MAY 23, 2016
FOR THE PAST DECADE, Carol Tyler has been exploring what the legacy of war has meant for her father, herself, and her family in the graphic novel Soldier’s Heart: The Campaign to Understand My WWII Veteran Father. Originally serialized in three volumes as You’ll Never Know, the first volume, titled A Good and Decent Man, depicts Tyler’s father Charles W. Tyler as an American everyman. Over the course of the book, she continues to present him in this way, but gradually uncovers a much deeper and more complicated understanding of what that has meant — for him, for his family, and in a broader cultural sense. Tyler explores her father’s tendency toward emotional withholding, which is how so many people of that generation coped with trauma, and what that has meant for her family and her generation. The book details her parents’ experiences during the war and afterward, but also addresses how Tyler tries to deal with her parents as an adult, her efforts to not pass her own behaviors on to her daughter, and her complicated relationship with her husband.
It’s a dark and emotionally fraught story, but Tyler’s artwork is stunning on every page. Her use of color and her sense of design in particular make the book stand out. It’s clear that Tyler thought and rethought how to design each page, and how to make artistic choices that would best suit her subject matter. This meticulous concern for aesthetics is what distinguishes the best graphic novels, and Soldier’s Heart is not just Tyler’s masterpiece but arguably one of the 21st century’s best comics. In the interview that follows, Tyler speaks about her experience making the book, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Graphic Novel/Comics.
ALEX DUEBEN: Reading your comics over the years, you’ve always seemed very conscious of why you’re telling a story and why that story is important.
CAROL TYLER: Maybe it comes from working-class roots where you do a task and it’s usually purposeful. Your time is valuable and other people’s time is valuable and so if I’m going to take your time, I don’t want to go on and on about something that’s meaningless. I respect that you have things you need to do, but maybe this can be helpful to you.
When I first started out doing comics I had axes to grind — and exes to grind down on. [Laughs.] When the story came up with dad with the book Soldier’s Heart, I started to leave that behind because it all seemed so important. Maybe by knowing what happened to my dad and me and our family, someone will read this and get a feeling of control or hope. That this guy managed to have a breakthrough at some point in his life, maybe that could happen for me. Maybe this will help someone.
How do you work? From reading this book I get the sense that you work when you can, as opposed to having a set routine.
Soldier’s Heart originally came out in three parts as You’ll Never Know. My daughter was off at college and I finally had free time. I was always busy with responsibilities of motherhood and this and that. Part of the reason I did it as three books was because of my parents’ age. I felt like I’d always been telling stories about them and I wanted to tell this important, focused story about them. It was going to have difficult parts, but there was going to be some good parts. I was working on Book Three and the main characters from the story started to get sick and pass away. I couldn’t put the book on hold because somebody back in the 1980s or 1990s said, “Tyler starts things and never finishes.” You know how 99 people will say one thing, but one person will give you a tiny hint of a flaw and that’s what you take away? I couldn’t stand the thought of not finishing because I am a finisher. I don’t care if I’m up for two days. I want the thing done. I hate unfinished projects.
I started working on Book Three and first my mom got sick, then my sister got sick. Cancer. You asked me how I worked — I worked on the road. I was dragging pages of art back and forth. The truth is, I had a deadline — while people were on real deadlines. Maybe this comes from learning how to do one-pagers back in the Weirdo days. You have to say, okay, I have to do one page, start with pencils and do tight pencils and then I’ll ink it and I’ll go from there. I was meeting the needs of the sick and dying, so I had to literally learn to draw on bedside tray tables. It’s done by hand, you just need a pencil. I have a way of putting my hair up and just sticking a pencil in it, so I always have a pencil when I travel. [Laughs.] I would usually save the inking because I was using these subtle colors. It wasn’t just black ink. I would come home exhausted, take a breath and start doing some washes and a little more complicated moves to get the page to look right, but it finally got done. Mom was able to see the book — the pages were done — before she passed away. My sister saw it. My dad saw it. He passed away this past May and he saw it but he didn’t get it. For him, everything that he cared about was in Book One. That showed him to be a funny guy, a grand fellow, not the difficult complicated dude that I showed. [Laughs.] It worked out that way.
