "Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!!!" (Chrislip laughs) You'd get the vibrations. I remember not only being vibrated but there'd be these big rivets poking through your back while nestling up there with in the beam.
You know, there would always be enough kids around for a pickup baseball game. We had fifty kids on our block, so there was always something to do. My siblings were always with a bunch outside playing. Although early on, I had to stay in the yard more because I was too little, which gave me a lifelong feeling of being left behind. I could see them having fun, and I would cry and turn inward. Seeds of imagination, I guess. Eventually, I got to join in.
My brother Joe was the leader of the pack. I don't know why he had the power, but he did! Probably because he thought up the most interesting fun. He had these things called "tests." He'd say something like (imitating brother's voice), " All right, today we are going from this end of the block to that end, but we're not touching the ground!" And we'd have to do these things. (BC is laughing.) We'd have to accomplish these ridiculous feats because he'd determined that that's what we were going to do today.
CHRISLIP: Older brother?
CHRISLIP: Any other siblings?
My older sister Virginia. She was sort of unofficially in charge of me and had to drag me along. We've talked about it as adults, because she kind of resented it. We're best friends now. But back then, it was too much to put off on her.
CHRISLIP: So you were the baby of the family?
I was the baby for 9 years before a younger brother Jimmy arrived. My siblings report that as a kid, I peed on them often and threw-up a lot (laughs).
Who knows! No shrinks back then for kids. I know one thing. We went to Catholic school and it was weird and creepy because in 1954 there was a horrible fire in Chicago at a school called Our Lady of the Angels
and it was the exact same layout as our school.
CHRISLIP: Oh no.
Chilling photos in Life
magazine of the charred school and the kids that died in it. It was no stretch for me. I realize thinking back, no wonder I was emotionally distraught! No wonder I was throwing up all the time. The smell of that eraser shaving stuff that the janitor used. Aargghh! I can't to this day… if I smell an eraser, I get to feeling sick.
CHRISLIP: This was an old school building that you were in?
Mmm hmm. Archdiocese of Chicago.
CHRISLIP: What about your parents?
My dad was a construction plumber. He had his own business and my mom was busy as the office manager/bookkeeper for their business. Construction runs in the family. My grandfather and great-grandfather helped build a lot of Chicago.
CHRISLIP: There's that story in
Late Bloomer where you have the plumbing skills coming to the rescue ("Adult Children of Plumbers and Pipe fitters").
Yeah, yeah. But my dad was not like a "fix your toilet" plumber. He was a construction plumber and there was a big difference. The misperception bothered me in high school. I went to high school with rich kids out in Lake County after my family moved out there.
CHRISLIP: You moved into a totally different area?
In 1960, when I was 9. We moved to an area that was an hour's drive outside of Chicago, towards Wisconsin. Kind of a lakes, uninhabited country-type area. For high school, of course it had to be Catholic, which meant being bused an hour and a half to the only school, located in center of the county. Our school was a mixture of expensive people from the North Shore out where Justin's from and hicks from the sticks like me. Being a plumber's daughter in their minds meant being related to the people who unclogged their toilets. And I was always saying (defensively), "No, he was a construction plumber!"
CHRISLIP: How did being a plumber's daughter affect/influence your worldview? Your family and relatives appear in a lot of the stories in Late Bloomer and it's this real blue-collar atmosphere. In the story "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," you have the group of the uncles and aunts together and they're...
Cussing and all that.
CHRISLIP: Cussing. Drinking beers. Calling each other names.
And laughing about it! "You S.O.B.!! Ha ha ha!!" (laughs) Well, you know, blue collar. There was a lot of richness there. And the worldview being that, if I understand your question there, as a child of a blue collar worker there was an emphasis on the work ethic. That labor is something that you produce with your effort. That there's a job that you can set out to do and then complete it. No anxiety. "Get to work or I'll kick your ass!" (laughs)
CHRISLIP: This viewpoint stayed with you. I can tell.
Well, when we were growing up, we were not lavished with toys or gifts. We had to make our own fun. I grew up playing with elbows from pipes, chunks of wood, you know?
My dad's idea of fun was work. Us kids would be happily playing outside, then we'd hear, "Hey you kids! Get over here and let's move this pile of wood from here to over there!" (BC laughs) Oh, he kept us busy. That's the way I am now. Just like him. Constantly busy.
Or, how about this? How about waking up to a Skilsaw blade about two inches from your head? I remember waking up one morning and the wall was being removed! (BC laughing uproariously) This is true! He decided to take the wall out and expand the room or something and didn't bother to wake me up! My bed was on the other side from where he was working, right up against the wall. He didn't warn me the night before or anything. He figured he'd work around me, I guess. (laughs) Figured eventually I'd get up.
CHRISLIP: (laughing) Oh no. "Wake up!!" That was your alarm clock, huh?
