Flowers in December

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While graphic novels have educated, entertained and provoked their audience over the course of their brief history, rarely have they inspired hope. Yet, that is exactly the effect of Carol Tyler's Late Bloomer (Fantagraphics Books; 136 pages; $29). Unlike the typical "inspirational" prose book (e.g., the Chicken Soup series), which proffers advice on how to overcome life's challenges, Tyler's book goes one better. Late Bloomer leads by example. Like many women, Tyler put off her personal ambitions for the sake of child rearing. But now, after more than a decade of relative creative fallowness, she returns with Late Bloomer, which not only explores such hard choices with honesty and humor, but its very publication represents the triumph of desire over deferral.

Late Bloomer collects Tyler's published and unpublished works from the last 20 years, all of which share a theme uncommon to comix: domesticity. Thankfully these non-fiction vignettes do not constitute moments of adorable "wisdom" from the mouths of babes, or triumphs of motherly multitasking. Rather, the focus stays on the darker side of child rearing and family difficulties, told in the blunt and funny style of the family big mouth. One page, titled "Anatomy of a New Mom" sums up the book's appeal: A mock medical diagram of a baggy-eyed woman nursing a "totally oblivious and blissed-out need machine," it points out all the identifying characteristics of new-mom-hood, like "needs a perm," "wonders 'why,'" "feeds infant but forgets to feed self," "total disconnection from sexuality," and other details not often mention in baby books. Other stories include two different tales of elderly women being exploited by younger Lotharios, the challenges of substitute teaching, and a moment-by-moment recounting of a nightmarish plane ride with an antsy toddler and a severe head cold.

The stories have been grouped into three parts, in roughly chronological order: Early Varieties, Mid-Seasonals and Full Bloomers, a homey reference to floral growing patterns that gets reflected in the book's botanical design. (The book arrived at my office wrapped in a bow and a hand-designed packet of seed from the author's garden attached, though I am sure it does not ship to bookstores this way.) The earliest material, from the mid-'80s, shows Tyler already interested in the dramas of the household. "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," provides a snapshot of a neighborly Midwest Saturday night gathering during the mid-'60s. The men, all in one room, swap curse-filled insults and pornographic playing cards, while the women trade techniques for keeping the men in check ("I just throw a wet towel over it..."). Tyler likes to end her stories with a punch line, so the final panel depicts the guys the following morning as members of the "St. Rede Holy Name Society," handing out church bulletins.

One of Carol Tyler's "American Labels"

Tyler's folksy style of cartooning belies her art-school background. She eschews careful portraiture in favor of just a few details that reflect the nature of the personality. She depicts one ex-boyfriend as something closer to a worm than a human. Apparently something of a pack rat at home, she also likes filling her panels with stuff. Your eyes are constantly exploring and discovering new things, like the advertising babble coming out of the background radio in some scenes. Though Tyler claims to prefer working in black and white, the pieces she does in color display a gift that goes well beyond merely "coloring in" her outlines. Her painterly past comes out in the variety and richness of her palette, making Late Bloomer one of the most sumptuous color books of the year.

While the early stories tend to be reminiscences told in a straightforward style that offers the reader a fly-on-the-wall perspective, Tyler's work really blossoms, so to speak, in the final third of the book. Created mostly after her child-rearing duties wound down, the colors explode and the work becomes more poetic, but still real and funny. One standout piece, called "My American Labels" (which also appears in Roadstrips, a fine new anthology of American cartoonists published by Chronicle Books) reads as a series of long panels designed to be affixed over cans of beans. Each label, "Wooden House," "Cone Drip," "Panting Dog," etc., contains a meditation on being an American as well as the pleasures of summer. The one titled "Wall of Corn, " reads in part, "It's a metaphor for life in America. Obscene abundance brimming with promise that also feels stuffy and myopic."

Tyler has a meltdown in "The Outrage"

Late Bloomer ends on the book's best — and most tantalizing — work, "The Outrage," which culminates all the most impressive aspects of Carol Tyler's art. Just the beginning of "a very long story," it details the origins of Tyler's feeling that "everything in my life existed around the edges." It dives headlong into her anger about giving up her own ambitions for the sake of raising a child while floundering in an apparently loveless marriage to the neurotic comix-maker Justin Green (who is also famed for his brutal auto-bio works). One memorable sequence, colored in bronze and blood-red, depicts the nursing author in her worst moment, as she imagines herself reduced to a suckling cow and briefly considers killing the baby and herself. Then, just as things seem to be reaching a breaking point in "The Outrage," the story ends with a "to be continued..." While I can't condone such a frustrating tease at the end of book, as long as Tyler continues exploring unconventional themes in her fearlessly honest way, and with such gorgeous imagery, I will eagerly await the second half. As proven by the very existence of Late Bloomer, we already know there is a happy ending.