You’ve been working on this book for a while now. How long did it take you to make the book?
Ten years. I’ve run into people who are in their 50s or my age and they’ll say, “you’ve given me so much encouragement to do a graphic novel.” I want to say, “No, don’t! It’s going to take at least 10 years of your life to do it right.” I found the most complicated method to do what I wanted to do because I’m a visual artist as well as a storyteller. I wanted to make sure that the pages were worth looking at. If somebody’s going to take their time to read it, they need to see some beauty there.
When I started the book it was Army stories with tanks and boats and guns, and I wanted to draw flowers. [Laughs.] I thought, “Come on Tyler, you know curves.” I like to use the brush and the brush brings me to the curve land. I worked toward maintaining an aesthetic that I was trying to achieve. In other words, a certain level of beauty. I want the reader to get the information, but at the same time, have them enjoy what they’re reading. It’s not just a gray box, it’s pictures too. So when I say complications, the same way a hand-beaded bodice on a gown is going to reflect that there was time spent, I wanted my work to look like it was worth enough to spend the time to make it worth looking at, too.
Just looking at the book, you spent a lot of time and energy on it. There’s a lot of color, the page designs and layouts are complicated and always changing.
Yeah, I get bored. [Laughs.] It’s not just that. Certain communications require certain shifts, tilts, angles, rhythms. I’m looking for a different thing to happen here and if she went “Hunh?” then what did her body do and where was she standing and how did that look in relationship to whatever she was encountering? Then, where does that lead me motion-wise into the next part? I was looking for a fluidity of the presentation as well as the content within the panel. That’s like syncopated rhythm to me. Like a song has a beat, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, there’s an internal beat.
How does thinking of the rhythm of the comics page in terms of a beat translate into how you think about the design and layout of the page?
I’m not a trained music person so I don’t know all the terms. My relationship to music is very intuitive. I’ve always been able to identify notes and remember riffs. Sometimes whole music compositions come up in my head and I remember lyrics to songs from way back. So to me, music is not technical. Even language and dialogue have music in them. What I found in making comics, when you’re working out sequence and managing time, you’re really dealing with tempo and beats.
When making panels on a page, the panels don’t come before the action, they come out of what I’m trying to convey. I can see the architecture of the page seeming almost like measures. And the narrator is like the drummer who’s setting the beat. Then in the telling of the story, you have different types of tempos. That’s syncopation. When talking about, for example, World War II, I’m not presenting time in the same way as having a conversation with my husband across the table, so those panels are laid out differently. The tempo and the timing in those examples bring different vibes, so therefore the panel configuration reflects that.
Have you always been trying to do this in your comics? Or is this something you’ve come to understand about your work?
I’m not sure it’s been such a conscious thing. I think I’ve always had a pretty good sense of timing. Conversation has its own timing. Comedy has timing. There’s only so much attention a person is going to give you before they start to drift off. Therefore, you have to pace it just right. The same is true of a song. If it doesn’t ever resolve and just ambles along with no structure to it, it’s a yawner. There’s a sense of giving things shape, whether I’m telling a story or telling a great joke. That sense of timing is something I’ve always had a knack for.
I’ve said this before, those one-pagers for Weirdo really helped prep me for how to do that. Back then, I will admit, if I knew I could get an extra 75 bucks — the page rate back then — I would say, “How about if I make it longer?” [Laughs.] But sometimes I would just say, “This feels like a three-page story,” or “This feels like a 10-page story.” I knew instinctively how much real estate I’d have to cover to tell the story, and how the timing would have to be in order to get to the end. You don’t want to have a splash panel followed by your punch line followed by slowly ebbing drivel. It’s all about crafting the thing. If I need to get through this information in these panels quickly, then I’m going to put them in many smaller panels like staccato. But then sometimes I want the sustained notes, by using fewer panels or one big page.
