Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Married to Comics

By Kim O'Connor


Carol Tyler painted “I Am Married to Comics,” a remarkable self-portrait, in the long-lost days of 2006. Like much of her art, it was borne of her intense frustration with the men in her life. On this particular occasion, it was her frustration with 15 men—the cartoonists of “Masters of American Comics,” an exhibition in which all of the so-called masters just happened to be guys, if you can even believe it. The world was crazy back then, and women barely made comics, and probably a dog ate Art Spiegerman’s history homework. Ain’t no accounting for taste.

(“‘Masters of American Comics’ is a landmark and a pleasure,” raved the New York Times. “A revelation.”)

More recently, as part of a roundtable on the unmitigated shitshow that was this year’s Angoulême Grand Prix, Tyler’s painting resurfaced. Ten years on, everything has changed, or so I’ve heard. There are just so many women making comics these days, or something. And yet, as Tyler’s post makes clear—painfully, abundantly clear—nothing has changed…except, perhaps, the eagerness with which Good Men in Comics will seize an opportunity to denounce a plainly sexist stunt.

The denouncements began with Dan Clowes, who, through no real fault of his own, received more credit for the boycott than the collective of women who instigated it. “Fantagraphics Artist Daniel Clowes Takes on Gender Inequality in Comics Establishment,” read a headline in The Seattle Times. Quoth G. Willow Wilson, the face of Feminist Comics™, “He took a big risk and I admire him for that.”

(Girl. Why.)

Clowes’ statement was designed to put the festival organizers in their place, which you’ll note is well beneath him. “I support the boycott of Angoulême and am withdrawing my name from any consideration for what is now a totally meaningless ‘honor,’” he said. “What a ridiculous, embarrassing debacle.”

That ‘honor’ Clowes put in scare quotes (and the “embarrassing debacle” he plainly names) were, one assumes, perfectly fine and legit in the halcyon days of 2015, when he shared the distinction of being nominated with one (1) human woman, Marjane Satrapi—a fact he somehow failed to note. I can only imagine how this cultural conversation might have been different if, instead of condemning the boorish French, Clowes had simply copped to the fact that he had never noticed the (blatant, persistent) gender disparity at this festival…and how frustrated he became with the situation—including his own role in it—once he heard the Good Word.

But Clowes didn’t do that; instead he chose to affirm his own goodness. And from there we had to watch an increasingly pathetic Limbo line of “enlightened” cartoonists, all the way down Milo “How Low Can You Go” Manara—Milo Fucking Manara—leveraging his denouncement as an opportunity to deflect criticisms of his own egregiously sexist work.

(“I have always tried to be respectful of [women’s] role as subject and not object in my work,” Manara wrote. His statement echoed across comics news outlets.)

Less awful, but somehow more annoying (to me), every journalist in the Kingdom of Comics wrote lengthy explainers on this thing that anyone with two eyes could see was just bad. This commentary brimmed with indignation RE: how the cretins at Angoulême managed to forget that some cartoonists have vaginas. In the year 2016!!!! Can you even imagine?

Let me try to explain something, friends. Angoulême does not exist in a vacuum. And those philistines we’ve spent the last two months denouncing are not self-made men (and women, I guess? clearly haven’t read enough explainers). They exist within comics, and comics remains an outrageously sexist culture, full stop.  

* * *

Recently, as I studied Carol Tyler’s painting, I reflected on my own role in that culture.

“Elizabeth I once said that she was ‘married to England’ as a way of creating the identity of Great Britain, which reminded me of my full commitment to the form, like nuns who become Brides of Christ,” Tyler writes. “This painting, with all its symbolism, became my manifesto.”

What Tyler doesn’t mention is that, in addition to being metaphorically married to the form, she’s literally married to Justin Green, who’s widely recognized as the father of autobiographical comics. It’s a sometimes fraught relationship that she’s depicted in her work and discussed on the record with a number of writers, including me.

