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July 5, 2009

CR Sunday Interview: Carol Tyler



imageCarol Tyler is one of the best cartoonists currently working. She has been for years. If anything has changed in terms of her rising stature, it's not anything about Tyler as much as how her work is perceived now that more and more people have become exposed to it. Many of her fans, me included, are encouraged by this higher profile and the storm of work that's come with it. An artist one might have thought years ago would be remembered as an author of one or two devastating comics short stories is now perceived as more of a working graphic novel/long-form comics story maker.

Earlier this year Tyler released the first of an expected three volumes that seek to explore her father's time in World War II. You'll Never Know: A Good And Decent Man gently peels back the layers on these seminal experiences while at the same time providing an earnest portrait of the artist and her most important relationships during the time she started on the project. Tyler combines the unflinching eye of the late underground with the self-deprecating portrait of the alternative comics movement with the poetic qualities that some of the best post-alternatives are able to wring from their art. I really love Carol Tyler's work, and I was delighted she agreed to talk to me. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I was surprised that your new book wasn't a complete work. It seems like there's a lot more story to tell. Can you talk about the decision to break this up into multiple volumes, and why you're presenting this material that way?

CAROL TYLER: You'll Never Know is a trilogy for many reasons. First, it's just so huge. In order to understand it myself, I've had to find the natural shapes within it because I work so intuitively. I know the moments at the end and how I want them to feel and so most of Books I & II are this slow build-up to the events in Book III.

OK, that's one. The second reason is Dad's age. He's 90 and I wanted to see some kind of results for his 90th birthday. He doesn't understand how long it takes to draw comics. I've been at this book for years and in his mind, it's a project that should have been done already -- like a deck or something.

I think it's OK to come out in three parts. The work is so dense. There's plenty to keep going back and looking at again and again.

SPURGEON: I don't want to go too deeply into the book's development because a lot of that is actually in the book, but I was curious as to why you decided to include the extended meditation on your relationship in addition to that material on your father. Why this broader set of storylines as opposed to, say, a more straightforward presentation of your father's story?

TYLER: I had to include my personal saga as a means of explaining some of the themes that lead to revelation and healing. Part of the awesome build-up. It's not at all that on his own Dad as a character wouldn't have held up, but it's through my relationship with him, through my eyes that I want you to see him for reasons you will know later.

SPURGEON: In terms of showing your interpersonal relationships, your comics character -- the Carol Tyler in the stories that we read about -- is an incredibly endearing character for whom I think many readers have a lot of sympathy and affection.

TYLER: Oh boy, is that true? It's so odd how that works. I tell the stories the way I do because I don't know any other way to tell them. I really do not have self-aggrandizing motives.


SPURGEON: I wanted to know if you realize that your character is --you are -- endearing to a lot of your readers --

TYLER: I hadn't thought of that.

SPURGEON: -- and if that's ever a problem in how you portray certain scenes when things aren't going her -- your -- way.

TYLER: No problem. It's gotta follow a truth to be authentic.

SPURGEON: My first reaction with both the more troubling Justin stuff and when your dad overreacts is to yell at my book "Leave Carol alone! Be nicer to Carol!"

TYLER: Gosh.

SPURGEON: I guess I wondered if you saw this is a problem when painting a complete picture of some of the situation. Did you worry about being fair? Did you worry about driving readers in a certain direction?

TYLER:There are places in the story where some of the characters are misbehaving, but I try to show it with right intention and great sensitivity. It's necessary to show people in their full humanness. And that's the difficulty in doing the piece, the interconnectedness of everything.

SPURGEON: Were there any inspirations that maybe already exist in comics or prose or film that you brought with you into this project?

TYLER: Nope. Just my own thoughts. I mean I haven't lived in a vacuum. I've seen movies, heard songs and read books. But nothing in particular.

SPURGEON: There are many significant memoirs out there in a variety of media. Is there anything about such books you wanted to avoid?

TYLER: I am and always have been nervous about inadvertently copying someone else or ripping off someone's ideas. So I just kind of steer clear of all of it. Sad kinda, huh -- I'm probably missing some great art/literature. When I go visit my parents in Indiana, we watch westerns. They have cable. Somebody's always popping off a Smith & Wesson.

Here at home, I have no time or solace to read. To drown out street noise, I watch TV. Lost. The Office. Lark Rise to Candleford.


SPURGEON: Carol, how do you write? We get a glimpse of this in the book, but I didn't come away with a feeling of the nuts and bolts of how you approach the page. Do you make a script, do you sketch things out, do you work from note cards or research? What is the first step?

