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Arts Innovation for the 21st Century:
Instructor Makes Serious Use of Comics to Help Veterans

VIDEO: A soon-to-be published graphic (comic) novel by UC adjunct instructor Carol Tyler serves as a model for upcoming efforts to help today’s combat veterans cope via use of cartoons and comics.

Date: 3/3/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Ashley Kempher and Dottie Stover

UC ingot  

For her father’s upcoming 90th birthday on March 13, the University of Cincinnati’s Carol Tyler has a present that she hopes will help him and many other military veterans.

As a surprise, Tyler will present her father, Chuck Tyler of Clinton, Ind., with her newest graphic novel, “A Good and Decent Man,” book one in a three-part series titled “You’ll Never Know” published by Fantagraphics Books of Seattle.

Central to the series is her father’s service in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany during World War II, where he fought in the Arno River Campaign, the Battle of the Bulge and other campaigns.

The first book in the series, at 104 pages, is only one effort of several that Tyler, UC adjunct instructor of fine arts, is spearheading to use comics and graphics to help combat veterans and their families deal with the effects of war.

Carol Tyler
Carol Tyler with pages from her newest graphic novel in her UC studio classroom.

She explained, “This series came about because my father finally, after 60 years, began talking about some of his experiences, the painful truths about his combat service. The effects of his experiences were felt by all of us in the family over the years, but he couldn’t talk about them. The same is true of today’s veterans, but working via comics and graphic narratives provides a process and an outlet to work some of that out.”

That’s why Tyler’s new novel is only the first in a series and just part of an ongoing effort she is leading to reach out to vets via comics.

For instance, in spring 2008, Tyler asked her graphics students to work with a local World War II Army Air Corps combat veteran (local resident Ernie Elam who served as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber) in order to complete short graphic narratives about his wartime experiences.

Panel from Tyler's new book
A panel depicting a map of North Africa and where Tyler's father served in the region during W.W. II.

One of those students was fine art senior Emma Kaska, 21, of Chicago. She said, “Ernie was a great subject to interview. We took his story about his wartime experiences and the impacts on him and his family and represented them visually… how he would spend eight to 10 hours at 10,000 feet during a flight with nothing to eat but candy bars… and how the crew was always checking oxygen supplies and how loneliness was always present. I ended my graphic narrative with something Ernie said: ‘The goal was to defeat Germany and free the people. We flew for everybody.’”

Kaska added, “Our project allowed him to make connections with people. Given the things they saw then and the things they have to do now, a lot of vets aren’t able to connect with people.”

This coming spring 2009, UC’s Tyler and students will again work with combat veterans.  The students will work with a group of combat veterans to tell the vets’ stories in graphic (comic) narratives. Any combat veterans wanting to participate in the project with students can contact Tyler via e-mail,

Tyler will also receive a pilot grant from the Ohio Arts Council this spring to explore ways to work directly with veterans in future workshop settings. Her goal is to teach combat vets the basics of graphic arts (cartooning) and allow them to tell their stories. She will also plan an exhibit of the artwork created by the veterans.
Tyler’s work does not represent the first time that comics have been used to treat weighty subjects, but she believes it’s the first organized effort to use comics to help today’s veterans. Comics are an appropriate tool given that they are not just kid stuff anymore. Comics have grown up into full-length books (graphic novels) that deal with such subjects as the Holocaust. Museums now collect pages of comic art, and The New York Times regularly reviews graphic novels. Many graphic novels have been best sellers, and one has even won a Pulitzer Prize.

To date, Tyler has been working on the “You’ll Never Know” series for as long as her father served in World War II (about five years). It’s an effort that has marked her both physically and emotionally, just as the war marked her father. She explained, “Working on this long story about Dad through the context of his military service has helped me to understand him better, but it’s also been intense in ways I didn’t expect. Sometimes, I get overwhelmed and just want to quit. But then I think of Dad. He has a drive that he got from Patton, and that drive inspires me to push on no matter what.”

The series regarding her father’s World War II experiences will, in the end, consist of

  • “A Good and Decent Man” (2009)
  • “Collateral Damage” (2010)
  • “Soldier’s Heart” (2011)
    Chuck and Carol Tyler
    Chuck and Carol Tyler. She is wearing his W.W. II army shirt.

The title of the series, “You’ll Never Know,” refers not only to the title of the courtship song adopted by Tyler’s parents but also represents how those who have never experienced combat will never really understand what it is like. Said Tyler, “We can never really know what they (combat veterans) experienced.”

The first book, “A Good and Decent Man,” introduces her father and focuses on his experiences in North Africa. The next, “Collateral Damage,” continues the story with a focus on his service in Italy and France, and the final work, “Soldier’s Heart,” will close with his service in the Battle of the Bulge. Woven throughout the books are tales of the lifelong effects felt and difficulties experienced by the Tyler family due to what is now commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Unfortunately,” said Tyler, “War leaves a hideous, indelible mark.”

Tyler renders her father’s experiences and the effects of his wartime experiences on the family in detailed inks and subtle watercolors. The format of the book and the variety of page designs provides the effect of looking at a family album. She hopes the resulting novel appropriately pays tribute to and helps heal the wounds of other combat veterans and their families.

As for herself and her own family, Tyler said they’ve already benefited from her book. While conducting research in connection to the work, she discovered two Bronze Stars in her father’s collection of service medals. Said Tyler, “We’ve always been proud of him, but this adds a dimension. Dad is talking now, something he should have done years ago but just wasn’t ready. And I’m lucky he’s still around to correct the story when I’ve gotten something wrong.”

Tyler teaches beginning and advanced comic courses in UC’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) in addition to leading students on independent studies. Since she holds her students to a gold standard when creating graphics, she had to fulfill those same standards in her own creative process.

Tyler panel.

She said, “I tell them how certain techniques make for legible letters and the importance of the thumbnail sketch to resolve panel composition problems ahead of time. I teach about flow and composition and sequential thinking – things I’m working on every day in my studio. Students tend to want to jump right in without thinking ahead. Unfortunately, I’ve done this also, more than I care to admit. So, because of my own experience, the lessons I give about the standards of the craft and the discipline required to pull it off are more believable. It’s a great situation because I get to teach my practice and practice what I teach."

The veteran of military discipline that he is, her dad would approve.

Tyler panel
Panels created by Tyler depicting the postive effect of her project on her teaching.










View images from Carol Tyler’s book and hear audio by her in this 2-minute video. Also, hear veteran Chuck Tyler discuss his landing in North Africa where his shipmates drowned as well as recollections from his experiences in W.W. II Europe.