Friday, February 05, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 2 (2/5) -- You'll Never Know by C. Tyler

The full title of this oversized graphic album is You'll Never Know: A Graphic Memoir, Book One: A Good and Decent Man, and I think you can see why I used the short version for my post title.

Carol Tyler might be the Howard Waldrop of the comics field: a highly respected, deeply skilled creator with a slim body of work and a tendency to disappear (at least from the new-release shelves) for years at a time. You'll Never Know is only Tyler's third book -- after The Job Thing in the early '90s and the collection Early Bloomer from a few years ago -- in a career that's lasted nearly twenty-five years. But she's a cartoonist's cartoonist, a favorite of heavyweights like R. Crumb and winner of the first Dori Seda Memorial Award -- hence my Waldrop comparison.

Tyler's panels are generally loose and airy; she often gives the impression of only drawing the important elements (particularly in close domestic scenes, rendered in almost-monochrome earth tones), so bodies trail off into nothing and backgrounds sometimes disappear. But, only a page or three later, those backgrounds open up into larger, more fully rendered panels with deeper colors. It takes guts to shift style as strongly as that, and experience to make it work well; Tyler has both.

This is the first book of a projected trilogy about Tyler's father's WWII service; it covers his induction and life stateside from '41-'44, along with his first few months overseas in North Africa. (The next volume, presumably, will bring the elder Tyler to Italy, where he saw things he wouldn't talk about even fifty years later.) Framing Chuck Tyler's story -- and note carefully that his name also shortens to the "C. Tyler" that the cartoonist has signed her work as for many years -- is Carol's contemporary story, dealing with a feckless ex-husband (who can't quite decide how ex he's going to be) and with raising her own daughter.

American comics have a few models for family stories -- Maus is the most obvious one, with its followers like Perseopolis and Fun Home -- but they've always been more about going away, getting out and seeing the rest of the world. Tyler has the good luck to have it both ways with this story -- it's both how she finally learned truths about her father and what happened to him when he went out into the wider and more dangerous world.

I like Tyler's art somewhat better than her writing; her prose is serviceable, but rarely much better than that, while her art is smooth and supple, with an endearing multitude of lines. But You'll Never Know is interesting both simply as a work of oral history and as a more complicated re-imagining of nonfiction material; it's definitely one of the stronger graphic novels of last year.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Basia Bulat - I Was a Daughter
via FoxyTunes

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