Smash Pages Q&A: Carol Tyler’s ‘Fab4Mania’

The creator of ‘Soldier’s Heart’ discusses her latest graphic novel from Fantagraphics, which looks back at her own experiences with Beatlemania.

Carol Tyler has for many years been one of our great cartoonists. Her book Soldier’s Heart is quite simply one of the great comics of the 21st Century. After spending a decade tracing her family history and examining postwar culture, mental illness and many other issues, Tyler wanted to make something lighter.

Her new book Fab4Mania began more than 50 years ago, when Tyler became a Beatles fan. She was a fanatic, attended their 1965 concert at Comisky Park in Chicago, and in the months leading up to the anniversary of the concert, she crafted a blog about her life as a 13-year-old and life leading up to the concert. In what should be no surprise, she managed to capture that young voice in a truly striking way. We spoke recently about the book, about how she began to make sculpture and thinking like an engineer.

This weekend Tyler is a special guest at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, and on Friday afternoon she will give a talk about her work at the Library of Congress.

So, The Beatles. When we’ve talked in the past we’ve talked about music and how you think musically. Were you always listening to the radio? Was music always one of your outlets?

My parents always had a radio on. My dad always had some sort of radio in every room of the house and in the car. He said it needed to be on in case a bulletin came in from the authorities. [laughs] At the time I didn’t think too much about it, I just went, okay. It was during the ’50s and that strange era of duck and cover. It was my parents and their world; I just didn’t question it. My parents also loved to dance so there was music and the channel that played Sinatra and all that. They weren’t playing rock, that didn’t exist, they were playing what my mom called “beautiful, good music.” [laughs] My older sister – we shared a room – had a crackly little transistor radio and she loved the radio. She loved Paul Anka and stuff like that. We watched Hit Parade on TV. My parents always had something on.

You grew up surrounded by music, even if it wasn’t the radio as we think of it today.

It was very common in that era to have that access and that connection to the radio. TV was there, but it wasn’t like today. I remember the TV going off at a certain time and then coming back on at a certain hour. It wasn’t broadcasting all the time. We would watch the news, and it was 15 minutes.

The story about the Beatles that gets repeated is about them arriving in the states and performing on Ed Sullivan, and the country goes crazy.

Everybody tuned into Ed Sullivan. It was a variety show on Sunday night, and everybody watched it before going to bed for school the next day. It was phenomenal. Everyone knows the story of the Beatles and their impact and the affect it had. I’ve thought about that, too. What was so intense about it? I’ve pretty much decided that we became a monoculture because of World War II and we were the children of WWII. We were ripe and ready. It was the perfect thing at the perfect time.

Do you want to talk about putting this book together?

When I was in elementary school – I went to Catholic school – the nuns said to make a booklet about anything of value. That for me in earnest began we’d been given these special bic ballpoint pens – these were new – and we wrote in our own handwriting about Vatican II and we made a cover and then we gave it to our parents. The parents needed to know what their tuition was paying for. [laughs] I made a booklet about eighth grade and then a week before seeing the Beatles in concert I made a booklet about the week leading up to it and seeing them. Because by god there wasn’t anything more important in my mind than that event. [laughs] That’s how it came about.

I love that the nuns taught you how to make zines and minicomics. [laughs]

[laughs] Right!?

So you had the booklet, it was the 50th anniversary of the concert, and you decided to start a blog to tell the story.

2014 was the fiftieth anniversary that the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. I was thinking, I’ve got that booklet and I bet people who were fans would be into it. I started reading the booklet, and what it reads like is a first hand account by a girl who saw them, but I should do some backstory. I started the blog in February of 2015. I was excited because I was thinking about the year before when I saw them on Ed Sullivan so the blog started with a look back. It was the fiftieth anniversary of my becoming a Beatlemaniac. I was trying to put on my 13-year-old girl mind. I took all the material from the booklets – I had an eighth grade one, a summertime scrapbook, various other booklets. I figured out the calendar and I had to work up to the material in August, which is when the concert was. Every couple of days I would post something and I would make illustrations. I did not draw back then like I do today, so the drawings that you see in the book are the older me doing illustrations of back then. The writing, the raw materials were there, so I had to frame it and put things together.

I started it in February. I had just gone through a very terrible patch at age 64 of my mother’ death, my sister’s death, my brother in law’s death. One of the only people from my family of origin still around was my dad. His cancer came back. This is 2015. I’d be with him and then I’d come back home – it was a four drive – and I would sit down at the drawing table. I had just come from taking my dad to the VA and I went back to being 13 in my mind and dad is fine and he’s in the dining room after work. My dad didn’t have cancer here. That was tricky, especially when he passed away two months later.