An example is in the chapter called “Camp Chemo.” There’s a place where I’m talking about a bunch of terrible things that happened over a short period of time. I wanted it to go very quickly so people could just get the information and move along. Those pages are set up as 12 panels per page with reduced color so you could just zip through. No need to elaborate on how mom fell and hit her head on the rock that caused the clot that gave her the stroke, or that dad’s radiation-weakened hip broke because the feisty puppy knocked him over. I had already gone over so much about their health in detail. This was just more examples of awful that had to be said, but that set up for the long one big panel sigh at the end of that chapter, when all you see is the back of their chairs and they’re looking out at the Easter Sunday snow saying, “We need to get the hell out of here.” I wanted the reader to ponder everything that they just read about and what it meant for my parents at that point. I wanted the reader to sink down into the easy chair right along with them and get that same stuck feeling.
Also in those two pages, besides having small panels with little color, the art is simpler so there’s less to read, while that single-page panel is rich with detail and color and forces the reader to spend time to take it all in.
Right. Color can simplify, and it does affect the tempo. Although I would have to say color is more about emotion than tempo. In working the tempo and timbre in my head, like I said, it’s intuitive. Not like I get a song in my head, or go, “Oh I’ll listen to some jazz and draw some fast panels.” [Laughs.] I actually can’t stand to listen to anything while I work. I don’t want to have any jam-ups between the flow of the language from my head and the flow of the visual discoveries. If we’re going through the fast part about how my dad fell and my mom fell, there’s not a whole lot of detail in there to ponder. It’s just basic information, whereas in other places there’s more information to impart, so that goes more slowly and carefully.
I can understand not wanting to listen to music while you work, but the book does contain music.
There’s music all over the book, coming out of radios, from memories, to support meaning — I noticed after the fact just how much music there is. Definitely enough for a decent soundtrack album. This book spans many decades and eras, and so of course there’s going to be Glenn Miller in the background at the soldier’s canteen in the 1940s, and of course there’s going to be oldies here and there from random radios across the decades. What better way to enhance the mood of driving across the bleak Indiana landscape on a winter’s night circa 2003 than to show Radiohead’s Amnesiac flowing through the darkness?
In the Army section, in my dad’s retelling of his experience, he didn’t refer to songs specifically. He didn’t say, “When we fought with the Marines at the dance, it was to ‘Sing Sing Sing.’” But I knew that song because I’d heard it a million times — like we all have. It’s got that great jump tempo: it seemed the best song to convey the insane energy of that scene of a fistfight among a bunch of young hepped-up guys over girls. [Laughs.] When the book first came out as a trilogy, it was called You’ll Never Know for so many reasons, but mainly it was the song my parents fell in love to. It’s in there, in the scene at the Aragon Ballroom where they danced in 1943, and at the end, at the wedding, when they’re old and nobody noticed them. Every time I put music in the book it was intentionally placed to drive the mood or define a feeling. This differs from the internal rhythms I use to define the shapes and compositions of the panels and the overall pages.
Did anyone in your family ask, “Did you have to tell this story?”
My mom. I put that in the book where she says, “Why did you have to tell all our family stuff?” There’s a panel where I tell Hitler off, tell him to lay off my daughter. In other words, this shit is not going to continue for another generation. This plague of how war affects us and then we turn around and damage our families. At that point, I had understood that my husband’s behavior and my behavior were rooted in this and we had to step up, because we couldn’t do this to our child. In the book, I’m wandering though a landscape looking to talk to my mom and I find her and say, “I want you to draw a page for me.” In other words, I need you. In the book she’s this solid slow anchor. I say, “You need to weigh in here. I want you to draw a page for me.” She did in fact say to me, “Why do you have to tell everyone our story? I don’t get why you have to reveal so much.” I was thinking, “I’m not revealing that much.” [Laughs.]
I remember that. It came right after “Hannah’s Story,” about your older sister who died before you were born.
When I drew “Hannah’s Story,” I brought the pages to my mother and said, “Mom, this was published.” She started to read it and about halfway through, got this far off look in her eyes and went to do something in her closet. She didn’t finish it. She just couldn’t read it. With Book Two they both did the same thing. She was unable to finish reading it and he couldn’t even begin to. He got completely and immediately confused and went, “Now that Book One, that was a good one!” [Laughs.]