Deciding to Be an Artist
CHRISLIP: When did you decide to become an artist or when did you discover you were an artist? Or maybe art decided you? That's the other part of the question.
When did I decide to be an artist? Decided . . hmmm. Well, I'd have to say that with the Catholic school education, the Sisters had ideas about art, and that was to give us a greeting card so we could copy them. I got good at drawing bunnies and Easter eggs and Christmas trees and borders and all that stuff. But ART per se like museums or paintings was not part of the equation AT ALL. No.
CHRISLIP: You didn't go to the Art Institute to look around?
No. Not until later, into high school when my friend Laurie would drag me down there. But, no, my dad insisted that there was no time for such things. Artistry was all around, but in service of.
But I did like to color. I had coloring books and our tin of broken-ass crayons. I remember one night having the best time under the kitchen table with a church-key type can-opener tied to a string. I was pulling it around the legs, swinging it around. And playing with odd stuff, like I said, like elbows and bolts and stuff like that. (BC laughs)
CHRISLIP: Did you have an Erector Set, toys like that?
Nope. Why go out and buy something when you can go down the basement of go into the garage and get some equivalent real shit? (BC laughs)
CHRISLIP: What am I thinking? (both laugh)
No. No Erector Sets. I had a dolly. And a very active imagination. I was one of those kids who could get WAY out there. I spent a lot of time in la la areas.
CHRISLIP: But somewhere along the line you got the idea to…
To focus and express it or something?
CHRISLIP: Yes, to focus on art, right?
I guess in high school I kind of said (in spaced-out voice), "Well, I guess I'll do art." No, that's not true! When I was a Beatlemaniac, well I have to back up a little bit. If it wasn't coloring books, it was the back of an envelope. I don't know.
What you had to do if you wanted to make art or do a drawing or do something cute or clever was to take a paper grocery bag and cut the bottom out and cut it so you now have a big long piece of brown paper, basically the inside of a bag, and that's how I made the Beatles' instruments for my room.
I used four bags. I got some pastels from the little office supply store up in town and then copied John, Paul, George and Ringo's instruments -- all their guitars and stuff like that -- and I made it as big as I could and taped them to the wall (laughs at the recollection). I still have them!!
The sisters always insisted that we make little booklets, like when Vatican II came out. We had to make a booklet about that -- the reformation of the Catholic Church. A precious little handmade book with a dove on the cover.
I went to high school and I took Art, but I was woefully inadequate because I was used to bag art and wood hunks and there were kids in my class who had already taken private lessons and had been to Europe.
My idea with art had something to do with experiencing real life, just being observant. Of course, back then I didn't know that this had artistic value. Back then, art was something only rich, fancy people had access to. Wow, you know, it's a panel on the wall or a sculpture in the garden. So much has changed in the history of art with earth art and conceptual art and all these things, art of the twentieth century. And I didn't even become aware of any of that until I got to college.
CHRISLIP: Things were changing a lot even before you got to high school.
The modernist changes had really started in earnest really, I'd say, in the 1850s, for goodness sakes, with Manet. But I don't want to pedal back too far.
You had asked about art school. I tried to get into an art school after graduation but there was no money for me to go to school. It's not like today. The idea set out for me was that I'd get married and have a bunch of kids and be somebody's wife so why the hell would I want to go to school, to college?
But I wanted to. My brother went to the University of Dayton on a full football scholarship. My sister went to St. Mary of the Woods in Terre Haute, Indiana as a nun and I didn't want to do that. So I'd visit my brother Joe in Dayton and I could drink beer because Ohio's beer law was age 18.
CHRISLIP: Oh yeah, 3.2 beer. With the red caps.
Whatever it was, it worked.
CHRISLIP: Believe me, it was 3.2 beer.
I don't know. Being a football player, he had access to kegs and stuff like that. The two times I visited I ended up so sick. It was disgusting. University of Dayton! Just down the pike from here, I can't believe it!! Yet it was ages ago. I would fly in. It would be party weekend. I would go home sick. My parents didn't know. And I tried to get in to their art school.
CHRISLIP: So you went to Syracuse a little later?
Yeah. So here's what happened. Part of the Dayton thing was that I wanted to be accepted in the art school. There was nobody in my high school that was advising me on that step. I did adequate High School art, but I was up against the National Merit Scholars, the National Honor Society people. At the end of the school year they were rattling off who was going where, I just felt like such a chump. I had no plan. But then my grandmother died. After her estate was settled, I suddenly had a couple of thousand dollars.
What I decided to do was I could go to college in Tennessee as a resident since my mother was from there.
CHRISLIP: So you're down in college in Tennessee.
Yeah, and I took grandma's money and I bought a car so that I could commute from my aunt's house.
