a page by Carol Tyler (admired by CF)
Here at Thought Balloonists, Charles and I plan to devote some of our commentaries to close readings of our favorite comics pages.
One of my favorites is page six of Carol Tyler's story "Migrant Mother," originally published in the anthology Twisted Sisters #1 (edited by Diane Nooman, 1994) and most recently reprinted in Tyler's 2005 book Late Bloomer. In this autobiographical tale, Tyler flies from Sacramento to Colorado to visit her husband, sign painter and cartoonist Justin Green; Tyler also brings their toddler daughter Julia along for the ride. The trip goes poorly. Tyler gets wretchedly sick in Colorado and decides that she and Julia should go home early. During a layover in Phoenix, however, Tyler discovers that the combination of her illness and high altitudes have plugged her ears, and she risks permanent hearing damage if she takes her connecting flight to Sacramento. As the page below illustrates, Julia--cooped up in hotel rooms and planes throughout the trip--runs wild through the Phoenix airport, crawling on bathroom floors, gobbling up cigarette butts, and dumping the poo out of her diaper:
Why do I love this page so much? First, I'm crazy about Tyler's dialogue. Like the dutiful postmodern subjects we are, my wife Kathy and I memorize keen lines from movies, comics and television shows and quote them when appropriate, and every time we see a child (usually one of our own) act up in a public place, we say "Old pee and hairs are not on the menu today." I also like how Tyler's expressive lettering makes the dialogue jump off the page. The escalating, inflating, thickening "NO"s in the first panel nicely capture the desperation of a parent yelling louder and louder to get their kid's attention, while the wavy lines around the lightly-coded profanities "FKQ" and "FKQ-2" emphasize both the explicitly-labeled insincerity of the airport personnel and Tyler's muffled, impaired hearing.
The layout of the page is also innovative. Years before the snake-like reading protocols of Brian Chippendale's Maggots, Tyler uses an arrow at the bottom of the second panel to direct readers to a narrow tier designed to be read from right-to-left rather than left-to-right. This thin tier dives downwards at a right angle and creates a rectangular fence around the thick-margined panel featuring the two desk clerks.
The layout is difficult to describe, but not difficult to follow, because Tyler keeps the narrative on track in several ways. Note, for instance, that Julia is much more out of control in the tier above the box--where she dines from the ashtray--than she is in the tier below. We are swept along with Julia to the "Camel filter" drawing on the right side of the page, and then we read across the "FKQ" and "FKQ-2" panels in traditional left-to-right direction and arrive at Tyler dizzy in the final drawing. We give the bottom tier less attention because we quickly realize that nothing of importance is happening down there: since we've already seen Julia munch on cigarette butts, her crawling and getting in the way of pedestrians isn't a big deal.
The lower tier, then, is a kind of decorative margin, but it also remains part of the narrative, running on a track parallel to Tyler's and leading to "Aah do." We assume that after Tyler drags Julia to the ticket counters, she puts the baby down while trying to pull herself together. (Tyler puts a zigzag line between "FKQ" and "FKQ-2" to signify the gap in time as mother and daughter go from one counter to the next.) It's at this moment that Julia crawls around on the floor, and then quickly demands to be picked up again. The lower tier is a sequel to the events directly above it: like all the pictures in Tyler's story, it's designed to be read in sequential order, even though we give it less of our attention.
I also love the balance between realistic and expressionistic drawing on this page. There are some subjects drawn in extraordinary detail--I wonder how long it took Tyler to crosshatch every bathroom tile in that first panel--but she also draws some very loose, indistinct shapes to represent herself and Julia. The scratchy silhouettes of Tyler and Julia at the ticket counters, for example, tell us that Julia is in Tyler's arms (a significant fact, given Tyler's previous inability to "contain" her daughter), and Julia is pointing at the clerks, directing our attention away from the silhouettes and towards the brighter, more cartoony areas of the panel(s). In the "Aah do" panel, Julia metamorphoses from a realistically-drawn baby to an almost complete abstraction, a sharp little ghost (with a rounded head and pointed spikes for hands) demanding attention even as Tyler, on the verge of collapse, momentarily focuses on her own needs. For Tyler's the story's the thing: she depicts characters in many different registers, from naturalistic to wildly abstracted, but in each individual panel of "Migrant Mother" she picks the style that directs the reader to the information she wants to emphasize.
Tyler really embraces abstraction in the last panel, where she presents her face as a featureless blob with only a hint of a nose. She draws herself blank because she's on the periphery. The real action is Julia's poo-slinging, placed in almost the perfect center of the picture for maximum impact. As we read from left-to-right, our eyes glide over Tyler--she's an empty outline, without details to snag our attention, and her word balloon adds nothing to our understanding of the image--and we focus instead on the crosshatched, multi-toned renditions of the airport and Julia. Tyler's desire for relief and something to eat is some sort of empty, frictionless fantasy, and the reality of her situation is a big pile of crap on the floor.
But it's not all bleak. For one thing, she quickly snaps out of her fog. In the first panel on the next page (page seven of the story), her face regains its features, only to contort into a Bagge-like expression of contempt: Mama Tyler is back from her fainting spell and she is pissed. Also, in that final panel of page six, the pedestrians closest to Julia are, in fact, Tyler and Julia seven years later. At the end of "Migrant Mother," Tyler jumps seven years forward to her first plane trip since the Phoenix nightmare, and this new flight ominously includes "a stopover in Phoenix." Julia, now a well-behaved pre-teen, is with her. A stewardess announces that the next flight has been overbooked, and asks for volunteers to give up their seats and stay overnight in Phoenix at the airline's expense, but Tyler refuses, muttering "Not this time. Maybe in 500 years. Or never."
Future-Tyler and future-Julia are the people in the airport watching baby-Julia dump the poo, and this clever little time-twist teaches a lesson about the realities of being a parent. Sometimes in the day-to-day struggle to prevent your child from eating hairs off the bathroom floor and jumping into strangers' laps, parents forget the long view: this too shall pass. It won't always be like this. Your child will change, and you will change. Even horrible memories will, from a remove of seven years or more, become valuable, or will at least spin out into a yarn worthy of being immortalized in comics form. Memories are at the heart of Tyler's work, from the recovered narratives of "The Hannah Story" to the meditations on the nature of "Gone" to the affecting one-page strip "Once, We Ran," collected in Late Bloomer. "Once, We Ran" recounts a summer day from Julia's childhood when mother and daughter visited garage sales, fretted over hot car upholstery, and danced barefoot on the blacktop when a thermal draft blew their skirts up. The last panel of "Once, We Ran" is another of Tyler's flashforwards, as Julia, now a teenager, waves goodbye to her mother while she gets into a car full of her friends. In a caption, Tyler segues from her memories of Julia's childhood to the experience of letting her go as she grows up: "That was in '87. Back when your time was completely mine."
Tyler watches Julia drive away, and longs to return to that idealized time when she and Julia were inseparable. But "Migrant Mother" shows us that Julia was never "completely" her mother's; that's one strong-willed kid running around the Phoenix airport. And by inserting her future self into the conclusion of "Migrant Mother," Tyler grudgingly acknowledges that there's no going back. The Phoenix ordeal and Julia's toddlerhood are over, but so too is that special connection that parents have with their very young sons and daughters. Everything is transitory, everything is "gone," and everything changes, even the primal bonds between children and parents.
Check out Tyler's website.