Was writing about your parents and your sister harder after all that?

They were all alive and safe in the book. I’ve been working with my parents and my family all my life and career so I’ve been used to the mental transport of that. But I’ll tell you what was hard, I was working on the blog and going back and forth to see my dad. I had a blog entry that I had to time between all these trips. Dad passed away and I had to run home to get ready for the funeral so I came home and did a blog posting. It turned out it was when I talk about going to my grandfather’s funeral. So the emotion that I put in that memory of grandpa’s funeral was really my dad’s. Then when I came back from the funeral on a Wednesday somebody at Fantagraphics called and said we need to have art for the Soldier’s Heart cover by Friday. So I came home on a Wednesday and after burying my dad, I sat to write a blog entry, and then draw his picture for the [Soldier’s Heart] cover. It was tough, but I got it done.

I was going to say that one the things that is so notable about the book is how you capture that age.

[laughs] Did you feel it? Did you feel thirteen?

I did. That adolescent craziness. How we thought we knew a lot, but looking back on it, we were complete innocents.

I know! That’s what was so amazing. I had to be really careful because I didn’t want to project any sign of overt maturity. I didn’t want it to feel like a nostalgic trip back. I wanted this book to be like it’s 1965.

It definitely has that immediacy. So how did you go from the blog to the book?

For the blog I was using notebook paper and using my ballpoint pen – what we used at that era in school. The blog was cursive because the booklet – the actual written account of the concert – was done in red ballpoint pen on notebook paper, so I wanted to be consistent. Then I’d post the pages on the blog. When I put the book together it occurred to me that a lot of people don’t read cursive. It’s hard for many many people, especially the young text oriented types with their thumbs going. I hate that they don’t teach cursive anymore. Kids are missing out. They’re going to miss out on the historical record. They’re not going to be able to read their grandparents love letters. It’s a real abrupt hatchet to the past to not know cursive. So I made the choice to print. That’s what I did for the book. I printed entries. I did it so it’s almost one step toward cursive with rounded tails to the letters at times. I modified my printing somewhat. I also taught the lessons of preparation for reading cursive all throughout the text – this is me the teacher – so that when you did get to the actual account which was in cursive, I had prepared you with peppered words and phrases all throughout the book, so hopefully it wasn’t so abrupt.

So the last section of the book, in red ink on notebook paper, is a reproduction of the booklet you made in 1965.

Exactly. I couldn’t just make a copy cause I had written back to back and the ink showed through from the front to the back, so I just wrote it over. It was great because I started thinking about the concert. I read it over and over I was playing all kinds of Beatles songs. I was a nutcase. I was in my 13-year-old mind, and I just banged that out. It was so much fun. [laughs]

You did those pages on notebook paper, but the rest of the book is on your dad’s old stationary.

From their old plumbing business. [laughs] My mom was not going to allow us to buy new stuff. Ever. We had to reuse and reuse. People can relate to this. I had to wear somebody else’s clothes. My sister’s old bathing suits that never fit right and there would be safety pins holding up one side or tied up. We had the plumbing paper. I remember drawing on the backs of their envelopes. I drew pictures inside the margins of catalog supply books. I was always doodling. Because I was reconstructing the backstory [of the booklet] one of my old booklets from that time was written and pasted on that C.W. Tyler paper. I used that with the address and phone number visible, and I wondered if anyone would actually try to go to that address. I went by there and I saw it and I saw my grandparents house and it’s hard to think that there was once a thriving plumbing at this address, which is now a million dollar row house in Chicago.

The book reads differently from your other work. It’s a combination of text and illustration and comics. Why did you decide to work that way?

I spent ten years on Soldier’s Heart. Ten years breaking everything down into panels and moving the action along and doing flashbacks. It is crazy if you think about it to have to juggle all that and tell the story all in pictures. When I ran across the booklet I’d made – which I called “37 Minutes of Madness,” because they were on stage for 37 minutes – that was written. I thought, do I abandon this look? At 13 I was not breaking things down into comics sequences; I was writing. I had to figure out how I would convey the writing. How to manage time. That’s what panels do, they break down time. The time management component was in a sense the dates leading up to the big date, Aug. 20. I really was just talking in a breezy way what happened that day. The voice did not really require that I break everything down in panels. So I didn’t have the tedium of that. And it is tedious. If I had done this and tried to figure out how to break it down into panel sequences it would have taken another five years or whatever.

