Pages and Perseverance

Cartoonist Carol Tyler explores life through art.

It’s a frigid January afternoon a couple weeks before Carol Tyler’s exhibition featuring work from her past, present and future is set to open at the University of Cincinnati’s Meyers Gallery. The intimate space, which resides in the shadow of Nippert Stadium amid the heart of UC’s campus, consists of two rooms, each of which is strewn with stuff collected and created throughout Tyler’s long and winding life as a cartoonist, educator, mother, wife and daughter.

The ink-stained, handcrafted pages of her magnum opus, You’ll Never Know, are neatly stacked in a wood box within feet of the main entrance. Originally published in three volumes over a four-year period (2009-2012), a new, slightly tweaked version of the trilogy, renamed Soldier’s Heart: The Campaign to Understand My WWII Veteran Father: A Daughter’s Memoir, was reissued last November by her longtime publisher Fantagraphics. If the latter title doesn’t already tell you enough, the book relays the story of Tyler’s strained relationship with her father, Charles, and how his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder infected every aspect of Carol’s being — from her relations with her family to her evolution as an artist.

For the uninitiated, Tyler is a cartoonist of considerable, if not widely known, reputation, a product of the underground movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Her singular voice comes by way of an anti-fantastical approach, rare for her medium: autobiographical stories about everyday people dealing with everyday issues. Likewise, her visual aesthetic is straightforward and figurative, conveyed with concision, detail and a rare sense of warmth.

Or, as the movement’s best-known figure Robert Crumb wrote in the foreword to Tyler’s 2005 collection Late Bloomer, her stories are “all about gritty reality, the hard struggles of common, everyday life. No escapism, no cutesifying, she never tries to make herself come off as Ms. Cool and Clever. Nothing is contrived or over-dramatized. The level of honesty about herself is even shocking at times (you’ll see!), but it’s the kind of revelation that uplifts, instructs.”

Right on cue, within minutes of my arrival, she guides me from the gallery’s main room through a doorway framed by a large, wooden recreation of her pony-tailed head and into a smaller room filled with Tyler family artifacts. Tools used during her father’s career as a plumber and all-around handyman are everywhere, including a stack of old-school, weathered saw blades on which Tyler has written a short story honoring her dad’s dedication to craft.

She points to a white gallery wall carefully adorned with various artifacts and says, “This is the wall of death.” She then launches into an unsolicited rundown of the sorrows that have beset her life in recent years: Her beloved mother, Hannah, died in 2012; her sister unexpectedly suffered from and was quickly taken by ovarian cancer soon thereafter; and her father, the inspiration of her greatest artistic triumph, finally passed at age 96 last May. 

Tyler reveals more intimate personal details in the first five minutes of our meeting than some people reveal in decades. She tells me that a tablecloth draped on a nearby chair is that of her best friend and neighbor, Rose, who also died recently. She doesn’t reveal these details to induce pity or to make one uncomfortable. These are simply facts of life that can’t help but inform and animate her work. 

Clad in an oversized blue cardigan, clunky brown boots and pink-rimmed glasses often obscured by unruly dirty-blonde hair, Tyler looks like a cross between a librarian and the hippest Baby Boomer in town. Now 64, she exudes the youthful enthusiasm of someone half her age while also baring largely unseen scars from her unconventional life path. 

Cover Caroltyler Haileybollinger05 Tyler's exhibit at UC's Meyers Gallery consists of two rooms strewn with stuff collected and created throughout her winding life as a cartoonist, educator, mother, wife and daughter.  - Photo: Hailey Bollinger

“I always wanted it to be one big book,” Tyler says when asked about the impetus of Soldier’s Heart. “The reason I originally had to do it in three (volumes) is that I had to deal with my parents. I knew they were getting old. I knew it was about them. It turned out to be about my questions and the damage from unrecognized PTSD.”

Tyler is a digressive conversationalist, her inquisitive mind taking her from one life event to the next, each conveyed with a mix of poetic wistfulness and clear-eyed detail. We cover a lot ground in 90 minutes, discussing everything from her experience as a standup comic to her unexpected move to Cincinnati (more on that later) to her teaching gig at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (she leads a popular class on graphic novels and sequential art) to her love of baseball (“Put me on the record that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame!”).

And, of course, we touch on the influence of her longtime husband, the acclaimed artist Justin Green, whose 1972 comic, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, remains a landmark.

“I was amazed that somebody could tell such a personal story in this comic book form,” she says. “Before that I had no particular emotional feeling about comics because they were off limits to me growing up. They were my brother’s stash. I wasn’t allowed to look at them. I was delegated to newspaper comics, pretty much, and that’s where I found Nancy, which was the only comic I read.”

Tyler grew up on the north side of Chicago, where she took a back seat to her more assertive siblings. She was the “weird” kid, graduating with fine art degrees from Middle Tennessee State and Syracuse universities. But, as a child of the 1960s, music was her first love and her guiding force.