I went down there, too, because I loved the rural life. Having been a Chicago girl at first and then moved out to the lakes area and I loved the lakes. And I really got to where I loved the bus ride from the high school out to the country to look out at the open fields.
We lived on a lake, so in the summer I'd spend all day barefoot outside doing whatever I had to do. I had a good summer this last summer, the year of Late Bloomer, because I went barefoot all summer. (laughs)
That's my grandparents in the "Country Music" story in Late Bloomer
. We're shown sitting on the porch. That was during one of my college-era visits, during the hippie era, right before they lost the house.
CHRISLIP: A stoic couple, a very stoic couple.
No, they weren't stoic. They just didn't say anything. (BC laughs)
CHRISLIP: (still laughing) Oh! They weren't stoic, they just didn't say anything. Okay.
What's to say? You jest set there. Settin' outside.
Every once in a while they'd break the silence with, "Boy, it's hot!"
"Yeah, it sure is! Whew!" That's the end of that.
CHRISLIP: Now, somewhere in here you met husband number one.
Okay, here's the thing -- I went and lived at my aunt's house...
CHRISLIP: I'm trying to do a segue into "Why I'm Agin' Southern Min."
And I had this car from my grandmother's money with enough left over that I could go to Tennessee Tech -- Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee and it was a 16 mile drive from my aunt's house who lived in Sparta. So I would get in the car and drive to the campus. I got to go for about $75.00 a quarter. It was just unbelievably cheap back then, but also because I had Tennessee roots.
But then a drunk hit my car, totaled my brand new Pontiac Tempest
, over Christmas. I was in a very terrible accident. A passenger in my car was in a coma for two months. To this day, I still have pinched nerve and neck problems. It's why I have the tendonitis that stops me from drawing.
CHRISLIP: And this was in your first year at college?
Mmm hmm, January of 1970. The guy is on a side street really late at night. I was making a turn at about 5 miles an hour. I could see the grill of the car aiming toward me through my rear view mirror. A '68 Chevy Impala.
The guy was going sixty miles an hour when he hit me. He slammed into my right rear and kept going. We spun two or three times in the air and landed on a house, and pinned a pedestrian to the house. It was the worst, stupidest thing!
What this meant was that I had to go live on campus and that's where I met the BMOC (Big Man on Campus).
CHRISLIP: That was husband number one?
Yeah, that's where I met Bob.
CHRISLIP: So let's talk about this. "Why I'm Agin' Southern Min!" It pokes fun at a couple of ex-husbands. I got a laugh out of that story, maybe a cheap laugh, I don't know.
Laugh away. I built in a lot of little clues in there, 666 and stuff like that, because when I went down there people were talking about a lot of things I'd never heard of, you know, all that Evangelical stuff about the Antichrist and all that craziness -- what now is our Christian Right culture -- bleahhh!!! That was foreign to me. Really weird.
And there's this continual grudge match with the white boys that was still going on about the north. All the country boys called me "Chicago." That was my name. They'd say, "Hey, Chicago!" You know, with a Southern accent.
CHRISLIP: Oh no. You were with the NASCAR crowd before anybody really knew what that meant.
Well, they'd drag up and down the roads. Laying rubber. I had to learn how to do that. You know, they talk about street cred? I learned how to lay rubber in my Pontiac Tempest. I can still do it to this day because those country boys taught me how.
CHRISLIP: Let's get to art school. What's the chronology? You were with the Big Man on the Campus. That marriage lasted for?
Five and a half years. I ended up being a Nashville housewife.
CHRISLIP: You're not back at art school yet.
No. But here's what happened. There was a turning point. I was the good wife. He was in the military but only to pay for college. He was a dirt-poor country boy. The Vietnam War was winding down and we were definitely in the antiwar thing and all of that. Potheads. When we settled in Nashville we lucked into a big huge three-bedroom house in a very ritzy area, near Belle Meade. The Welcome Wagon lady even came to educate me about all the nearby churches.
So here we are in this huge three-bedroom house. I appointed it beautifully with family antiques. Three bedrooms: 1. Our room. 2. He used one for a study. Then there was this third room, and I looked at it and I thought, "OK, This is my room!" My sewing machine was in there, my art supplies were in there, and yet I didn't feel comfortable in there at all. In fact, I did everything to avoid it.
It was like the room became a definer because this was the room that I was supposed to happen in. But I had no idea what to do in there! It was panic time: this place represented who I could be. Or had been. I just didn't know anymore.
I knew one thing: this housewife thing just wasn't working -- I couldn't stand being a Southern housewife.
CHRISLIP: I could figure that out by reading "Why I'm Agin' Southern Min."
I decided to start back to art school. The nearest place was Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
The divorce came in 1976, the year of our independence. Or Bicentennial, or something like that. That's where I met this other guy. He and I were the lover/buddies featured in the story "The Outrage."
