Quick, think “autobiographical graphic novel.”
What comes to mind? A black and white trade paperback, containing the intentionally rough, scratchy, simplified artwork of a twenty- or thirtysomething revealing intimate details of their love life? Maybe a black and white trade paperback version of a memoir, in which the middle-aged author discusses a particularly interesting aspect of his or her life, like coming to grips with a new child or dealing with a terrible disease?
Well, C. Tyler’s You’ll Never Know Book One: A Good and Decent Man (Fantagraphics Books) isn’t like that, nor is it much like any other autobio comic I’ve encountered.
The form of the book distinguishes it immediately. It’s a big, huge rectangle, a foot across, and 10.75 inches high, although it’s only 100 pages long, and the story is expected to continue into two more books. The form (like the amount of color) sets it apart from many of the works in its genre, but that’s no necessarily why it’s in that form—it also serves the story.
It’s a two-tiered biography, part autobiographical and part biographical, dealing with Tyler’s own life, and her father’s life, and how the latter influenced the former.
Tyler, who is currently a Cincinnati-based cartoonist with a few collections of short comics stories, had suddenly split with her husband and moved with their teenage daughter to Ohio. Meanwhile, after a lifetime of being extremely tight-lipped about his experiences during World War II, her father suddenly called her out of the blue, and started a long tirade beginning with the words “Rivers of blood!” about those years of his life.
Tyler then went to visit her parents for a more formal interview, and there she discovered her father’s photoalbums from those years. She sets her self to the task of creating a new scrapbook for those photos, and pairing them with the information she was learning form her father, which is why the book takes on the size and shape that it does: Passages of it are made to resemble a family scrapbook, with Tyler’s drawings of the pictures on the right hand side of the pages, and paragraphs of prose to the left.
Her parents’ stories—her mom worked at the same base as her father, and they were married before he was sent over seas—are only part of the narrative though, as Tyler devotes time to talking about how she learned and took down those stories, and her own experience growing up in the same house with her parents. Did her pattern of her lifelong relationship with her father have something to do with why she fell in love with and married her husband, and why that relationship was now falling apart?
Tyler wanders around quite a bit—from the now to her thens, to her parents’ thens, to the then they shared in her childhood—and she takes full-advantage of the medium to illustrate points that would be difficult to communicate in prose, such as several full-page drawings of things like her father’s workshop, with everything labeled by the artist, or a typical scene in her childhood living room, or even some dream-like sequences in which she ruminates on the symbols of her father.
All that subject matter exists as a sort of buffer zone between the reader and the real subject matter, which the artist herself is struggling to get to, and never quite arrives at, in this first volume. Ultimately, the book seems to be about the war, but it contemplates the war by pointedly not talking about it, as if it’s something Tyler and her father can’t look at or address directly, but must talk around.
He never talked to her about it directly—and even if and when he does, she can’t really know it—and yet it clearly changed and shaped his life, making him who he is, and who he is made Tyler who she is.
It’s a really rather fascinating work, and the longer one thinks about it, the more important and universal it seems to be. On the surface level, of course, it’s an extremely interesting, rather unique story of a couple different life’s stories, and how they overlap, but there plenty of other levels waiting to be discovered and ruminated over.
I won’t be at all surprised to see this book taking slots on a lot of best of the year lists in another six months or so.