Hero Complex contributor Deborah Vankin visited with Joyce Farmer, who is poised to become a rediscovered figure on the comics scene….
Joyce Farmer is a surprise. The gentle, white-haired 71-year-old, whom you’d half expect to greet you at the door with a pan of steaming muffins, recently has emerged as one of the most provocative voices in the comics and graphic-literature landscape. Her debut book, the 208-page illustrated memoir “Special Exits,” chronicling the slow, freaky decline and ultimate death of her elderly parents, comes out next week from Fantagraphics carrying the enthusiastic endorsement of no less than R. Crumb.
“It’s a completely unique work,” he says. “Nobody else will ever do anything like that again.”
To be fair, Farmer is more of a reemerging voice in comics. She was born and brought up in South Los Angeles and was a feminist figure in the underground comics movement of the 1970s, along with Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and the rest of the Zap Comix crew. At the time, she and her creative partner Lyn Chevli self-published an edgy comic with a name that can’t be printed here.
“We were dealing with women’s issues — generally on a very personal level. Things like menstrual blood and having a sanitary napkin slip down your pantyhose,” she said during a recent visit to her home in Laguna Beach. “We felt very strongly that Playboy and later Penthouse were way off track, and we were trying to bring humor to the feminist movement.”
Farmer and Chevli put out just nine issues from 1972 to 1987, on a haphazard schedule, with sometimes years between issues; the final six were published by Last Gasp in San Francisco. During that period, the business partners survived financial uncertainties and a 1973 pornography investigation by the Orange County district attorney’s office. Farmer’s personal life was no less turbulent. For years, she was, alternately, a single mother or a partner in a faulty marriage. Then Farmer disappeared from the comics scene entirely.
Struggling to earn a living, she worked as a bail-bond agent instead of an artist. When her parents, who still lived in her childhood home on 111th and Hoover streets, became ill, she dedicated all her free time to caring for them in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
It wasn’t until several years after Farmer’s parents died that she sought solace in her sketchbook. By this time, she was living with her current husband in Laguna Beach, in a modest hillside home oozing serenity and overlooking Saddleback Valley, stretching out to the sea. She began jotting down the sad and quirky stories that engulfed her parents’0 decline. And once she started to draw again, she couldn’t stop, even after she developed macular degeneration.
Working from memory and old photographs, and using an old-fashioned dip pen, she sketched, inked and hand-lettered the entire book, panel by panel, page by page, with her face 6 inches above her paper and a patch over one eye. “Special Exits” took 13 years to create. She didn’t think anyone would actually publish the work; it was, simply, therapeutic.
At this point, if you’re going to have an advocate, it might as well be the underground comics giant Crumb, who made big waves last year with his illustrated “The Book of Genesis.” He liked Farmer’s new work a lot. Though they hadn’t seen each other since the ’70s, they’d kept up through letters. Farmer sent early pages of “Special Exits” to Crumb at his home in France, and he encouraged her to keep going. When the manuscript was finished, he contacted Fantagraphics in Seattle on her behalf.
The book, which had a healthy first-print run and generated a starred advance review in Publisher’s Weekly, is an almost uncomfortably honest memoir that’s dense with details. It’s also layered with meaning and sub-themes. There’s the family story, the firsthand account of shepherding ailing parents out of this world. But the book is also a not-so-subtle condemnation of nursing homes, as Farmer’s stepmother was treated poorly; soon after checking into a home, she took a sharp turn for the worse and died.
South Los Angeles itself is a character in the book, telling what it’s like to be one of the only white families in a predominantly African American neighborhood in the late ’80s and early ’90s. For a dark two-day period in April 1992, during the riots following the verdict in the Rodney G. King police brutality trial, Farmer’s sick, elderly parents hunkered down inside their house with little food and no electricity, eating soft ice cream and pies for breakfast until the turmoil settled down. Farmer doesn’t allude to it in the text, but she drew barely noticeable bullet holes in the walls of her parents’ home. “It’s just a little detail,” she says.
“It’s a very powerful story,” Crumb said in a telephone interview. “And the patience to draw all that — you have no idea what that takes!” He puts “Special Exits” up there with Art Spiegelman’s trailblazing “Maus,” as well as more recent heavyweights such as “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel.
One suspects, however, that Crumb’s adoration might also have something to do with an old and long-smoldering crush. “Tell Joyce she was very beautiful back then,” he says sheepishly, just before hanging up. Upon hearing this, Farmer’s creamy cheeks turn pink. “He had a thing for me. I had the body he liked to draw.” Like many memoirists, Farmer wrestled with guilt over airing her family’s stories; she even changed all the names in the book, including her own. “I felt like I was really invading their privacy.” But she’s since come to terms with it. “I just worked through it. I know what I did, and I take responsibility for it.” Now she is mulling her next project.
Seeing her finished book for the first time during our visit (the L.A. Times’ copy arrived before Farmer’s), she turned it over and over in her hands, as if unsure it was real. Again, she was surprisingly even-tempered given the occasion. “Here I am at 71,” she said. “It’s nice.” Then, suddenly, a spark of that radical, antiestablishment spirit surfaced in her clear blue eyes. “I can be wild. I’m always doing something. And I don’t care if it’s radical or not. That’s part of being an artist. You have to have an edge, or there’s no point.”
– Deborah Vankin
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