In 2012, when I interviewed her, I was working on a project that had me talking to a lot of cartoonists. Some of Tyler’s comments made it into the final piece, but just barely. (This wasn’t in itself unusual; I talked to other cartoonists, men and women, who didn’t make it in at all.) We had talked for a long time, a conversation that ran for 25 typed pages once it was transcribed, but the part I ended up using was about how comics readers applied a double standard to the work of her and her husband:

Similarly, the cartoonist Carol Tyler, who will publish the third and final volume of her remarkable graphic memoir You’ll Never Know this October, is frequently shunned by the fans of her husband, Justin Green. “A lot of people are disturbed that I talked about Justin walking out on me,” said Tyler, whose trilogy weaves together the stories of the near dissolution of her marriage with her father’s military service in World War II. “That was a shocker. ‘Justin Green, father of the autobiographical comic! Why would you show him leaving you like you he was a cad? We love him.’ I could feel the chill.”

It was a sorta gossipy detail, a flash in the context of many interesting things Tyler had said about her own work. I was using her observations to point to a sort of hypocrisy I see in how women’s autobio is received. But even as I made that point about sexism in comics, I was reinforcing sexism in comics by choosing to focus on her identity as a wife more than her work as a cartoonist. Worse, I realized it at the time—and did it anyway. It suited my purposes.

* * *

Looking at Tyler’s painting now, as I write, I think about how her identities of wife, mother, and cartoonist are inextricable. We don’t feel obligated to talk about Green as her husband in the same way, just as we don’t really talk about R. Crumb as Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s husband, or Art Spiegelman as Françoise Mouly’s husband. In comics conversations, these men are granted more autonomy as artists.

Or is that autonomy something men claim? Is there anything lonelier than men’s autobio? And why does it feel like that’s still held up as the ideal?

Recently, in an excellent review of the new edition of Soldier’s Heart (Tyler’s comic, formerly known as You’ll Never Know), Annie Mok describes Tyler’s work as a sort of answer to the “fuckboy approach to memoir comics.” Moved, I read an interview Mok linked to (a great conversation between Tyler and Tom Spurgeon), as well as a TCJ interview that was published around the same time. In both pieces, I was struck by Tyler’s descriptions of how tightly her life and work have been intertwined—which is, of course, a theme that’s also at the center of Soldier’s Heart


I thought, too, about a recent piece by my friend Tahneer Oksman, a comics scholar. In an essay about her new book, Tahneer talks about the myth that we should (or even can) separate our personal and professional lives. “In academia, as everyone knows, you’re not supposed to research for personal reasons,” she writes. “It quickly became apparent that writing about this literature, about Jewish women’s identity, was clearly a way for me to work out a lifelong puzzle.” And then this, a sentence that really resonated with me: “There comes a time when everyone has to face the fact that her career choices are, well, personal.”

This is an overgeneralization—of course it is—but I think men’s autobio conceives of “personal” as, like, granting passage to the inner sanctum of their special thoughts. “Personal” in women’s autobio looks more at relationships. Context. Connections.

I can’t think of anyone in comics whose work speaks to the intersection of life and art with more heart than Carol Tyler. I think, too, of other women in autobio who bring their own strengths and sensibilities to the same task. Alison Bechdel takes a cerebral approach. Phoebe Gloeckner’s is pure nerve. Lynda Barry’s is filtered through imagination. And Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s is…I don’t know. Like reading women’s magazines from hell.

There have long been remarkable comics made by these and other women whose careers and/or outputs don’t necessarily resemble those of their male counterparts. The paths they found shouldn’t be considered professional liabilities. They’re part and parcel of what makes them great.  

The new edition of Soldier’s Heart—which includes the three volumes of You’ll Never Know plus new pages—is available from Fantagraphics. You can read my 2012 interview with Carol Tyler after the jump. It’s been edited mostly for length, and lightly for clarity.

KO: When you first started [Soldier’s Heart], did you know that your story was going to be a big part of it? Or did you think that it would focus more just on your dad?

CT: I knew that I had his story to tell, but the only lens I have is my own eyes. I've been doing autobiographical comics for, oh my god, since the 70s. So I don't know that I would just suddenly depart from that. You know?

Yeah, that makes sense. In the beginning, you talk about the project as sort of like a scrapbook for your dad, which I thought was such a cool idea versus telling someone else's story. How did you come up with that?

His picture album was so tattered and there was no information. So there'd be a picture or a photograph, like I showed, and I'd have to say, well, who's this guy? Or where were you when this happened? So it was the idea of making sense of it for posterity, I guess. Maybe my kid would one day want to see it. I like history. I wanted to make sure that the information survived.