TYLER: The first step is to feel it and I can't feel it unless I'm totally on my own doing something or out in the middle of nowhere usually, like my drives across Indiana to see my parents. I write to the hum of the truckers and the highway whine -- in my head. I think that's where I organize. And in the shower. Many pages are worked out in my head there. Or in the morning. I lay in bed and think of how to do it. Or working. I love doing physical labor. Like here it is June 2009 and I know I should be totally dedicated to Book II of YNK, but another totally different complete long story came into my head while putting a roof on my second story porch. (I'm so proud of that job. I did it barefoot and by myself!) I'll get to it. Eventually.

I guess I'm saying I think of things after I have a feel for the idea and the feeling/thinking continuum is mostly an intuitive process. But truly, I see most of it in my head, first. I have problems articulating -- in other words, language when it comes cancels any nuance from the fun float soup. So I really like to deeply understand the pre-word aspects first.

Eventually, though, the story has to communicate what I'm thinking and feeling. That's where a pen & paper come in handy. Bic pen is fine. On the back of an envelope. Grabbing the fragments and ordering everything. I work very hard at the writing and enjoy it tremendously. Get out the dictionary. Line everything up in a sequence plan on a yellow pad and hope it makes sense!

SPURGEON: Has teaching comics changed the way you approach your own work? I'm always interested in how a working cartoonist approaches teaching the form and continuing their work within it.

TYLER: Nothing's changed. I try not to take my own advice. I worry about being a teacher in that I never want to flog the Muse into submission.

SPURGEON: Is there anything about teaching that's surprised you, a specific satisfaction that you maybe hadn't counted on or a limitation that you hadn't considered?

TYLER: I love teaching. I always have loved the interactions with the students. I loved teaching reading to the second graders and the first graders, many of whom barely spoke English (back in the '90s -- Sacramento). Teaching has always been a point of personal dignity for me. Regardless of the politics of the school or my status (either as a sub or adjunct), the students look to me, Ms. Tyler, as the authority of the moment while I look to them as my gurus.

SPURGEON: Did you really decide to work with a landscape-shaped page as an accident of what kind of paper you had around when you began the project? How have you enjoyed working with pages shaped that way in terms of a design element?

TYLER: Well, I had a lot of 10x13 paper left over from Late Bloomer and so I decided to turn it to hot dog (landscape) format. 1 ply. Easier to transfer sketches with the light table. I do most of my original sketching on a toothy tracing paper -- a crazy, mixed-up way to work, I know. I found a shitload of it at the thrift store and love it. Then I squared the proportion of length to width up a bit so I think the pages are really 11 x 12 or something like that. I wanted the book to have the feel of a family album falling across one's lap.

But this orientation change turned my world upside-down because I'd been working on the standard comic page format for 20 years -- since I began comics in '82. It has to do with everything, balloon placement, space, composition, edges. Craziness. I took on so much crazy mama shit with the new format and the colored inks. But truly, the fact is, I did not want to become complacent about doing comics as I knew it. I wanted to challenge myself to aesthetically go someplace different.


SPURGEON: What led you to the occasional flourish that uses the whole page to get your effect? You have Justin leaving from the page at one point, you show a highway that whips out of the panel to the paper's edge.

TYLER: If it needs to expand, I do it. By that I mean the action. Like when kids simply cannot contain themselves and they throw up their arms and jump up in the air! In the case of the figure walking out on me, he literally leaves the panel, too. Just to emphasize the leave-taking.

SPURGEON: Is there an advantage to making occasional use of those spaces?

TYLER: Sure, when it does the job of emphasis. Also, why waste good space sometimes?

SPURGEON: Was there any difficulty in printing anything you wanted to do there?

TYLER: I don't know. I left that to the production boys at Fantagraphics to solve.


SPURGEON: There's an astonishing page up front, the "not all scars are visible" page, this lovely-looking single image that's also a series of movements where the words express themselves in the landscape. What went into that page? I'm particularly interested in why you used such bravura picture-making that early in an extended comic.

TYLER: Thank you for the descriptor "astonishing." Wow. It's funny because that was one of the last pages I did. Maybe that's why it seems like "bravura." Maybe I forgot to say earlier that I hop around when drawing the book. That page was known as "gotta do page five" for months. I knew it had to be something about Dad getting from the parking lot of Home Depot to his garage and it had to go from lower left to upper right. Almost backwards to the usual page sequence.

Then one morning before I got up, it was there, completely, in my head. I memorized the components before I even opened my eyes. For example, I knew "not" had to be on an Arby's hat sign and I knew I wanted to use the cars for "scars." The cows, the skies, it was all there for me in that early morning mind. Like a miracle.

