The Comic Book Club: “You’ll Never Know” and “Action Comics”

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up talking about what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan, Evan Narcisse and Mike Williams discuss You’ll Never Know: Collateral Damage and Action Comics #893.

DOUGLAS: The first volume of You’ll Never Know, Carol Tyler’s projected three-volume series about her father’s experiences in World War II–and all the family history connected to it–was my favorite graphic novel of last year. The new volume, Collateral Damage, is even stronger in a lot of ways. It’s open-ended on both ends, and Tyler has to do a lot of plot-wrangling and cast-explaining and digressing, but there’s a remarkable alchemy in the way she transforms personal and familial tragedy into art–not just communicating terrible things gracefully and universally, but using the events of her story to get across a way of seeing the world.

(More on Techland: The Comic Book Club: Serenity and The Bulletproof Coffin)

The title “You’ll Never Know” had a couple of meanings in the first volume: it’s the Vera Lynn standard, but also suggested her father’s decades of silence about what happened to him. It takes on an additional meaning here: she realizes that, as much effort as she’s put into figuring out what her dad has been shakily remembering, she may not even understand his motivations for bringing it to light again at all. And she gets into her mother’s silence, too, in “The Hannah Story”–the piece about her sister that’s incorporated toward the end of the book, about which I don’t want to say anything for people who haven’t read it yet, except to note that in its original form it made the Comics Journal’s 1999 list of the top 100 comics of the 20th century.

But the thing that keeps drawing me back to the book, and Tyler’s work in general, is her artwork: she’s got a sense of design and decoration, and a feel for color, that I absolutely love, and it makes her complicated, digressive story totally compelling to look at. I just flipped the book open to a random page, and hit a particularly incredible one. It’s a full-page image of her parents, seen from behind, watching TV in their cabin in the Adirondacks–just about the least dramatically interesting subject for a splash page anybody could invent, theoretically–and it’s a stunner: she nails the variety of textures and colors in the room, the sort of things they decorate their home with, the way a television set sucks in all the attention in a room, the beautiful-but-stifling frozen landscape outside the window, the weird pose of a sleeping dog… there’s even a cute little joke it took me a little while to notice: the rabbit on top of the TV set, in lieu of “rabbit ears”!

(Incidentally, did anybody see Tyler’s table in Artists’ Alley at Comic-Con? She actually brought in some flowers, and decorated the table and its surroundings. It was a little oasis in that physically miserable environment. Actually, her story in this volume of how she tried to make her classroom a “zone of sanity” for her first-graders reminded me a bit of that.)

MIKE: It took some work, but I finally started to find this book compelling. By that, I mean it wasn’t until the first war scrapbook section that I was really enjoying myself. I didn’t read volume one, and as a new reader to the series I was thrown into the deep end of the continuity pool. Even with the introductions near the beginning, none of these people meant anything to me. I struggled to connect.

A lot of the barrier was the art. I agree with you, Douglas, that there are some pages that are absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, these pages are few and they are rarely to never pages with character interaction. The maps of Europe, the landscapes, the layout of the cabin’s TV room, these are all great–but all too often the side tracks and anecdotes devolve into this notebook-margin look and feel that seems less like a stylistic choice and more like rushed effort. I think it’s a testament to the story that I still wanted to turn pages despite the distractions like the uneven lettering and thin red marker borders.

Getting back to the story, I was concerned that this was going to be 100+ pages about a family with standard family problems. The story picks up speed throughout the book. The last twenty pages or so are filled with reveals and shocking twists that lead to a decent cliffhanger. The truth is this family reveals itself to have some standard looking problems, and they really are standard (health issues, taboo conversation topics, divorces, geographically spread out), but some very strong characters, like the father, pull the story along despite itself. I think that Tyler’s strength lies in making these stories, these people, so relatable even if the reader never had a relative in a war, for example, or dealt with severe illness in a parent.

I’ll be tracking down volume one for certain.

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