But I was still in the South. There was still this Southern thing going on. Southern rock, and all of that.
CHRISLIP: Yeah, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchett, Allman Brothers.
Oh god! Barefoot Jerry was one of the local bands.
CHRISLIP: (laughs) Yeah that's right. "The South's Gonna Do It Again!" Charlie Daniels Band. "Barefoot Jerry and CDB."
And there was a concert I went to with them and Willie Nelson. I just wanted to shoot him. "Helloo again" and it just went on at this s-l-o-w pace. Everybody there was either drunk or stoned and I was stuck there thinking, "This is Hell. Lemme outta here!" No offense to Willie Nelson but it was one of those things, like a never ending Grateful Dead-kind of thing except that it was Southern Rock.
Her Olympic Experience
CHRISLIP: So this is why you went up to Syracuse and art school.
No. What happened was I graduated in 1978 and got hit by another car, while on my bike this time, and was laid up for a while. It messed up my leg and hip.
While I was laid up I decided when I got well I would go see my brother Joe (the guy who made up the "tests"), who during this time was working on becoming a bobsledder. He had been a star football player (Dayton) but didn't get picked up by the NFL because of a pinched nerve.
Rather than mope about that, he trained himself for bobsledding, reinventing the sport, and made the USA #1 team. So I decided to go up there to Saranac Lake, New York and be inspired by him and my other brother Jimmy and the Olympics! And ended up living in Joe's basement.
I landed a job: Children's Art Coordinator. By some weird luck, I wound up with a full access pass to everything. Ha! I got the children's art thing done quickly so I had all the free time in the world to just BE there. Then they gave me the job of coordinating the behind the scenes of the Closing Ceremonies. I met all the athletes from every country, even those freaked-out folks from communist countries.
One day my brother Joe showed up with these tickets and I said, "What are these for? I hate hockey." But I ended up going and it turned out to be the big U.S./Russia hockey game, and I was sitting with the U.S.A. team for what turned out to be the Miracle on Ice
CHRISLIP: (makes appropriately impressed-sounding noises)
Oh my god. How unbelievable was that? Okay, what that whole Olympic experience ended up doing was convincing me that I was through with the South. I love the landscape and I love our family history. I'm proud of my relatives and I love them dearly. But the narrow-minded culture of intolerance was not for me. I applied to Syracuse for graduate school.
CHRISLIP: You mentioned in a previous interview that in your art school days the other students were highly competitive.
CHRISLIP: "Get to New York! Get out of school and get a big career going!"
Yeah. Right. That was the push for any student. You get a BFA and then you get an MFA. To really be valid in any way, you had to make it in New York. The goal was to be in the New York art scene. That was the Holy Grail; the only way to have that official stamp of approval.
But what happened was that the fellow that I was with in Tennessee didn't transition well at Syracuse. I was in graduate school and he wasn't. So I used my influence and my connections with people I knew at Syracuse to get him an apartment in New York City (which was really hard to do).
CHRISLIP: Yeah, right. Then and now.
And he went to SVA (School of Visual Arts), just as an audit, and met a bunch of people. So that's how I was able to get names and addresses of a bunch of people in San Francisco. When I went out to visit in the summer of 1982, I had (Bill) Griffith's address and Justin Green's address and all those guys.
We were all just helping each other out with our careers and our connections and all that kind of stuff.
CHRISLIP: That brings us to the time period of the "Pork Chops" story in
Late Bloomer -- your experiences with the New York gallery scene.
(groans) Yeah, very competitive. Incestuous. Looking for product. You know, galleries are sales places.
CHRISLIP: But you were able to spoof the whole group art show scene with your grad school friend Judy in the "Ladies Who Paint" exhibit.
Yes, we pretended we were six women so we could get this group show. They didn't want to give individual shows at this gallery but they would put on group shows so we said "all right" and became an instant group. She made up three people and I made up three people. We even got a state arts grant! Amazing! (laughs)
CHRISLIP: Great! Now, how long were you in New York?
I lived there for a few years.
CHRISLIP: And in-between you'd go out to California to visit.
Right. I went out to visit my friends and I looked up some of the underground cartoonists. That's how I met Justin (Green).
CHRISLIP: Now you went out and met Justin and then you came back later?
Well, it's complicated. It was back and forth. We had this bi-coastal romance thing and then I had to break up with my Tennessee boyfriend because he was cheating on me.
CHRISLIP: Now who was husband number two?
Well, I just call him that because we were together for seven years, sort of common-law husband.
CHRISLIP: When I read "Why I'm Agin' Southern Min," I didn't pick up that he was an artist, too.
Not from that story, but in "The Outrage" our little saga is explained.
CHRISLIP: We've been talking about Justin but we really haven't mentioned your daughter Julia (Binka) much. What is it like living with three artists under one roof (bringing us up to the present)?
CHRISLIP: (laughs) Is this not a creative atmosphere though?
It's very tricky because we all have our separate projects that we're working on. And Justin revolves his life around his deadlines. Mostly we suffer in silence, in our own little worlds.
I call it hellish because of the poverty. Keeping a positive mental attitude is hard work. We have to be careful because many times our time together has eroded into one long complain-a-thon.
Look around at my fabulous digs. It's very clear that it's an artist's studio, that's true, but it's just hard. I'd like to be able to afford heat! The cold is doing physical damage to me at this point in the form of my hands swelling. I can't work in gloves. I hate wearing an overcoat at the drawing table, it's bulky. Give me a balmy island, this lack of money thing is really tiresome.
CHRISLIP: That's the lot of the artist.
(laughs) I don't like that lot!
CHRISLIP: Let's talk about your experiences as a teacher. You've put in a lot of time teaching. Your story about working as a substitute teacher, "Sub Zero," is at turns fascinating, insightful, funny and heartbreaking. Can you talk a little about being a substitute teacher and the improvising and other skills that go into the job?
the hardest job on Earth, because each day you walk into a room full of immature little people as the person in charge yet you are a stranger to them. This is a generation who has been taught to be suspicious of strangers.
Then add the racial and cultural differences. I totally get it that I'm a white lady and because of my whiteness, I have had the advantage historically. They don't know that I'm aware of this and that I try to be responsible about it. They see me through the eyes of their parents, family members, and come to school with all the judgments and grudges from their own experiences and what they've learned from their families.
It's sure not my benign little Catholic school in the 1950s. I'm sure if we had had a substitute back then, we would have done as the Sister said or our parents would have beat the crap out of us. But it is a different world. I worked in the toughest schools with inner-city kids and immigrants, many newly arrived from Southeast Asia, Mexico, the Philippines, Tonga. Many of the parents didn't speak the language.
The substitute teaching system doesn't care -- they just plunk you into these situations and you have to either sink or swim if you want to get paid. The kids are nasty. The instructions are vague. I've witnessed violence and more crime than you could ever believe. It took every bit of my creativity, my training as a human being, every improvisational stunt that my mom and dad ever taught me to make it through the day.
I don't think people know about the level of deprivation that a large population in this country endures. For example, the shock of Ricky, a kid in my second grade one year.
A funny little guy who told us he lived with a chicken. His favorite off-task distraction thing to do was to get on top of my filing cabinet and rip the wings off of an insect. The other kids would laugh! And it was kinda funny to watch him in action, not because of the harm to the bug, but because he was such a character. He clearly was disruptive and out of control -- even the Principal had become exasperated.
When I went to his house to do an intervention I met his parents. I opened the door and there was no living room floor, no floor anywhere, it was all dirt and there was the chicken! Ricky was right. And I was there to explain to them why it's not appropriate for their son to be pulling the wings off a bee!
Nevertheless, I love teaching but I don't have an official teaching credential per se
. I have my Masters Degree. I have what they refer to as an "Emergency" teaching credential. I'd have to go back to college and go into debt and all that to get the official version, so forget it.
CHRISLIP: But you still do this occasionally, right?
Yeah, I do this, and I'm very good at what I do. Very skilled. But the main thing that pisses me off, the reason why I resist going, is not the kids and it's not even the challenge of whatever is going to happen next. It's the administrators and my peers who treat me like I'm, as the title suggests "Sub Zero."
There was a big headline in the newspaper that appeared after I just went through one of the most unbelievable, incredible year as a substitute teacher. It read, "Emergency Credentialed Teachers Are Ruining Our Schools." Author: Sandra Feldman, head of the American Federation of Teachers. And I thought, "Bitch. After all I've brought to the job. I'm not doing this anymore." Sandra Feldman. I hate you. For the record. I don't like Sandra Feldman from AFT. She has thrown up so many roadblocks that could fast-track talented teachers like me into the classroom." Next question.
CHRISLIP: I'm going to throw out some names and get your reaction to them. What do they mean to you?
Don't say Sandra Feldman! Bleaahh!!
(In Southern accent) I love Elvis! I've been to Graceland. I got my picture made there. I went there after my doggie was poisoned. It cheered me up! Next question.
CHRISLIP: Leonardo DiCaprio.
CHRISLIP: That's right. It took me two readings of the introduction from
Late Bloomer to realize just who Leonardo, the babysitter, was.
I owe him a solid, just because of doing that Titanic
movie. I know he's probably sick of it by now but, at the lowest point in my sweet little daughter's life, his picture on her wall was like a shining moon that she could look up to and it would brighten her darkness. Because he babysat her when she was tiny, tiny, tiny, she could use that morsel to increase her status in the petty world of Junior High School politics.
CHRISLIP: Well, how old was he?
Oh gosh. He must have been eleven or twelve or thirteen or something like that. We went to parties at (Last Gasp publisher Ron) Turner's and stuff like that and he, and Turner's son Colin, would have to baby-sit and they didn't want to. I caught Leo jumping on the bed and tickling Julia. He was just little Leo. It was cute. If he could see her now, this gorgeous model!
CHRISLIP: We should mention that the comix connection was Leo's father George DiCaprio, an underground cartoonist who drew
Greaser Comix, among other things.
Yes, and he worked with Justin. Justin illustrated a short story that George wrote.
CHRISLIP: It all ties in. Laurel and Hardy.
(excitedly): Oh, yeah!! My daughter was raised on Laurel and Hardy videos. We watched them constantly when she was little. When I would go into these schools where it was total chaos and I had these immigrant kids that didn't speak English, I would bring these movies.
I'd put in the Laurel and Hardy tapes and they loved it because there was no reliance on language, it's all visual gags. Oh, I love Laurel and Hardy. It saved many an afternoon for me in the classroom and babysitting hours as a child. Yeah, Julia loved it. We had 2 three-hour cassette tapes full of their shorts that somebody gave to Justin.
CHRISLIP: Aline Kominsky-Crumb.
A very wonderful friend, my dear friend when I lived in the valley. They lived in Winters, California and we lived in Sacramento. This was when Julia was little, in the late 1980s. Aline was the Weirdo
editor then. She was very good to me. I was kind of down after the birth of my child, as you can read about in "The Outrage". It was a big change for me and she was very encouraging and wonderful.
CHRISLIP: Wasn't that where your comix first appeared -- in the pages of
Yes, and her encouragement mattered. I'm telling you, I had no self-esteem at that point (laughs). I was a New Yorker, an art school queen. I was fabulous, darling. And then the next thing I know (in whining voice), "What am I doing here in the Sacramento valley? It's too hot and I have a baby!" And there were no family or old friends around so she really befriended me and was very kind.
CHRISLIP: So that was where a lot of Julia's early years were spent, in Sacramento. You know, a lot of
Late Bloomer touches on your years as a mom. Not soccer mom, but Art Mom!
(laughs) Just a regular mom, thank you, in Sacramento and West Sacramento. Loved it over in West Sac.
CHRISLIP: There's a story called "Migrant Mother" where you're taking Julia on a trip, you're going through the airport and having all sorts of difficulties. It's one of those stories that's so sad, it's funny.
So true, though. So true. (laughs) Parenting! Being a parent is fulfilling in terms of giving me a dimension to my life but it was definitely exhausting at times.
CHRISLIP: R. Crumb.
Rah-bert! My neighbor in the Valley.
CHRISLIP: You knew most of the underground cartoonists in that time period. Tell me, why do so many underground cartoonists seem to come from Chicago -- like Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Justin, you?
Hell I don't know, maybe it's the water. But I didn't know Justin when I was growing up. His dad was like….they were wealthy. I was like, po' folks.
CHRISLIP: That was something that I didn't know until Leonard Rifas told me -- that Justin grew up in a fairly well-to-do family, upper middle class.
CHRISLIP: I just thought that all of the underground cartoonists came from a blue-collar working-class background.
No, he was able to afford better art supplies. And lessons at the Art Institute!
CHRISLIP: We talked about how they inspired you earlier -- the Beatles!
UHHHH!! Make sure it says "When Bruce said the word 'Beatles', what did I do? I said, "UHHHH!!"
CHRISLIP: (laughing) Yes, you gasped. If you were there for the—
AHHHH!!!! Do you want me to scream?
CHRISLIP: Did you ever see them?
(loudly and excitedly) OHHHH!!! I DID!!! In Comiskey Park, and I screamed the whole time. I still have my ticket stub and all my little memory stuff. You know, I should do a book about it. Next question.
I was honored to be a part of that book.
CHRISLIP: Who were the people involved in that?
Many women. It was edited by the fabulous and lovely Diane Noomin. Diane and Aline had done Twisted Sisters
as a comic book earlier. Then they decided to put it together as an anthology, showcasing the most prominent hot mamas that were working at that time.
The Rick and Ruby Show?
Ha ha ha ha ha. O-Kay! That was a stand-up comedy thing that I did for a while.
CHRISLIP: In California?
Yeah!!! At the Comedy Store in L.A.!!! Whooo-hooo!!! It was fun. The Rick and Ruby Show had been out for a long time. It was Monica Ganas (pictured), Brian Seff and Joshua Brody. They had worked with Robin Williams and were in the original Pee Wee Herman show. They were a comedy group.
