Reading Women #3: C. Tyler’s You’ll Never Know—Book 1: A Good and Decent Man

You'll never know

C. Tyler goes long, finally. As with Grace Paley, the average story length is decided partly by Tyler’s other commitments—motherhood, teaching, activism, and getting food on the table. In another parallel with the short-story writer, Tyler focuses her comics on precisely those issues as well. In 2005’s Late Bloomer, Tyler turned her brushes and pens on herself, even in the lushest dreams and nightmares. This time, she goes further afield, drawing a three-part memoir (this is part 1) of her father Chuck. Chuck Tyler served in World War II and, like a lot of veterans, he claims that the experience hasn’t shaped him in any way, C. (Carol) knows otherwise, having grown up with his emotionally distant ways that have a way of bottling up into explosions. As C. portrays him, Chuck is a blunt, hard-swearing handyman who remains calm unless you poke him too much. He’s creative and unafraid to get his nails dirty. He’s a man’s man, though he doesn’t come across as self-consciously macho. So, Tyler’s downright girly art—lots of curlicues, flowery lettering, pastels and colored-pencil shadings, and a lush sense of flora and fauna—seems, at first, to clash with Chuck’s style. So, too, do C.’s narrative sensibilities. Chuck is a straight talker. C. digresses and free-associates endlessly, with stories and threads looping around themselves. Chuck opens up about WWII to C.’s tape recorder only after decades of reluctance, and really only for a couple of days. C. is forever telling us about the interiors of her life, including her troubled marriage with cartoonist/sign painter Justin Green. Note the key words: “at first.” C. connects her failures with men, fluidly, with her relationship to her father, and so You’ll Never Know becomes also a way to explore herself. Tyler is telling her dad’s story. But it’s clear that she’s telling it her way. No, that’s not as self-absorbed as it sounds. She gives full attention to Chuck’s life, drawing it so sensuously as you can almost squeeze her panels and lines. The lyrics of “You’ll Never Know,” her parents’ courtship song, snakes around them like smoke as they dance. Chuck’s carpentry shop is given a full page, so rich in detail and textual asides from C. that my eye sunk into the page for nearly 30 minutes. Chuck’s direct words about WWII, from C.’s interviews, come up continually in the story. C. recreates his Army scrapbook in comic-strip form, redrawing the photographs and adding a judicious mix of the interviews, her mother’s thoughts, and C.’s reminiscences to vivify the snapshots. In a way, she animates the recordings and photos, bringing them to life more vividly than an actual photo could do. So, it’s not fair to say that Chuck is a mere device to get at Carol. Rather, C. refuses to do what Chuck tries to do: place his life in a vacuum, and pretend that that its contours didn’t rub off on others. She won’t be silent or allow Chuck to remain so. She tells stories about her mother as a young woman, about C.’s childhood in Chicago, about her husband fucking the babysitter, about Chuck learning the plumbing trade, because it all matters. Family histories aren’t a series of isolated events, in Tyler’s mind, but fluid—and sometimes jarring—tapestries of facts, memories, half-truths, and emotional resonances. Her father clearly doesn’t see things that way, and this first part of You’ll Never Know shows a potential rift in how father and daughter understand their lives, and how they think a war should be remembered. I can’t wait to read how this fracture develops, deepens, and perhaps closes up.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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