“I discovered music through the Beatles, and I found my independence and came of age when I saw them live in 1965,” she says. “I was 13 years old and I kept a journal about the excitement of seeing them. It’s about awakening to the world and becoming a person through this incredible gift of music, these four lads that changed my life. I think I developed my sensibilities and my aesthetic through my love of music.” (She says her next book will center on this experience.)

Following a brief stint in New York City in-between academic endeavors, Tyler landed in San Francisco in the early 1980s, where she met Green, with whom she eventually had a daughter, Julia, in 1985. The family moved to Sacramento, where it was “easier to push strollers and drive places in the car.” They lived down the street from the aforementioned Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. 

Tyler’s first efforts as a cartoonist appeared in 1987 in Weirdo, the aptly titled anthology founded and edited by Crumb. She also started writing for Wimmen’s Comix and Twisted Sisters, feminist anthologies wherein Tyler’s work stood out for its subject matter (slice-of-life tales about parenting and disastrous relationships) and expressive, inviting visual style.

Gender issues have long been a topic of Tyler’s interest, starting with impact of her mother, a long-suffering housewife.

“I’m remembering as I’m going along, putting this exhibition together, how much, how creative and how busy and how skilled my mother was,” Tyler says. “But her skills were channeled into things having to do with service to her children, her family. She didn’t get to stop and do an art show or create a body of work. That was just not in the trajectory for women of that generation.

“I was given the luxury as a Baby Boomer, a post-war kid, to find my artistic voice,” Tyler continues. “That choice was not given to the women that came before me — not in my family — and that I could do that was somewhat indulgent. I felt with my blue-collar work ethic that I had to make it worthwhile.”

That work ethic came in handy when, following a lull in her career and a painful breakup with Green, she moved to Cincinnati on a whim in 1997.

“I went to the public library one day where I was staying with family in upstate New York,” she says. “There was a map of the U.S., and I just kind of closed my eyes like I was playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, swirled my finger around and said, ‘I need to get a life and I’m going to live here. Oh, Cincinnati, Ohio.’ ”

Tyler arrived with little more than the clothes on her back. She quickly found a cheap apartment in Oakley and scraped by as a substitute teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, among other city schools. She eventually scored a job as the education director for Tall Stacks before landing the teaching gig at DAAP.

Cover Caroltyler Haileybollinger04 Carol Tyler says Cincinnatians were especially kind to her after she moved here on a whim in 1997: “Cincinnati turned out to be a lucky spot on the map, truly the best place I could have come to.” - Photo: Hailey Bollinger

“I was a wreck when I came here,” she says. “People were giving me mattresses and towels. I was blown away by the kindness of Cincinnatians and how much people paid attention and cared. Cincinnati turned out to be a lucky spot on the map, truly the best place I could have come to. The infrastructure here is great. It was logical. And I liked that it was near Kentucky, which seemed weird coming from California.”

Green also moved to Cincinnati in an effort to be closer to his daughter, and the family unit eventually reunited not long after Tyler bought the Avondale home they live in to this day.

“Housing costs here were great,” Tyler says. “For some weird reason I was able to buy a house. I never thought I’d be a homeowner, especially since I came here with $1,000 and a bag of clothes.”

Turning back to the here and now, I bring up the recent 2016 nominees for the annual Angouleme Grand Prix, a lifetime achievement award of sorts for cartoonists. None of the 30 nominees were women. 

“I’m jumping all over that,” she says immediately. “I remember 30 years ago when we did a book called Twisted Sisters and I was with a bunch of women cartoonists and our aim was to say, ‘Hey, women are out here making comics!’ Lessons don’t get learned.” 

As a product of the underground, nonconformist comic scene, Tyler is not especially keen on awards, but the attention would be a welcomed affirmation of the time and effort she’s put into her craft over the years.

“About 10 years ago, two fellows decided to do a show of Masters of American Comics, and they selected 15 men,” she says. “I thought, ‘What do you have to do around here to get any attention?’ I’ve been hacking away at this for my whole life. And in the 10 years since then I’ve tripled my output of pages, and then the Grand Prix comes out and there is nothing.”

More importantly, it would shine a light on a topic close to her heart.

“It sells books and gives attention to my work,” she says. “In my case, I want that book out there because it’s about post-traumatic stress disorder and I know people would benefit from reading it. Anybody who struggles with trauma will see how my dad spent his life living with bad memories and combat trauma, and even though it caused damage, it wasn’t a showstopper. He found a way to somehow live, and those of use around him had to find a way to live as well.”

And, like any artist, Tyler wants to leave something behind — through Soldier’s Heart, this pending exhibition and whatever the future might hold — to mark that she was here, alive and alert to her time and place.

“I’m hoping that some sort of distant kinfolk 10 generations from now might go, ‘Oh, she explained my family to me, or she explained that time and place to me in a way that made it seem that people back then weren’t too different than how we are now.’ I’m just trying to figure it out, that’s all. I’m trying to anchor some things that have come through my vision and my experience before I’m gone and I can’t speak about it anymore.”

Carol Tyler’s PAGES AND PROGRESS exhibit will be on view at UC’s Meyers Gallery from Jan. 28-March 10. For more information, visit daap.uc.edu/galleries/meyers_gallery.

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