[Interviewer's note: They also appeared on Robin Williams' Reality -- What A Concept! record album and on an episode of Mork and Mindy
Monica was teaching a class called "Comedy Writing for Television" at the Community Center in Sacto when Julia was a baby. I took the class, Monica and I hit it off and we started writing shows right away. She loved my sense of humor, I loved her sense of humor.
We taped some stuff locally in Sac. Those tapes are floating around somewhere. And then she decided to get me into the Rick and Ruby Show. Brian, the "Rick" of Rick and Ruby put together a pilot for television. It didn't sell, unfortunately. It should have. Our high hopes were all over it.
My character was named Marian Linthead. Ha! Ha! She was the lady that you see in the neighborhood with the particle mask stuck in her hair bending over. Kind of the yard worker look contrasted to Ruby, the 60s hideous ultra-sparkle glam kind of person.
My husband (in the act) was a comedian well known around San Francisco named Doug Ferrari (Dougzilla). He was a big, loudmouthed guy. We were laughing from the minute we got together, from the minute I hit L.A. Practice, rehearsal, I was laughing my ass off. I would literally jump on him and attach myself like a barnacle, and he'd carry me around. We'd throw ourselves down on the ground. We did a very physical type of comedy, in a crazy way.
I'd say like, "Give me the broom!" and throw myself at him and he'd say like "Marian, can't you wait till we're inside?" Then we'd wrestle. It was visually funny. My skinny body was like Stan Laurel to his Oliver Hardy.
CHRISLIP: This was obviously another creative outlet.
Oh! I really wanted it to work. I so much love performing. But we just didn't happen. I don't know. The whole Hollywood thing is weird. We kept going down there and honing our skills. We'd travel around, but the pilot just never got picked up.
CHRISLIP: Sounds like one of the great What Ifs.
Yeah (wistfully). Sigh.
CHRISLIP: There are thirty-five different stories in
Late Bloomer. (I know because I counted them.) And we've barely scratched the surface in our talk. What is your personal favorite story in the book and why?
"Once We Ran!" Purely for sentimental reasons.
I really liked doing the framing in the book -- all the intro and all the pictures in-between. I was trying to get at a look that old books and old cookbooks have, where they're allowed to use black and one other color. So there's kind of a grayish printed thing and I was trying to get that feeling on those insert pages where it says "Early Varieties" and so on.
I could have done a full-blown color thing but I like that process where things are kind of tamped down. But I don't know what it's called. Maybe they would halftone a color over gray or something like that. I liked playing with that.
CHRISLIP: And the other thing is
Late Bloomer contains stories drawn over a wide range of years.
There's some that I don't care for a much as others.
CHRISLIP: We won't mention those because we don't want to influence potential readers.
(excitedly) Well, no, I'm proud of every single one. Each one came out of a different time or feeling. "Once We Ran" -- just a one-pager but it took twenty years to make because I had to get to the point where I felt the anguish of her leaving.
Just that moment is something I remember so well. We were coming up the driveway and the hot air was coming up and our feet were burning, and it was hot! I took her little hand and I pulled her and at that exact moment both of our shirts filled with air. PSSSHUUUUU!! Just like that. We were both, "Wow!" It was just like a half-second thing. So I went into the house and wrote myself a note to remember that moment -- the driveway blast. It was out of the notes that I developed that story later.
CHRISLIP: That brings to mind something you said at the bookstore signing. All the years when you weren't able to devote much time to drawing comix, you'd write ideas on little slips of paper and drop them into a box.
Yes and I've still got that box! Sometimes I read those things and I can't believe it. And my journals. I have tons of them, with details -- including my visits to the Crumbs. I should make a book.
I have plenty of great material. But my tendonitis is a big drag. And I have this aging brain. Sometimes I just give in and watch television. Smack that bitch! I can't be doing that.
CHRISLIP: But you do have the
Late Bloomer book out. You've been doing some book signings and you'll be at APE (Alternative Press Expo) at the Concourse at Exhibition Square in San Francisco on April 8th and 9th. Can you talk about some of these things?
I'm really looking forward to APE. That's going to be a lot of fun. It's already fun. Preparing for it. I like the idea of going to California, getting away from Ohio for a while. This is an odd, warm 56 degree day in late January but it just reminds me that this is what I should be feeling every day. I hate this cold weather, it's getting to me, buddy. (BC laughs) As for the signings? Odd!
CHRISLIP: You started out with a few book signings in Indiana, including Bloomington. I wondered if you had done that as an intentional tie-in to the title of Late Bloomer. But I guess it was just serendipity.
Serendipity-do my friend. My connection with Bloomington is tied into my interest in Buddhism.
I was kind of in charge of the Dalai Lama's visit there a few years ago, 2003. I wasn't completely in charge but it was one of those things were I showed up and there was chaos. He was coming in a day and a half or two days, so I dropped into gear and pulled this thing together -- and eventually got to meet him and hold his hand.