I think I said in the book about how my daughter was learning everything about World War II and if it was up to her, from that point of view, the GI grunt guy was a footnote, when in fact the GI grunt guy was it. Millions of guys had a similar story—just regular old...these are not heroes. These are just guys, for the most part, who got involved in this. And they did their duty and there was nothing heroic about it. It was a matter of going there and surviving.

So are a lot of the images in the books actually reproductions of your dad's photos?

Yeah. In fact, in Book One, I talk about when he goes to Camp Forrest, Tennessee, from Chicago. Most of the pictures in that, I have a personal archive or photo record. But of course when we got to North Africa and over to Italy or France, I had to rely on photos from the Signal Corps, the branch of the service that would go around and take photographs during World War II. There was actually, you know, photo documentation. I mean, there's the people you hear about, [Robert] Capa and people like that that were at Normandy, but there were also a whole slew of guys that would run around with basic cameras and document everything from the mundane to the aftermath.

I went to D.C. and got photographs or took copies from the national archives, everything I could get from the places he was. And a lot of it was just my own common sense. You know? I didn't have a photograph of, you know, French street...a street scene in France with a lady looking out onto two guys talking below. So stuff like that I had to kind of construct just from my own sensibilities about how buildings are and just from understanding architecture and stuff like that.

Besides looking at all those photos, did you have to do a lot of outside research apart from the stuff that your dad was telling you?

Oh yeah. I had at least...oh, about I'd say maybe a three-foot high stack of books about World War II that I'd collected. You know, I've been at this for a long time. I'd go to a garage sale and pick up a book. Or I'd go to the thrift store and pick up a book. So my effort was pretty intense in terms of trying to understand (a) World War II and (b) my dad's role in it.

Interpreting his paperwork, that requires something. I tried to understand terms that I was unfamiliar with—everything from the breakdown of the army structure from squad to division to units to things I didn't know because I'm not an Army person. [For example,] he’d say “deuce and a half.” You know, “I was driving a deuce and a half.”

I'd say, “What's a deuce and a half?” Well, it’s a truck. Then I'd go look in my photographic reference book because there’s a lot of them. What type of truck is that? How many axels does it have? He talks about he didn't want to have a rifle because in the cab of the truck, he had a pistol on on his lap. Well, when I actually saw a deuce and a half and I saw the reason why he said that. It’s a real rough rugged truck, but it kind of had a smallish type cabin, just like a pickup truck today. And so he felt better at being able to just grab that pistol and shoot out the window if he had to.

I remember reading an interview with Art Spiegelman where he talked about how he was doing all this research while he was interviewing his dad for Maus and that sometimes he would run into places where the two stories conflicted. Did that ever come up for you?

Well, with my dad having amnesia from a head injury, from a concussion, he doesn't remember eight to nine months of his service over there. So that's really where I had to crunch in and figure out what he was talking about. He would talk about these jolly old times. We were drunk and then we did this and that. And then he just would kind of go to the next thing. And as I sat down and really dissected what he said, it would be like, wait a minute, there's like a month missing here. And then I'd figure out where he was when.

I would discover a battle, a horrible battle, and it would make sense because he talked around it. It's common with soldiers that have been in combat. He just couldn't remember details. You know, he talks about rivers of blood. And then when I figured out what battle he was in, they did talk about how others had recounted that same thing about blood in the water, how much there was.

And so he just told me to cut the camera off when I said that. Turn that thing off! Cut it off! And then he picks it back up a couple weeks later in another goofy story of highjinks with the other dudes. That just kept telling me that he experienced a lot of combat, a lot more than he let on. And that it was very tough for him.

My dad's story is such that he saw so much of it because he was a jobber. He was a plumber. They kept using him to do plumbing work, then they'd throw him into a battle. Then they'd bring him over. Hey, come over. We need to get with the Navy guys to put in some pipes. Put in a showerhead or something. So the poor guy was being asked to do construction labor, but, you know, go kill some guys and come back and get back to work for way longer. Get in a bloody battle, see somebody's head blown off, and then just get back to work.

Yeah. And then go home to your families.

And then go home, raise your kids and all that. Go to the shopping mall. None of that makes any sense. But for my dad, it was all about just stay busy. Just work.

Did you videotape most of those interviews? How long did it take you to elicit the full story from him?