[My daughter] Julia doesn’t care. I’ve been putting her in my stories since she was a baby. She’s used to it. Justin, well, I had to say, Jud, I’m going to talk about what happened between us. It’s hard because he’s a public person.
For people who don’t know, your husband is the cartoonist Justin Green, whose autobiographical book Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary changed comics. He can’t really say no to being included in your comic.
I don’t want to fuck up his reputation. [Laughs.] He hasn’t gotten enough credit for what he brought to comics and I didn’t want to have people’s thoughts of him be that he’s my husband and a real jerk. At the same time, how was I going to not tell this big thing? His dad was another one of these World War II guys who didn’t talk. I went up and looked up his war record and he dropped bombs. I don’t care if you were in airplanes dropping bombs, you knew what you were doing. Nobody got to have a sanitized experience. Even people who were stateside knew they were part of this machine. Every town coughed up their children. People knew death was everywhere and silence seemed to be the coping mechanism for that generation.
I said, “Jud, I’m going to tell the story.” I felt I did it with a humanity toward him and I also exposed my own troublesome moves. In other words, I was not a victim. I was blindsided, yes, but I was not a victim, and he was not a bad guy. I really wanted that communicated. In Soldier’s Heart, I really clarified more about who he is, because people are going to pick this up who don’t know the comics world and they’re not going to know him. I didn’t want him to be some doofus, because he’s not. I made around 45 new pages for the book and a couple of them were giving Justin some props.
I’m sure that part of you laughs at the idea of people reading this book and knowing Justin Green not as this legendary cartoonist, but as Carol Tyler’s husband.
I know! [Laughs.] But people not in the comics world aren’t going to know. I can’t assume anything and so I thought, “Okay, I’ll advertise him a little bit.” It was also a way of saying here’s a person I value and respect. That’s another reason why it hurt bad. Not just, oh, you’ve done me wrong, but this is somebody who on another level I love and respect.
The full title of the book is Soldier’s Heart: The Campaign To Understand My WWII Veteran Father: A Daughter’s Memoir. Calling it a daughter’s memoir seemed important to you.
I had tried signing my work “C. Tyler” because I didn’t want to be assessed based on my gender. I also started it for another subtle reason — my dad is C. Tyler. Look, sexism exists. It’s a big issue. I was very quiet about it but I’ve experienced it in my career and it’s insane that it still happens. I always hated my name growing up. I thought about changing it but I thought, “Like R. Crumb, I’ll be C. Tyler.” It seemed powerful, but then I thought, “I’ll just do Carol.”
I know the title is like 10 miles long. We had differences about how to get that across. There’s a lot I don’t get about comics marketing because I’m not in that business. I had to think past the comics world and past my thoughts about what would work as far as the size, the presentation, the softcover, the title. When you’re on the creative end you’re thinking, “I like this shape, I like these proportions, I like the way this looks,” but they have a whole other batch of considerations on the marketing end. I said, “I’m going to let you professionals guide me.” It turned out Soldier’s Heart was the right title and then going after what makes him tick from my point of view so it was a daughter’s memoir. I gave up that “C. Tyler” thing as a cartoonist and gave myself over to being the conduit for this other story.
I bring up “A Daughter’s Memoir” because I thought of my own family dynamics and you had a very different relationship to your father than your brothers do, which plays a role in how you approached the book.
My brothers have a completely different take on dad. It manifested itself recently when dad died and we were trying to dismantle his workshop. They just wanted to get a dumpster and throw everything in the dumpster. I was like, “No, this man was an artist, a tinkerer.” This is a guy who lifted houses — I showed that in the book — but he never stopped working and tinkering. Two days before he died, he was out in his workshop banging on something. Yes, it looks crazy, but I looked at him like a master craftsman. My brothers were like, “Let’s clear the place out.” I was like, “Stop, don’t touch anything.” I wanted to just breathe with it for a while. They were mad. They’re mad at me now. To them it was a headache and a burden and they needed to get on with their lives and here I am trying to hold it a little bit longer.
