Scrapbooks and Army Surplus: C. Tyler’s You’ll Never Know

For those of you who live in the Los Angeles area, I wanted to call attention to a special event I am hosting at the USC campus on the evening of Jan. 31, featuring noted underground cartoonist C. Tyler. Here's the details.

And for those of you who do not live in Los Angeles, I will still encourage you to check out her remarkable three part graphic novel series, You'll Never Know, published by Fantagraphic Books, and just completed at the end of last year. I plan to write an extended essay about this book as part of my new Comics...and Stuff project. Below is an abstract I wrote describing why I find this graphic novel so rich and interesting:

“And like I said, I knew he had been to war. Mom told me. He didn’t tell me. It’s not something He wanted to talk about EVER. He had buried Europe 1944-45 under tons of mental concrete. Exactly what happened -- the details we never knew. Of what value would this information be anymore? That’s what he figured. And with no evidence around the house -- well, why not forget it. Except for this one scrapbook album of army pictures, carefully mounted photos with no dates or information. I never knew what they recorded specifically. No text. Maybe that’s what intrigued me: a parallel world where my Dad looked like he was having fun.” -- C. Tyler

One night, the underground cartoonist C. Tyler received a phone call from her usually taciturn 90 year old father, a World War II veteran, who suddenly wants to dump on her memories of long-ago experiences which up until that moment fell into “the category of ‘leave it the hell alone’ or ‘it’s none of your goddamn business.’” This phone call triggers an extended artistic practice as Tyler tried to capture her father’s memories first with a video camera and later through the panels of a trilogy of graphic novels, which in the process expand to tell the story not only of her father but of several generations of her family’s history.  If the father is stingy with the personal memories he is willing to share, even within the privacy of the family, his daughter fits within an exhibitionist streak in graphic storytelling which was partially initiated by the pioneering work of her husband, underground cartoonist Justin Green: she uses comics as a vehicle to work through personal issues and break down the culture of silence that informed her childhood. Ultimately, the books are designed as a tribute to the “greatest generation,” but they also speak with empathy about what happens when you bottle up so many powerful emotions, allowing them to come out only through actions and not through words and images.

The published books are shaped like a scrapbook album and when she tells her father’s story, she adopts a panel structure that reproduces the pages of a scrapbook, complete with rubber stamped page numbers and dates on each panel.  She adopts a much broader array of styles, some realistic, some cartoonish, some iconic. Sometimes, she uses the printed book like a scrapbook, incorporating a yellowed news clipping documenting the childhood death of her sister, or wartime letters from her father to the woman whom he would marry. She incorporates maps, charts, graphs, designed to explain aspects of her family’s experience, though often used in a less than naturalistic manner, as when she offers a diagram on blue print paper of the surgery her father would undergo in his struggles against cancer.

Ultimately, the finished product, You’ll Never Know, a Graphic Memoir, is, as Tyler told one interviewer, about “the stuff that gets passed down to the next generation,” with stuff here meant to describe material culture (including what she describes as “O.D. anomalies” (for “Olive Drab”) stored away in the basement or the buckets of acids and corrosives that she has to convince her pack-rat father to dispose of when he wants to move across the country, or the tools and nails shown in a detailed drawing of her father’s work area) but stuff also refers to the emotional baggage, equally toxic, which her repressed and sometimes overbearing father passed down to her generation. The two are brought together powerfully in a scene involving a box of old photographs and birth announcements which finally provokes her mother to talk for the first time about the death of her sister. Throughout the book, we learn about the characters through their interactions over stuff, such as the time when her father, jealous of the attention his wife is receiving, walls up several hundred carefully addressed Christmas cards behind a dry wall he is constructing, or a powerful story about what happens to the father’s old army jacket.

This video shares a segment from her interview with her father and shows how she has been able to convert this raw material into a rich autobiographical comic.

C. Tyler's work on the graphic novel has brought her into closer contact with many veterans -- not only of the Second World War but more recent armed conflicts. Tyler has been helping veterans to learn how to produce comics as a vehicle for sharing some of their memories and working through some of their emotions in the aftershock of their time under fire. Here's a video about her work.