I videotaped him. I went and drove over to his house. We set up just like it's in the book. We set up the flag and all this memorabilia. I took pictures of everything and sat him down and he just talked until he just couldn't talk no more about it. And then I transcribed that and got a backbone sense of what he was saying, and then I dissected it, and then I wrote the stuff.

I had to go back. I'd call him up and say, when you talk about being like in the cab of the truck with the rifle, did you sleep in the truck? I come up with questions just because I'd have to figure out how to draw it. Where did you take a piss? Where did you take a crap, dad?

I asked him about food. This is over a period of years. We'd be sitting down to eat a meal and I'd say, like, did you have a can opener with you? That’s how I figured out that he was a jobber: he doesn't remember rations. He was not a frontline combat guy. There was always a chow line, he said. The guys eating rations were infantrymen on the front lines who were out there for days and weeks and stuff like that. But he was a worker guy, so that was a whole different way of accessing his food.

I guess what I’m trying to say is through the mundane aspects of living--and I would model it on just everyday life, eating, going to the bathroom, shaving, cleaning up--I'd find out how it was for him. Then I could find the gaps.

Yeah, that makes sense how those, like, little things could take you so much deeper into the story. So really it sounds like apart from like the first sit-down, the videotaped session, it was really a lot more kind of a casual back and forth.

I kept experiencing him throughout the years. I just finished Book Three at the end of April of this year, and there were incidents happening and information I was getting as late as February that I had to fold in there. It’s funny, because at the thing in Chicago [the Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference], Alison Bechdel showed like an Excel spreadsheet.

Yes, I remember.

And I was just like, whoa, fuck, I don't do that! You know what I did? I just tried to tell the story as best I could from the seat of my pants with the basic structure.

I did map things out. It was post-it notes and grids and stuff like that. But in terms of that level of breakdown, I like to work with an element of discovery. It's art for me. I like to tell a story the same way you tell a story when you're with a bunch of friends and you're kind of drinking some beer and you stand up and say, “Let me tell you what my dad said. Let me tell you about my mom.”

So it's more intuitive, sort of.

Absolutely. And I've got to hand it to her [Bechdel] for doing that, but at the same time it's like, holy shit. I could never work like that.

I came up with a style standard in terms of a page format and three or four-page themes. There's be like 12 panels on a page. Six panels on a page. I didn't vary too much from style standards that I set up so the book didn't look completely random. But I'm always open for something wild and wonderful to happen that I could play with and build into the page or do something to try to mix it up a little bit. Because it gets to become very boring slogging through a graphic novel. And then I did all the lettering by hand, so if I had to change a word, oh my god.

Oh yeah. God, I can't imagine.

You can't. When she [Bechdel] was saying that she types in the text and stuff like that, NO. I can't do that. I didn't do that. I wrote it all by hand. And I think that's part of what makes it what it is.

Well, it must have been a tricky thing to manage, publishing it as a trilogy. Because you said a minute ago that new stuff was still coming up in the last couple months of the project.

It wasn't like new information, just maybe it made me heightened or turn the dial on certain things. I had to retrofit maybe six pages. Because I did have the book planned out. I have, you know, page counts and you have to think of signatures. I don't know if you know what that is.

A signature. Oh, the number of pages. Right. Right. Yeah.

I designed it. That’s another challenge I put in there. Certain pages, things go into the margin on the right or they'll go into the gutter from the left. I'll have a figure come in from the top left and then exit. Literally work through the page and exit on the bottom right, knowing people read from left to right. So when I designed my pages, I made sure that I was aware of that so there would be a sense of flow. And a sense of, like, if I needed an emotional resonating moment, I wouldn't want to bury it in the bottom of the left-hand side of page three. I'd want to maybe bring that up higher. You know?

So I was juggling all these aspects, and then I'd have, like, something happen. It would be like, this is important. And then I'd think, well, maybe if I add two pages here. I could add two pages in here, but I'd have to maintain that flow or I could add one page here and then wraparound three pages later and add the other page. So there was a whole bunch of mechanical construction stuff that I had to manage.

Yeah, I can imagine. Well, I wanted to ask about the difference between working in more of like a strictly autobiographical mode and doing something like this. I mean, obviously there's a lot more research and it's more complex in a lot of ways. But I guess I kept thinking that working on someone else's story...I mean, it's not just your dad's story. It's the story of a lot of people like him. So is that something that weighed on you through the process?

