North Adams Transcript
You’ll Never Know by Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics) and The Big Skinny by Carol Lay (Villard)
Two new graphic novels aim to present the words and pictures of an audience not traditionally thought of as targets of comic book reading -- women in their 50s.
Carol Tyler’s "You’ll Never Know" mines similar territory to women graphic novelists before her -- the life of her father and its relationship to her own foibles -- and manages to make a work entirely her own, neither derivative nor overly familiar.
The framing device is her interest in uncovering her dad’s s World War II experience, but what unfolds in the story is an examination of the father-daughter relationship forged through a retelling of both their lives as well as the actual making of this book.
Tyler is able to take the genre of war veteran memoir and twist it around her own autobiography as a way to reveal not only how war affects a person but also how a parent affects a child -- it’s the march of history through personal psychology, and it’s more personal to your own life experience than you might expect.
The book begins with Tyler investigating why her father never advertises his involvement in the war and a recollection of her many attempts to get information about that time.
Eventually, her father does open up and reveals not only details about his early war experience but also vivid stories of his courtship with Tyler’s mom. She puts together her father’s history through an impromptu phone babble one evening, as well as scrapbooks he has previous kept to himself. Tyler reproduces and embellishes these with genuinely gorgeous illustration, turning her father’s army life into a cartoon photo album in which each panel is a crafted page that reveals another moment in his life. As Tyler continues the story, though, she focuses on hints to an unstated trauma and wrestles with her own on-again-off-again romantic tug of war.
At the same time, she is dealing with a destroyed marriage that involves a confused, philandering husband and a teenage daughter stumbling through that labyrinth of life between needy childhood and mature independence. Tyler finds she has to grapple with the implications of her own failures as given familial context through her father’s hidden history. It’s a gripping mix of biography and autobiography.
With "Book One" added to the title, it’s no surprise -- nor is it a spoiler -- that the big issues remain unresolved, with hints of the emotional vines that creep through all the lives. There’s more for Tyler to explore in another volume, and she manages to make this one immensely satisfying on its own terms while alternately leaving you with anticipation for the next.
Meanwhile, Carol Lay’s "The Big Skinny: How I Lost My Fattitude" goes for an audience that graphic novels haven’t yet sought out -- the self-help crowd. There’s always a first, although that doesn’t necessarily make it good. With "The Big Skinny," seasoned cartoonist Carol Lay tackles the most time-honored topic of such books -- weight loss -- and transforms it into a funny, self-deprecating memoir built around an autobiography that focuses on her overweight life and the efforts to trim it down.
In less capable hands, this might be a big bore, but Lay is a seasoned cartoonist, and she brings the lessons learned from more short-form work and applies them well in this book. It’s not often that a diet book can claim to be charming and entertaining, whether you want to lose weight or not, but Lay achieves that honor and more.
There is a complication though -- a book about weight loss is asking for criticism because it is a subject that people take so personally. When you center the subject around one person it can come off as a bit conceited, and I imagine that might be a stumbling block to some who sit down to read this book.
At heart, though, Lay’s message is a worthy one -- that weight and health maintenance is the result of lifestyle control and self-discipline, and the reason extreme lengths are sometimes necessary in that process has to do with both psychology and the larger picture of food production in our country. The decks are stacked against weight loss and maintenance, and achievements in those areas are contingent on a continually conscience sifting through data. I can’t disagree with her there, and it’s hard to hear that life is so unfair that you may have to just try harder.
Admittedly, Lay’s presentation can come off as a one-size-fits-all solution on the surface, but thinking readers should know better than to think they don’t need to adjust the examination to their own lives and psyches. The central point of the book is right on, and your personal adjustment of the information contained within is sure to be positive.
Ocote Soul Sounds
Coconut Rock (ESL Music)
New York musician Martin Perna -- a player in the city’s Afrobeat revival -- teams up with Adrian Quesada of the Austin, Texas, band Grupo Fantasma for "Coconut Rock," their new release under the band name Ocote Soul Sounds. Often the work is a jaunty disco romp, but every once in a while, something akin to The Residents will rear its head in the music and take it somewhere you don’t expect.
The duo open the album with the dance number "The Revolt of the Cockroach Peoples," which launches into a steady flow of strutting Latin electronica. These aren’t vapid numbers built around beats-per-minute, though -- Perna and Quesada have fashioned almost jazz-like structures around the electronica back drops, with an infectious dollop of exotica looming.
What results is less the sound of nightclubs than that of the streets outside -- a little sleazy, a little mysterious and a lot atmospheric, as well as experimental. Add in some great vocal numbers, particularly "Vampires," which boasts an odd early-’60s pop feel to it, and the listener is blessed with an evocative soundtrack for a secret evening in a hidden part of town.