You’ve been mostly finished with this book for a while now and you’ve been doing some other projects, including a Beatles blog you did last year.
I started that in February of last year and did it through August. That was when I saw the Beatles 50 years ago. I made a booklet when I was 13 and in red pen, in my little 13-year-old girl handwriting, I logged all my thoughts and feelings in the weeks before seeing the Beatles — and then as soon as I got home after seeing them — for posterity. I had this booklet and I thought, “It’s the 50th anniversary that summer.” I realized I needed to do the backstory so people could follow the excitement. I had to pretend I was 13 years old and every two or three days I posted something. It was very freeing to be 13. [Laughs.] I created all this art, did all this writing, had a fan following. The book does not have bite. I didn’t have bite when I was 13 — I had an overbite. [Laughs.] Maybe people in the dreary world now need to read this because it was just pleasure. Now I don’t know what to do with it.
One thing I loved about Soldier’s Heart is that you take real care to give this sense of place and depict the Midwest and this sense of how the landscape has changed.
I did provide maps which I had in my mind because I was doing so much back and forth on the road. I grew up in Chicago and I was very contained. You could go to the El tracks, go to the edge of the block, and don’t go past Lincoln Avenue. Then when I was nine, we moved out to Fox Lake where I could get on my bike and ride for a mile and not see anybody. It was all landscape and trees and that was such freedom. It also was happening at a time when I was starting to wake up to being a person. From nine years old until I left home at 18, we lived in an area that was not suburban tracts. It used to be that people had cottages at the lake and there were more homes then, but it had a cottage-y feel so I had a lot of encounters with air, sky, water, land.
I went to California and New York, but when I came back to the Midwest in 1997 that was all still here. It was very familiar. That dull brown of winter with a punctuation of green or red berries. That sense of the vastness. It’s not a vacation destination. It’s not what people look for. [Laughs.] In the Midwest, it’s cold and you’ve got to get to the car as soon as possible, but then birds will fly over or there will be these moments of unexpected beauty. I love winter in the Midwest landscape because the mosquitos are gone and the chiggers and the bugs are gone. I love that real deep connection and I wanted to feel that in the book.
There’s a scene in the book where you and your brothers are dealing with your dad’s workshop, which has a lifetime’s worth of stuff. For whatever reason I thought of Gasoline Alley, which comics fans know is this legendary old strip about family and about gearheads in Chicago. This book felt like a sequel of a sort, that your dad was that kind of guy.
That’s dad. He grew up in Chicago and he is the ultimate Chicago guy. He would get a gun for Christmas and then he’d bust up a motor and then he’d go out on a job with his dad and they’d install a boiler. It’s dirty and real and ragged, and I guess that’s what I saw in his shop and what I always felt about him. There was a realness there. This was not a guy who spent his life on a computer or in his thoughts. I put some of his clothes in a bag and four months later out poured this smell — a combination of pipe smoke, wood smoke, motor oil, sawdust — and I thought, “That’s dad.” I hope I got across how real he is. I know he bottled it up, but he was somebody who was definitely rooted in the world and didn’t think too much about it.
I have that same sensibility. I like to make stuff and get my hands dirty. I realized I’m a mechanical engineer. We had a broken fan and Justin was ready to take it to a place to fix, but I took it apart and fixed it. I have all these power tools and I can sew. These practical skills can be good. Maybe they help doing comics. Do you have to have a prerequisite to make comics like, must be able to sew and take apart a motor? No. But you must know how to be fully present, to experience and communicate. That’s definitely important.
You’re doing something physical, you’re making something tactile, which a lot of people don’t think about when they think about comics.
There’s the physicalness of the actual thing. You are making a thing. People aren’t going to have the experience that I’m having as the maker. They’re going to have the reader experience. They’re not going to feel this physically — they’re going to feel it through their eyes and their heart. It’s my job to get that shift from what I’m going through and turn it into a reader experience.
Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, The Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.