I was very aware of the fact that I had to represent the universal soldier guy and at the same time talk about a time and place, that type of person. Guys like that were everywhere. Guys that had served didn't talk about it. These were our dads. They worked at the hardware store. They fixed the cars. They got on the commuter trains and they went to work. Whatever it was. They just populated the world. So I really felt the urgency to document that "normal guy." A regular guy.

And in terms of the solider thing, I knew that military people would be reading the story. And they'd be either really pissed off because it turns out I'm showing something that the army tried to cover up for...Jesus. 56 years. You know, the effects of shellshock they're starting to cop to now. And there's some patriotic types out there who aren't having it.

Believe me, I love my country. But I’m also a dissenter. I'm also going to question what we're doing because I've seen the effect that it has on these guys. So part of what I wanted to do, I really wanted to make a statement about humanity. I mean, it sounds like big to do. But my dad was there, present, having to to do the most terrible things. And yet, you know, he's a nobody. He's not a hero.

I think that's the part of it that's crazy. He never got over it. He'll never get over it. He's alive--93 years old. He'll never get over what happened to him in the war. And that's a powerful thing for governments and military people to understand. These guys do not get over it. They can manage it and have successful lives, but every veteran, just about every veteran I've ever heard about their deathbed scenarios or their last days, they talk about what happened to them during their conflict. Their moments of horror. And me, our suffering. You know, how our relationship just couldn't be optimum because of it.

Let me ask about the people that have been reading it. Obviously there's a lot of nonfiction-type stuff in comics these days, but one of the things I've been wondering is, you know, people approach prose memoirs with a certain set of expectations about what nonfiction is. But what about comics readers, do you think? Do they have those same expectations?

I think there's more of a fudging allowance or something like that. The word is not going to carry everything. And so I always say it's show and tell. You know? Show some stuff. Tell some stuff. And I try to balance that and I try to add balance in there. Have it so that one thing kind of sets up for another. Not everything is completely closed and nailed down. That's what visuals do. You know, you're working with mood and tone and an art element. Like, I do not consider myself a writer, but I consider myself a writer. You get that?

Yeah, I think so.

I don't consider myself a writer, but I am a writer cause I've had to write and I've had to use all the conventions of story. I didn't know what a story arc was. Somebody was telling me about story arc. It's like, what is that? Arc. Okay, it's something people in literature refer to as the kind of the trajectory of the story or something like that. But in my head, because I wasn't raised or brought up with writing, I have a different sense of what the story has to do. I don't use the word “arc.” I have different things that don’t even have language attached.

[Aline Kominsky-Crumb says,] "My work is all out there like vomit." I love that. It's all out there like vomit. And in my work, I'm not as...you know, I don't talk about my sexual stages of sexual orgasm on that level or taking a crap or any of that kind of stuff. But I don't hold back with language. Emotionally, I go there. I mean, a lot of people are disturbed that I talked about Justin walking out on me. That was a shocker. Justin Green, father of the autobiographical comic. Why would you show him leaving you like he was a cad? We love him.

Wow. That's so weird.

It was like fucking he left. He left me with a kid, okay? He left me with our kid. Yeah. Why would I not talk about that? What taboo? It hurts!

So did that come from people reading who like actually got in touch with you and complained about this?

I could feel the chill.

Wow. It seems so hypocritical.

You bet. I could feel the chill from doing that. I mean, I live with Justin now, so something worked out. But and when we started, I said, Justin, I'm going to talk about you in this book. You're just going to have to get over that. He said, “I don't know if I like that.” I said I will not be silenced. I said I will not be silenced by you or anybody. I have a truth. This is what I experienced. How can you even think that I don't have a right to tell my side of what I felt happened of you...of the damage when you left. It ripped a hole and everything.

“Well, I don't want to be reminded. And I don't want you to bring her up.” He was more concerned about her. First of all, he had no right to what I'm going to say. I will, as a human being, take under consideration exactly how to do it, but you should know by now that I sensitively approach these topics with great humanity. Cause I am not in it to dish. Maybe I did some of that back in the short form. I did it all in good fun. But I said, this book, what happened to dad, how could I do something superficial about your leaving and then talk about my dad in such depth? It wouldn't work. So I said I have to get to the emotional truth about what you did. Cause I was not a victim. I was victimized by your choice, but I wasn't exactly Madam Lovely Wonderful. Nobody is. Usually there's some complicity in things like this. And I had my part and I need to own it and discuss it.