The other thing about it was I’m in mourning. I lost people and I needed a lift. I’m not saying it was an excuse – I’ll bang this out and it’ll make me happy – but that’s what it did. I banged something out quickly. Which goes with pop. It goes with the flash and quickness of the two and a half minute song. I was 13, and I wasn’t elaborating. I was living in an uncomplicated world and the only drama was whether or not they were going to be No. 1 this week. [laughs]

It was part of capturing that feeling. How you would have written about it back then.

I had to keep today out of it. I had to keep my adult mind and the way I approach work now out of it as much as possible. I was amazed at how simple it was. You know what it is? I was truly happy in this period of time when I found this music. I was in eighth grade. When you’re in eighth grade, you’re top dog. Of course I was powerless. I couldn’t drive a car. I didn’t have transit. I was out there in the middle of nowhere, honestly. A lot of girls at the same time were in the same spot. We were powerless. And here they came to deliver us from boredom. [laughs]

We’re friends on facebook so I wanted to ask about some of the sculptures that you’ve been making recently.

I was going through the estate and it was tough to look at all the items that my parents had accumulated over the years. My sister, too, because her death was completely unexpected. It fell on me. I’ve got two brothers but they just didn’t really want to deal with my parents’ stuff. They had lives. I have a life, but I also have a relationship to stuff. And to their stuff. Maybe it’s a daughters job, but I was just not prepared to toss it all. I spent the summer after dad was gone at their house cleaning it up pretty much by myself. I was making stuff and finding crazy shit that dad had. For me it was some sort of heaven. It’s been like that ever since I had access to this shop. The switch came on. I’ve been finding ways to build, attach, connect. Something happened in my head that made me see things differently. I don’t think it was a stroke. I’m not questioning it, but I entered a new way of perceiving the world. In my 60s, sculpture was triggered. I can’t explain it but I’ve been having this three dimensional sense of things and making sculptures and putting things together. I’m trying to rehab this farmhouse and I need to get to work but I stop to make things. I’m going to need to take one of the barns and turn it into a workshop just for the sculptures that I’ve been making. It’s fun.

I remember last time we spoke you said that you had come to understand that you and your dad had a similar sense of making things and that really you have the mind of a mechanical engineer.

I do. Today it would have been recognized early and nurtured and I probably would have gone to engineering school. About once a week somebody in my family says, I never would have thought of that. I know how to invent stuff and figure things out. My friend down the street Rose had this fan. She passed away and her family was of the same mind, let’s throw all this old junk away, but Rose took care of things. She was my best friend and she was like me in so many ways – or I’m like her. I got a lot of Rose’s stuff, some really cool stuff including this big J.C. Penney window fan from the sixties. The window fans today are dinky and shrunk down. She had one of these serious fans but it had a problem. I liked it because it was so solid and I did not want to let it go. I took it apart and figured out where the fan was hitting a bolt, shaved it down, got it cleaned up, turned it on, and it was perfect. About ten minutes later, small fire. [laughs] The motor burned up. There was just too much mud in the motor and it overheated. I love this fan. I didn’t want to give it up. I thought, okay, I went to the piece of shit Walmart box fan from China and took that apart and the mount for the motor is the same set of screws, the same width. I took the motor off a new fan and put it in the old one and it fit like a glove. It works like a charm. I’m fascinated by stuff like that. I want motors to work. People made things to last back in the day it was a different ethos. Not the disposable culture. I lucked out with the fan. Even if it wasn’t the right size, I would have found a way to get the motor in there. So now I have a beautiful old box fan. There’s no need for this because I have almost a dozen old fans. What I was desperate to do was save something that I loved about Rose’s life on Earth. I still have my sister’s car. I was amazed at how mortified I was at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to have her car.

The fan, the car, I know I have to part with these things. But for a moment this summer I had the fan fixed, I got the car running, and I felt like I pulled something back from the brink. Cause I’m still in mourning. I think this Beatles book has helped a lot with that. It kept me from tipping over into places none of us want to go to. It’s hard when we lose loved ones. I lost so many all at once like a tsunami wave. It’s been terrible. That’s the subject of my next book. I’m preparing myself for that. The Beatles is like dessert before this heavy entree I’ve started on. It includes sculpture and this whole foray into this other thinking coupled with mourning and missing people. That’s my next book. It’s a promise to the people who say the Beatles book is too much fluff. Well, you better enjoy it, because you’re going to have to get out your crying towel for the next book!

You wanted to make something fun.

Yeah! I’m a lot of fun to be with and I enjoy life. [laughs]

Well, you captured adolescence so well.

I don’t know that 13-year-olds are like that anymore. The experiences that they have to deal with and their access to information and the adult burdens they end up having to carry because of that. I mean we had bullying, but it wasn’t like today. I really wanted people to understand that it really was a simpler time.

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