BOONE—Back around 2003, when graphic novelist Carol Tyler received a call from her father, Chuck Tyler, the conversation took a surprising turn.
A plumber by trade, her father had fought in World War II, having witnessed one unspeakable horror after another as he and other “jobbers” laid the pipes through which water would flow to the bases that American soldiers set up in northern Africa and Europe. He was intent on keeping the conflict buried in silence. Carol Tyler knew this because around 1967, she had tried to get her father to talk about the war for a writing assignment she was asked to do in high school. His response, she recalled recently, was: “It was a bombed-out mess. Forget it.”
Moreover, Chuck Tyler suffered from PTSD, a condition that would keep him preoccupied with work after his return home to Chicago, prone to fits of rage, and emotionally distant from his family. Carol Tyler said her father “never talked to me at length about anything.”
So during the call, when Carol Tyler asked her father how he was doing, she expected the usual commonplace response and the usual commonplace conversation. Instead, he blurted out the phrase “rivers of blood,” an image of war that had stuck with him ever since he dipped his boot in a creek somewhere in Europe and watched the water in it turn red.
“He started telling me details about his service that I’d never heard before,” she said.
Story after story began pouring out, and Carol Tyler began recording them in words and comics, filling out the details with research in Army archives and several interviews with her father, who died last year at the age of 96. The result is “Soldier’s Heart: The Campaign to Understand My WWII Veteran Father,” a “daughter’s memoir” in words and comics. Carol will read from and show “Soldier’s Heart” on Nov. 3 during her appearance in the Fall Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series, and she’ll also deliver a craft talk titled “Writing and Drawing the Graphic Novel.” On. Nov. 2, she will lead “Lucky Forward: Advancing the Story,” a workshop sponsored by the Appalachian Veterans Arts and Humanities Collective.
To this day, Tyler is not exactly sure why her father opened up to her.
“At some point, some soldiers do this,” she said. “It just kind of popped out.”
In any event, “Soldier’s Heart,” which is 364 pages long, took 10 years to complete. Although Tyler’s parents never saw the completed manuscript, they did get to see much of it as their daughter was working on it. The book describes the author’s damaged relationship with her father, and how his untreated PTSD shaped her childhood and affected her relationships in adulthood. It brings together in one volume the “You’ll Never Know” trilogy of books, each of which came out separately beginning in 2009. The trilogy subtitles are “A Good and Decent Man”; “Collateral Damage”; and, finally, “Soldier’s Heart.”
This year, “Soldier’s Heart” received the Gold Medal of Excellence from the Society of Illustrators, attracting rave reviews from The New York Times and other major publications. It also received Slate.com’s Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of 2015.
Dr. Craig Fischer, a professor who teaches film, comics and other subjects in Appalachian’s Department of English, recommended Carol Tyler for the series. He points out that “Soldier’s Heart” is really two great stories.
“First is the story of Tyler’s father in WWII, and how his violent experiences give him decades-long, undiagnosed PSTD – a trauma that casts a shadow over their family life as Tyler is growing up,” he said. “Second, and no less harrowing, is Tyler’s own contemporary family troubles, as her husband leaves her and her daughter suffers from mental illness. How Tyler weaves past and present together is masterful.”
Tyler said that “war does come home and affect families,” sometimes over several generations. Or, as critic Annie Mok put it in her review of “Soldier’s Heart” in The Comics Journal, “Carol’s strained, needy relationship with her father led her to a lifetime of troubles with men, culminating in her cartoonist husband Justin Green running out on her and their teenage daughter Julia.”
Tyler now thinks that her daughter “represents me when I was little” in that she was also trying to deal with an emotionally absent father. In time, Tyler said, her top priority became not only focusing on her daughter’s care but also breaking a vicious cycle of dysfunctional family relationships that had its roots in war.
“Going to war is bad,” Tyler said. “The indelible mark it makes on you is bad.”
Tyler also teaches comics, graphic novels and sequential art at the University of Cincinnati DAAP School of Art. She is one of the most important and influential artists to come out of the alternative comics movement of the 1980s. She is known for her beautifully written and drawn autobiographical stories.
She received a BFA from Middle Tennessee State University and an MFA in painting from Syracuse University. After some years in New York City, she moved to San Francisco and began getting her comics published in R. Crumb’s Weirdo comics magazine. At the 1988 San Diego Comic Con, Tyler was awarded the Dori Seda Memorial award for Best New Female Cartoonist.
She said that writing a graphic novel or memoir can take forever. She first writes everything out, then turns to what she calls “the second language (drawing and painting) to convey what you didn’t with the first.”
In Fischer’s eyes, the “second language” is one of the strengths in “Soldier’s Heart.”
Nobody “uses color like Tyler,” he said. “She’s trained as a painter, and it shows in ‘Soldier’s Heart,’ where she draws in a sketchy line that combines representation, expanses of white space, and subtle hints of color.
“Sepia suffuses much of the book, leaking from her father’s photographs and memories, but there are also bursts of other colors, often used to express Tyler’s own reactions to the painful, cathartic events chronicled in the book.”
This semester, Fischer is teaching English 4550, a senior seminar in creative writing that focuses on comics. Students from this class are putting together their own autobiographical projects for Tyler and others to see when she visits Appalachian.
“I hope that these students learn practical skills from Tyler’s craft talk, and are inspired by ‘Soldier’s Heart’ and Tyler’s reading from the book on the evening of Nov. 3,” Fischer said.
Details about Tyler’s appearances and the rest of the series
On Nov. 3, graphic novelist Carol Tyler will present a craft talk titled “Writing and Drawing the Graphic Novel” from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m. in Room 169 (Three Top Mountain) of the Plemmons Student Union. She will read from and show her work in “Soldier’s Heart” at 7:30 p.m. in the Turchin Center Lecture Hall, TCVA-1102. The Lecture Hall is accessible through clearly marked double doors on the back side of the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts that are visible from the center’s parking lot. Book sales and signing will follow each event.
On Nov. 2, Tyler will lead “Lucky Forward: Advancing the Story,” a workshop sponsored by the Appalachian Veterans Arts and Humanities Collective. This will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. in Linville Falls Room in Plemmons Student Union. “Lucky Forward” was the name for General George Patton’s Third Army elite. This workshop is about getting to the story within. It offers instructions on how to extract the essentials of an experience and create a visual narrative. The end result will be a graphics-based narrative that can proudly represent the experience of the veteran for generations.
On Nov. 10, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler will make his series presentations. From 2 to 3:15 p.m., he will offer a craft talk titled “What is Art and How Do You Write It?” in Room 201B (Table Rock Room) of the Plemmons Student Union. He will read from “Perfume River” the same day at 7:30 p.m. in the same location. Book sales and signing will follow each event.
All series events are free and open to the public.
About the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series
The Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series is named in honor of Hughlene Bostian Frank ’68, a 2013 Appalachian Alumni Association Outstanding Service award recipient, past member of Appalachian’s Board of Trustees, current board member of the Appalachian State University Foundation, and generous supporter of Appalachian State University.
The Fall 2016 Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series is supported by the Appalachian State University Foundation Inc., Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English, Office of Multicultural Student Development, University Bookstore, Belk Library and Information Commons, and the Appalachian Journal.
Business sponsors are The Gideon Ridge Inn, The Red Onion Restaurant and The New Public House & Hotel. Community sponsors include John and the late Margie Idol, Paul and Judy Tobin, Alice Naylor and Thomas McLaughlin.
For additional information about the series, visit http://visitingwriters.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 19,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.