Cover Story: Drawn to Be an Artist

Clifton cartoonist Carol Tyler is a late bloomer

Roni Moermond

Cartoonist Carol Tyler watches the world from the porch of her East Clifton home (top); ink and paint are the necessary tools of comic artists.

For cartoonist Carol Tyler, the dog days of summer mean working late-night hours in her second floor studio, trying to beat the heat at her East Clifton house with little air conditioning to speak of.

During the day, the drapes are closed and her home is kept in near darkness in order to keep the rooms tolerable for waking life. The effect is unintentional nostalgia.

Imagine visiting the neglected home of some eccentric Auntie who's sealed herself away in the shadows and dust, cut off from the modern world. That's Tyler's sanctuary, the place where the 53-year-old artist rests her head, spends time with her family — 20-year-old daughter Julia Green, her beloved 10-year-old dog Baby and her husband, fellow comic artist Justin "Jud" Green — and draws her underground comics.

Tyler copes during a mid-August heat wave that's baking Cincinnati, her home for the past eight years, with vintage rotating fans and plenty of bottled water. But she waits for the midnight hour and the possibility of cooler night air the way a young woman anticipates her dream date. Everything will be right in the world once the temperature dips below 90 degrees.

She works at a drawing table located beneath a faux bamboo beach hut she collected from the neighborhood grocery store. It was part of a Mexican beer promotion, but Tyler thought of Far East Asia the moment she set her eyes on it.

A longtime Buddhist, Tyler dreams of retirement in Fiji when she's not busy facing deadlines from her book publisher, Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, and struggling to pay household bills. The bamboo hut makes her feel good — although it offers little shelter from the heat that manages to sneak through the second floor windows.

Capturing a horrible job
Tyler's stories unfold via black-and-white pen strokes and painted watercolors on large sheets of plate finish bristol paper. Her drawings are dead-on figurative, not the least bit abstract or risky.

A car looks like a car. A backyard clothesline is a clothesline.

Tyler might not have the fame of fellow American cartoonist Robert Crumb, godfather of underground comics and creator of the white-bearded guru Mr. Natural, but then again few comic artists do. Her reputation also takes a backseat to the acclaim surrounding her husband of the past 21 years, creator of the 1972 landmark comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary.

Her forthcoming book, Late Bloomer — a hardcover collection of some 36 comics due in bookstores in September — says it all. Tyler is a late bloomer, another woman who set aside her own needs for family, mothering and household responsibilities.

Late Bloomer, a collection featuring many new and previously unpublished comics and full-color artwork, might be the opportunity for Tyler to gain recognition outside her small community of literary comic artists. It could bring a sizable readership, some recognition in Cincinnati and finally enough financial reward to get out of her scraping-by lifestyle.

But she's not sitting around waiting for the money to fall from the sky. When not finishing content pages and the forward for Late Bloomer, Tyler pastes Post-it notes on the second-floor walls to help outline her new sprawling tales, one involving her parents' early years as a couple in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood, her father's service in World War II and the tragic death of her baby sister upon his return home.

It's a massive undertaking, her magnum opus, as well as a chance for Tyler to reconnect with her parents Chuck and Hannah Tyler and gain understanding of her own origins as a comic artist. Then again, she's the late bloomer, and she's perfectly content with the idea of breaking out as an artist at an age when many are thinking about retirement.

Tyler and her esoteric brethren of literary comic writers and artists are as far removed from today's superhero genre as can be. Granted, they share a common history, the heady era of the 1960s when superhero comics enjoyed a rebirth with Marvel titles like Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. In 1968, Crumb published Zap Comix, considered the launching point for single artist comics that reflect their creators' personalities and tackle mature themes of sex and violence.

There were ups and downs in the hipper age of underground comics, a time when most titles were sold at head shops. Veteran artists remained active — Crumb published Weirdo, and Art Spiegelman produced his landmark book Raw. Brothers Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez created Love and Rockets, rich, honest tales about beautiful female friends.

Tyler connected with the autobiographical spirit of the underground comic world. She liked what she was seeing from Green and Spiegelman, who was his roommate for a period of time in New York City, but she had her own stories to tell — stories that weren't being told.

In her 1993 book The Job Thing, Tyler celebrated the everyday working-class men and women who seldom get a chance to tell their stories. She also opened the door on her own life experiences, many of them humbling.

Like all of Tyler's work, the book was semi-autobiographical, eight stories of desperation and drudgery recounting her skilled and semi-skilled jobs: clerk, bartender, waitress, census taker, floral delivery person and babysitter. The artwork is brilliant, figurative drawings that are approachable and brimming with emotion.

It takes an accomplished artist to capture the feelings behind the heartache of the working poor and what it means to be incapable of providing for one's family and oneself. Readers related to Tyler because she captured what it means to have a horrible job.

'As good a place as any'
Tyler has provided a woman's view of the world with The Job Thing and close to 75 other comic stories, although her message isn't a good one. She's experienced more than her share of heartache and setbacks, and to listen to her you're convinced that life is as hard as ever.

In the middle of a dog-day week, a lingering heat spell making this one of the hottest Augusts in recent memory, Tyler stands waiting on her front porch dressed in a vintage summer dress, no doubt another one of her garage sale purchases, ready to give a tour of her home and workspace.

Every inch offers something colorful. The slightly cooler basement houses her prized possession, a table saw her father helped repair.

"I think if I could go back to school I would want to become an electrician," Tyler says with a chuckle. "Look! I made that switch. I really like making things and building things. I get that from my father, a pipe fitter who was always involved with projects at home. I remember days coming home from school and seeing our house lifted in midair by a crane because my father was involved in some elaborate home improvement project. My parents were hard-working people, but they were extremely creative."