That's interesting. It must have been interesting for him, too, to think he's put it all out there with his own autobiographical work, but it must be pretty different to see yourself on the page.

It’s hard. That's one thing. I have people who are upset with me still for having depicted them certain ways over the years. My husband's daughter was hurt at the way I depicted her in Late Bloomer. If you read it, I suddenly have a kid because I married this guy and now I have a 9-year-old in my life. And she's got an attitude and we're not getting along. And I showed that. She got all upset by that. And I said, well, I don't know what to say. You were crabby. You didn't make it easy for me. You didn't want to call me mom. I didn't want to be called mom. We were trying to figure it out and nobody was on my side cause it was all about you. And so I had to eat it. Right? And you were very unpleasant.

She still hasn’t talked to me. But it's like two or three panels. What was I supposed to do? Show her as like...in any other way that what I showed her, which is how I encountered her most of the time, as being very unpleasant. So it's like, well, she was a child. Maybe I should have, because of her innocence. Children don't deserve to be raked over the coals.

Right. But, I mean, to me it didn't read like being raked over the coals. It just...like you say, it's honest and just one side of what was going on. It's not like you were saying she was a terrible child.

I showed her to be a terrible child.

Right, but that doesn’t mean that that's who she was as a person, I guess. Like that wasn't what I was taking from it.

Yeah. My own kid, my god. Since day one, I had her...you know, being all over the map. She was terrible in the airport.

Oh my god. That story.

You know, and so all along the way, when I started, I asked Justin...I told Justin I was going to talk about him leaving. But that I wasn't going to...he wasn't going to be the story's evil one. Ultimately I'd find a way to help him win. And I said, Julia, I'm going to talk about what happened to you. (She had a psychiatric problem.) Is that okay with you? She said, “Yeah, I don't care.” And then when I finished it, cause I really went there with how bad...her wanting to jump out the window and stuff. I showed that. I said, are you okay with this? She said, “I think you did it.”

In Late Bloomer, I was so struck by all of those two- or three-page stories. And for this project you were working in such a long format.

I'll have to say, you know the necessity of me doing one-pagers and two-pagers, the short pieces, had to do with my parenting duties. And that actually became a great thing, because I had to learn how to master the one- and two-pager and really get a sense of what a story structure is. In writing, maybe you can just finish when you finish. In comics, you have to finish at the end of page four or whatever the page count is. So you have to figure out how to time things.

I feel like the big book I did is just a collection of one- and two-pagers that maybe just explored little pieces of this and that more in depth. As I started to map out what happened to my dad, what he had gone through, what happened to me. What happened to Justin. The discovery of the characters and when to stop, when to pull out a little bit more, when to move over here and do a bigger thing over there—I think it's all rooted in those short first stories. I think that was how I learned to understand the form.

I teach comics. I tell my students you've got to do a one-pager. You've got to do a two-pager. You've got to do a five-pager. You've got to do a ten-pager. And learn how to manage that and not lose my attention and not have me so bored I don't want to continue. You know, you've got to figure out how to do that in those short bursts. By default, having a kid and not having time, I kind of figured out how to do that.

I remember doing pages for Weirdo. I'd say what's the page rate? $75. And I’m thinking, okay, if I do one more page I can get an extra $75. So I'd have to like take my two-pager and stretch it into a three-pager because I needed that extra $75. You know, cause this is back in the day with a little baby hanging off my tit and also, you know, I'd have to go back. I'd have to take a can of corn back to the store to get my 49 cents cause I needed it. I'd have to return the can of corn. That's how awful it was.

We all were there during the times of the, you know, just cranking our asses off. Just trying to get that extra little bit of money and trying to get comics on the map. And just a struggle and Jesus, it was hard. It's still hard. It's hard for me. You know, cause I'm not a top-tier elite. I don't have...I mean, I've got a lot of stuff published, but you know what I mean by that. I feel like I'm still on entry level.

That doesn't seem true.

In my head.  

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