Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #374: You'll Never Know, Vols. 2 & 3 by C. Tyler

Carol Tyler's father was a US GI in WWII -- that's the fact at the core of all three You'll Never Know books, and his experiences in that war are the central things that she, and all of the rest of us, will never know.

He was a grumpy, demanding, obnoxious man for Tyler's entire life. She loved him because people love their fathers, but, as she presents him in these books, he didn't make it easy, and didn't give her anything really to love. This may be because the focus of her story is on her relationship to him, and the other things going on in her life at the time -- Tyler has been an autobiographical cartoonist for a long time, and is focused pretty tightly in her own head. Chuck Tyler is a very different person, and she doesn't seem to have ever tried to interview him to get his story; she instead went to third parties and independent records to work it out herself.

She made three big books -- horizontal format, like a scrapbook, growing out of an actual scrapbook that she made for him in the mid-aughts -- to explore who he was and how she came to understand and come to terms with him in his early eighties.

I covered the first book, A Good and Decent Man, back during my 2010 Book-A-Day run, and got the rest of the trilogy around the time those books came out in 2010 and 2012. But I only finally got to those graphic novels this year, almost a decade later -- mostly because I had book two, Collateral Damage, only in digital format, and I really don't remember to read comics digitally. (It doesn't feel natural or right, and I gravitate to the "real" printed books every time I have a choice.)

But this Book-A-Day run drove me to inventory everything I had, and plan out my reading, so I finally did read Collateral Damage and Soldier's Heart, the middle and final books of that trilogy, this past December.

Everything I said about the first book is still true here: Tyler's art and layouts, on these oversized pages, are lovely and carefully designed and draw the reader through the book. (Reading the middle volume digitally was a bad idea: You'll Never Know works vastly better on the large pages it was designed for, rather than an one-size-fits-all slab of metal and glass.) And young Chuck Tyler is a cypher who we never quite understand, while old Chuck Tyler is Generic Old Asshole, who we don't want to understand. You'll Never Know is about Carol Tyler; her father is just the focus of the effort she's putting in.

We do, in the end, learn about the trauma that made Chuck shut down, if we want to call it that. I tend to think he was a man of his era: never very good at talking about emotions, never given opportunity to do so, and over time losing any desire to do so. What his daughter wanted is exactly the opposite of how he was brought up and trained to react: that's why it took sixty years to get there.

And, as his daughter tells it, that trauma wasn't anything he did in the war: he spent WWII mostly in minor chicanery behind the lines, and only saw combat during the Battle of the Bulge, when every warm body was thrown at high speed towards the enemy. That was clearly a horrible, shattering experience, and I agree it was sad that his cozy behind-the-lines position meant that he didn't have a close crew of fellow soldiers that he could be really close to and watch die in horrible ways, but it seems to be vastly less traumatic than the life of Joe Average Dogface, who had a similar shattering experience on Day One and lived through that for months or years of combat afterward.

I'm being flippant here, but obviously shell shock -- or battle fatigue, or PTSD, or the Civil War-era term "soldier's heart" that Carol uses for a title -- doesn't carefully select only the soldiers with the very worst experiences. But Carol and Chuck explicitly say, in the book, that this is not what made him shut down: it was instead the death of her oldest sibling Ann in an appalling hospital accident soon after the war.

That's the climax of the whole trilogy: Carol and Chuck at the then-new WWII memorial in Washington, DC, when Chuck finally let those emotions free. But the central spine of You'll Never Know is more domestic: Carol saw her parents only off and on. Most of her time, and most of the pages, are about her daily life with a moderately surly teenage daughter and a semi-runaway husband (fellow cartoonist Justin Green, who ran off to fuck someone else for a while and then slunk back for what your cynical critic thinks was the usual kicked-out reasons). Now, I tend to think Carol didn't take a hard enough line with either of those people (or with her asshole father), but she's not me, and this is her story.

Carol Tyler is nicer and more forgiving and much more deeply focused on binding a family together than I am. You'll Never Know is the story of that, and of her: how she spent a long time to understand her father (and, almost as much, her mother, who is less demonstrative but just as closed off in her own way), and how she was trying to bind her own immediate family back together at the same time. It's a closely-examined life, told on beautiful pages, of one American life and family, and it's worth your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment