Motherhood left little time for Carol Tyler, a onetime Sacramentan, to follow her passion to become an underground comic artist. But the release of her new book, Late Bloomer, proves the wait was worth it.
Nestled within the garden of delicately penciled flowers and curling vines that decorate the pages of Late Bloomer, a recent anthology of autobiographical comics by Sacramento expatriate Carol Tyler, lies a little-acknowledged truth about those who lag a bit behind the curve. Late bloomers aren’t born; they’re made—by the unexpected desires and detours of life that push them in circles when they’re aiming for straight. By the tests that shake their hearts until they let go of everything, except what really matters. By the hard-won wisdom that finally allows their dreams to burst into fruit, long after they’d planned but somehow sweeter for the wait.
Witness Late Bloomer’s foreword: “This book is dedicated to anyone who has deferred a dream due to raising children or caregiving, or has experienced a significant setback from emotional hurt, physical or mental illness, pain, injury or loss, or any other blind-side interruption that has impeded the achievement of a goal. This book is dedicated to the possibilities that lie within all of us.
“This book is a celebration of us late bloomers.”
Now witness Tyler herself. At age 54, she has been a part of the underground comics scene for more than 20 years—ever since that time in graduate school, at New York’s School of Visual Arts, when a fellow artist evaluating her abstract paintings told her she would never make a masterpiece if she kept putting text in her art.
“I ‘came out’ as a cartoonist right after that,” Tyler said proudly, on the phone from her home in Cincinnati. In defiance of the fine-art conventions of the early 1980s, she immediately began adding more representational elements and text to her paintings.
“People would look at my work and say, ‘I know there’s a story here. Explain it.’ And I would,” Tyler said, “but then I thought, ‘I can’t follow people around my whole life explaining my work.’” The seeds of her determination to tell her story—in the easily accessible medium of comic books—had been sewn.
In the strange paradox of late-bloomerhood, Tyler’s new commitment to comic storytelling led her to the very life lessons that would both delay her dreams and, ultimately, provide the rich materials to build them. She left New York on a California vacation, with the agenda of investigating the underground comics scene flourishing in San Francisco. On that trip, she met Justin Green, creator of the cult classic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, which is considered the first long-form autobiographical graphic novel.
Over time, she moved to California to live with Green. The two eventually married and moved to Sacramento to raise their daughter, Julia. Tyler’s move to the River City was inspired by seeing a newscast of tourists wearing shorts in front of the Capitol while she shivered in a foggy San Francisco summer. For more than a decade, she and Green lived in a rented home on Elvas Avenue, which functions as the setting of much of her comic work from that period.
As Tyler soon discovered, the experience of motherhood left little time for art and little permission for the lifestyle sacrifices that made it possible. “Comics are not a living,” Tyler admitted frankly. “We do the best we can, but it’s just not a paying gig. I can go without a meal or two, but I couldn’t ask that of my child. When she was little, I had to work and do what I could.”
While Green maintained a sign-painting business, Tyler worked as a substitute teacher for the Sacramento City Unified School District, did layout and illustration for the now-defunct Suttertown News, designed exhibits for the Sacramento History Museum (now the Discovery Museum of Sacramento), worked as a freelance illustrator for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine and did whatever she could to make ends meet. In fits and starts—and never as often as she wished—she worked on her stories, which occasionally appeared in underground comic magazines like Weirdo, Wimmen’s Comix and Drawn & Quarterly.
Nonetheless, Tyler’s voice assumed a fierce pride when she said, “Not one panel, not one stroke of ink I ever did was at the expense of my kid. … I’m gonna stick her in day care so I can tell stories about her? That wouldn’t be authentic, would it?”
The same conviction rises when she speaks of her artistic goals. “I kept all my little scraps of notes [for comic ideas], and I never let go of the idea that I would get back to it someday. A lot of people would say, ‘You’ll never go back to your art. Once you have a kid, that’s it!’ But I tenaciously held on to the idea that I was taking time out from what I started. I’m gonna do it. It’s just going to take me longer.”
As an example, Tyler explained the production timeline of the one-page story “Once We Ran.” Published for the first time in Late Bloomer, the six-panel feature shows Tyler and a 3-year-old Julia running to the Elvas house from their car on a 108-degree Sacramento day and laughing together when a blast of hot air rises from the blacktop and lifts their skirts. The last panel shows an adult Julia waving to her mother as she leaves with a car full of friends, while the cartoon Tyler longs for the days when Julia’s time “was completely mine.”
“That’s an actual event,” Tyler said. “In the strip we go garage-saleing, and we come up the driveway, and there was this whoosh of air that made our skirts like that. So we got in the house, and I thought, ‘I don’t have time to sit down and draw this. I will add it to my pile.’ I kept a box with a whole pile of notes. So I did a quick sketch of her, the way her legs were jumping and her skirt. I wrote ‘skirts like cupcakes’ and ‘air puff,’ and I threw it in my box. That would have been in 1988. I didn’t draw it until 2004.”
Tyler’s memory box is full of such details, most of them from her Sacramento days. As she talked on the phone, she selected one at random. “How often do you see two El Camino Rancheros, both of them orange, going down J Street?” she asked.
“On a certain day, it happened, and I’ve got it written down on a note. I called it ‘Dittos Rancheros 1989, J and 48th.’ I have a box full of stuff like that. I don’t know how much of it will end up coming to fruition.”
These days, the memory box has competition—not only from the duties of everyday life, but also from the two graphic novels Tyler’s currently working on. 1997 tells the story of the year Tyler left Sacramento and moved to Ohio, and the family dramas that compelled her to leave. The first chapter of the unfinished book—titled “The Outrage”—closes Late Bloomer and is the most developed, emotionally nuanced and candid work in the collection.
In the book’s introduction, underground comics czar R. Crumb (see the sidebar “Comedy central”) praises Tyler for her ability to convey the struggle and the bittersweet victories of everyday living: “The level of honesty about herself is even shocking at times, but it’s the kind of revelation that uplifts and instructs.” Nowhere is this quality more evident than in “The Outrage,” where Tyler confesses the depths of her postpartum depression and the rage she felt upon seeing her ex-boyfriend’s art on television while she was home changing diapers. In bruised reds and queasy greens, Tyler draws herself as an angry beast with bulging udders (for nursing the newborn), devilish hooves and crazed eyes contemplating murder and suicide. Though she snaps out of it in the cartoon, the impression of those dark days in 1986 kept her emotions simmering for a decade, until the fateful year her book will cover.
What exactly happened in 1997 is still known only to Tyler and her family—and may remain so indefinitely. Tyler postponed her work on her own story to begin a second graphic novel about her father’s experiences in World War II. “My dad is 87,” Tyler said, “and he’s just getting around to telling me about the war. It’s so urgent that I tell his story, but every moment I’m with him is a new story because he keeps revealing more about himself. So I’m trying to weave it all together.”
The walls on the upstairs floor of Tyler’s house are covered with notes and drawings for her father’s wartime biography, currently titled You’ll Never Know. Tyler sighed when asked about a publication timeline. Tendonitis in her drawing arm has been slowing her down, as have negotiations with the publisher over the book’s format. “It’s just going to take a long time,” she says finally, “and I’m champing at the bit because I want to finish 1997. And I have a couple of other stories.”
Though Tyler often speaks with a serenity that conveys her regular practice of Buddhist meditation, it is possible to sense impatience under the surface. Now that her work is blooming at last, she’s racing against time, against tendonitis, against budget constraints, to tell all the stories she can.
“It’s my personal way of chicken-scratching at immortality,” Tyler admits, “like in that old Joni Mitchell song. I’m terrified that some kinfolk tells me a story, and that’s it. I’ve been grappling with how to pay homage to my ancestors and keep our story alive. We’re not an exceptional family, but yet we’re every family, and this too shall pass. I love contributing to the historical record, and I’m grateful to have the burden of that, but the main challenge is time.”
Though her work, and the first blossoms of modest success, has taken longer to flower than she expected, Tyler admits there are benefits to being a late bloomer. With enough time, perspective has transformed the duties that seemed to hinder her into rich compost to nourish her art. Late Bloomer’s countless cartoon iterations of Tyler—with a child on her hip, hair messy and legs unshaven, laughing over an unexpected surprise or puzzling over how to make peace with her life—become the story of every woman, every mother, every person with a dream deferred. And Tyler’s sensitive portrayal of that delay becomes, itself, the dream.