Do you know how human beings have bones and a framework and muscles and stuff inside their hand? Well, when I held his hand, it was NOT from this world.
I'd say 'divine', but there is no "Divinity" in the sense of God in Buddhism like you would find in Christianity, or any religions of the Abrahamic tradition, like Judaism or Islam. Buddhism is a completely different paradigm. There can be no divine as a hierarchical separate entity. We're all interconnected, we are all one. There's the divine nature that already exists within all of us, our Buddha nature. We suffer until we wake up to it.
In the case of the Dalai Lama, you have someone who is wide-awake, but has deferred ultimate transcendence in order to bear the suffering with us, for us. Like a parent would. He's called the Precious One by the Tibetans and is considered to be the living embodiment of Compassion. Could you imagine the result if humanity chose compassion as the collective modus operandi? This world would change in one instant. That's why I revere the Dalai Lama as one of my teachers -- for what compassion means and its great potential to transform.
I went to Bloomington because I was curious about the Dalai Lama. But really, it was this call to a more skilled mode of being that took me there.
CHRISLIP: We should mention to our readers that you've been active in the Buddhism movement in Cincinnati.
I tried to do some work here. Yeah. I tried to increase awareness. I had a space where people could come. I taught basic meditation and gave the occasional dharma talk. My style was to make it practical to one's daily life. I studied the basics with a great master here in the States, Bhante Gunaratana from Sri Lanka.
Nowadays, I do my dharma quietly, every minute that I can remember to do it, with every breath.
That's all I know.
CHRISLIP: Is there anything else you'd like to say about
Bill Griffith has mentioned being able to track an artist's growth in a book collection. And I can see that with my own work in terms of skill. Hopefully I've improved, over time.
CHRISLIP: I think if someone wants to know what your comix are about, they should read Late Bloomer.
Thank you. You know, I finished up Late Bloomer
in late July/early August and have been working on a new book since then. You'll Never Know
You'll Never Know -- which is switching gears to your father's experiences in World War II.
Yes, and it's been a bit of a project. You know, I can't just tell my father's story verbatim. I set him down with a tape recorder and he talked. But since I've grown to understand him more, it's not just another soldier's story, although technically it is. Everything going on around him NOW is also important. Reinterpretation. Context. Memory. My own misery. That's why it's taking so long.
CHRISLIP: How long have you been working on this new book?
It's been this season's work, starting in September/October -- right after I wrapped up Late Bloomer
. I've been taking notes and doing the research for two or three years now. So You'll Never Know is written. Now I'm working on just organizing it. It's been frustrating because I keep jumping off the script line. I keep remembering things. You have to go by a script if you're doing a longer story. With the shorter stuff you can just bang something out. This is a new discipline, not a collection of short stories where I can do ten pages here or five pages there. This is a BIG story.
CHRISLIP: This is a graphic novel.
Graphic Novel! Which reminds me, that's one of the biggest problems that Late Bloomer
is having. It's called a graphic novel back here on the SKU label. When you go into the store to buy it, it's on the graphic novel shelf, which is wonderful and great. I'm not saying it's not.
But a lot of the readers that would appreciate and love Late Bloomer
are not going to find it because they don't tend to go over to the graphic novel section because they figure they can't relate to comic books.
CHRISLIP: Well, like I said earlier, it's really a collection of short stories in comix form.
That's right. Earlier, you asked me if I had anything else to say and my instinct was to reach for the book and look at it again. I want to reinforce the idea that I'm very proud of it. I love the way that, at the time when I was really flourishing with my interest in gardening, it all came together, the title, the framing device and the overall look of the book. Working with Fantagraphics. They were awesome. I love Kim Thompson.
The difficulty in transitioning over to the next book is that drawing tanks is not as fun as drawing flowers. I know it sounds corny, but I like drawing flowers using colors and swirls and stuff like that. It's another adjustment this hippie chick will have to make.
Also, I'm working in a completely different format. Late Bloomer
was vertical. You'll Never Know
is horizontal. This affects dialogue balloons, narrative boxes, panel layouts, page design, everything. Man-o-man, it's tough -- although I might have to retain the vertical if production concerns make it necessary.
CHRISLIP: Well, your next book is something to look forward to. But tell me, where can our readers buy a copy of
Late Bloomer? Any Web links for online ordering? Bookstores?
You can order copies of Late Bloomer
from my little store at my Web site -- www.bloomerland.com
. That's where you can get a signed copy and you can get some little bonus gifts, too. It's also on other store sites and in real bookstores and finer comic book shops, but spend your money at Bloomerland! Listen to the adorable little song while you shop! (Thanks Dennis and Kurt.) And help me stay in business. (laughs)
CHRISLIP: Sounds great. Thanks for talking with us today.
Thank you, Bruce for taking the time. I appreciate it.