It's all part of my belief that I'm being guided by a spirit. True. I feel that with this book it's like I'm like a conduit for something that must be said.

SPURGEON: That page and a few others like it act as a lovely testimony to a quality of life enjoyed in the Midwest, where I grew up. For one thing, I'm just not used to seeing such things depicted, so that's a treat, but there are also overt color choices and how you choose certain visual elements that I feel really appreciate that part of the country.

TYLER: Thank you, Tom. It's the humidity.

SPURGEON: Is it different drawing from what's around you now as opposed to what you drew when you lived elsewhere? Do you feel at home as an artist where you are now?

TYLER: Well, Sacramento had more orderly lawns and I miss the climates of California, from the misty fog of the Bay Area to the hot valley floor. Cincinnati is a little too hilly for me. I like it flat. And I love storms. I'd like to live in Kansas, I think.

SPURGEON: I love how elegantly you use white space, particularly in the first half of the book during an extended sequence where we see you gearing up to do this work.

TYLER: Thank you.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about what you think when you're dropping so much background information to focus on the forward figures, how you want those pages to work for the reader?

TYLER: That goes back to my minimalist days as a "New Image" style painter. It's all about shapes and spatial relationships. With recognizable imagery, it's like a way of focusing in tightly on the intimate moment there. Playing off the tension between the recognition and the shape.

SPURGEON: For that matter, how conscious are you of achieving certain effects when you do grander color pages? Is it that you want the reader to stop and focus on those single moments?

TYLER: I guess. Speed and timing. I'm just trying to do a good job in getting it to feel right, whether in the singular moment or across a span of moments. I do have a sense of internal syncopation that drives the decisions. I wish I could explain it better.

SPURGEON: Although I can see this as something you'll get into in future volumes, do you have any insight as to why men like your father don't talk about these events? There's a wonderful scene early on at a dance where you show that this generation of men and women have this remarkable shared experience that almost no one ever talks about. Why do you think that is?

TYLER: Because World War II was awful, and I will spell it out completely, just how awful it was as the story goes along. Trying to distance oneself from pain is normal. Not talking about it is unhealthy. I can't blame these guys for not talking. But eventually the memories return.

SPURGEON: You thanked Kim Thompson and singled him out for his support; do you have a positive editor/artist relationship with Kim?

TYLER: Absolutely. He's a pal.

SPURGEON: Is there anything different working about Fantagraphics as opposed to once upon a time when you might have started?

TYLER: I'm amazed how different it is. We did most of this book over the Internet. Production, that is. In the old days, artwork had to be shipped and they'd shoot negatives and all that. With YNK, I scanned my original pages in the computer lab at my College, (DAAP) corrected them there on Photoshop, uploaded them to a folder, which they then downloaded on their end. It went quite swimmingly. I still owe those dudes a pizza.


SPURGEON: How have your father and various members of your family reacted to having their stories in this book?

TYLER: They're all proud. This is a working class bunch. I'd been showing them pages here and there all along. And I warned everybody of two things: this is not an absolute factual biography of every little thing -- meaning that I had to work in some story shaping so it had some logic. And I also said that these are cartoon images, not oil portraits. Get over the old 'I don't really look like that' complaints.

My sister is my biggest fan. She loves it. When the book arrived at their house, Mom couldn't call me on the phone to tell me how much she loved it because she couldn't stop crying long enough to talk. Then she told me about how Dad read it through, went out to his garage/workshop for several hours and said nothing for the rest of the day or that night. He called me the next afternoon and said it was 'wonderful'. But then he got on to talking about a fence he was working on. The post-hole digger I think. Did I have his post-hole digger.

Justin thinks the book is great and yet struggles to be a good sport about being the bad guy for now. Can you blame him? The resolution of his character can't come fast enough for him and I agree.

SPURGEON: What do you have planned for the summer, Carol? Are you looking forward to any of things planned in support of the book?

TYLER: No fanfare on the book planned. The summer will consist of taking care of people, dogs and gardens, cleaning up clutter and trying to get some comic work done.

The other day someone mentioned summer vacation to me. I was thinking about it and realized I have never gone on a summer vacation. You know, where you get on a plane or hop in a car and go somewhere lovely for pure pleasure --- to have fun and relax for two weeks. I've never experienced that. I wonder if it would make me crazy.


* You'll Never Know: A Good And Decent Man, Carol Tyler, hardcover, 104 pages, 9781606991442, 2009, $24.99


* all art from the latest book except for the insert/self-portrait in the introduction, which is from Late Bloomer; all art except that Late Bloomer one provided by Fantagraphics



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