Tyler's constant companion is Baby, a wide yellow hound that waddles behind her feet because he's too heavy to move faster. He's a therapy dog, Tyler explains to emphasize just how gentle he is — a dog who goes to nearby Children's Hospital regularly to be with the sick children.

Jud Green spends his days at his Oakley studio. Their daughter Julia is taking summer classes at the University of Cincinnati, studying art like her parents. Tyler remains homebound with the dog and the heat.

Recalling her childhood, Tyler remembers practically every detail. It's a skill that comes handy when it comes time to re-create her life stories on paper.

Her comic "Just a Bad Seed" is about a problem child, her daughter Julia, who might not really be the problem her daycare provider insists she is. "The Return of Mrs. Kite" looks back at a family crisis when her widowed grandmother joined up with a disreputable man. "Why I'm A-gin' Southern Men" is a rant about a particular breed of male that focuses on Tyler's time in Tennessee as a Chicago girl coping with life at a small university and her short-lived first marriage to a man there.

She left Tennessee for graduate school at Syracuse University in upstate New York, and that's where Tyler really found her voice as an artist. While her teachers were promoting abstract work, she grew attached to figurative drawing.

She wanted to tell stories and for people to know immediately what she was attempting to say with her drawings. She instantly connected with the underground comics.

Tyler lived for a time in New York City in the early '80s and traveled to San Francisco in 1982 to visit friends. There, she sought out and visited one of the comic artists she admired, Green.

"I remember telling my friends after meeting Justin that this was the man I was going to marry," she says. "You know, after our first meeting, he said, jokingly, 'So are you going to have my baby?' I was pregnant with Julia two years later."

Raising a baby in San Francisco was hard for Tyler, so she convinced Green to move to suburban Sacramento. The hard times continued. She suffered from postpartum depression and felt alone and unloved.

Years later, looking for a new start, Tyler let fate steer her.

"I put my finger on a map, and it landed on Cincinnati," she says. "I said to myself, 'This is as good a place as any.' I sold everything I owned and raised $1,000. I tucked the cash into the waistband of my dress and took an Amtrak train and Greyhound bus to Cincinnati. I had a bag of clothes. No plans. No job. No prospects. I was starting over."

Green and their daughter came to Cincinnati later to join her, and they started out in an apartment in Oakley. Four years ago, they moved to the East Clifton house on a hillside directly behind the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Greeting a visitor on the front porch, Tyler jokes about Baby's yellow dog hair, which covers everything in the house.

"If we had a dollar for every dog hair we could find," she says, "there would be money falling out of our pockets."

Tyler heads to the basement, what she she calls Dog City, the place where Baby goes to escape the summertime heat. Tyler pulls out a wooden sculpture she made and painted, a family tree depicting Green, Julia, Catilin (Green's daughter from a previous marriage) and finally Tyler. They're smiling and happy in the artwork, standing beneath an apple orchard while Green holds a guitar.

Becoming a story
Green is the satellite that revolves around Tyler's worlds, both her artistic and personal lives. As an artist, he's his wife's mirror opposite, meaning an early bloomer, someone who achieved great acclaim early in his career.

His autobiographical comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is a landmark work about childhood angst over religion and sexual yearnings. It's considered one of the most truthful coming-of-age tales ever written, complete with a one-page lesson on the back cover that guaranteed "$1,500 worth of psychiatric advice for a mere 50 cents."

Green is an oil painter and a classic sign painter, working on various Cincinnati storefronts like Shake It Records and Charming Billy's Tavern. He draws a monthly comic for Signs of the Times Magazine and compiled those comics for the book The Sign Game. Yet his recent output pales compared to Tyler's.

Green might have the reputation, but Tyler looks to be on the cusp of something new and exciting. Her perseverance in a world whose giants are men might finally be paying off.

She made her debut in comics in 1987 with "Un-Covered Property," which appeared in Weirdo. She also did Carol Tyler's "Detour of Duty" in Street Music and "Migrant Mother" in Twisted Sisters. In 1993, Fantagraphics published her first full-length comic, The Job Thing.

She might not have the pay stubs to show for it, but Tyler has been a professional (and highly acclaimed) cartoonist for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in the leading comic journals, Wimmen's Comix and Drawn and Quarterly.

In 1995, Tyler was a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award nominee for "The Hannah Story," a tale recounting the accidental death of her infant sister. The story placed second in the Best Short Story category after Frank Miller's "The Babe Wore Red from Sin City." Once again, the boys won out.

But words on a page don't capture the acclaim Tyler enjoys within her world of underground comic artists. She's been called one of the most skillful, caustic and emphatic cartoon storytellers of her generation. It's the rest of the world that tends to ignore her.

On a late-August Saturday afternoon, the summer sun is beating down on Putz's Creamy Whip on the West side. Baby eats a cone and licks ice water from an empty sundae cup. Tyler eats a child's size vanilla cone, the perfect portion to match her birdlike frame.

Her humor and empathy for other people is clear in the way she greets and talks with the strangers who come up to pet Baby at Putz's. There's a chubby teenage girl afraid to pet Baby until Tyler assures her that the dog is safe. The girl lifts her T-shirt above her jelly belly and shows everyone the scars she received from a recent pit bull attack.

The owner had told the girl to pet the dog as a nasty trick, and he bit into her abdomen. Tyler listens, consoles her and lets her play with Baby.

The girl doesn't realize she might become one of Tyler's stories. We all might become a story. That's the price you pay for spending time with a comic artist like her. ©

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