At Skylights Books in Los Feliz, feminist artist and underground comic book pioneer Joyce Farmer appeared before a dedicated audience to discuss her new Fantagraphics published graphic novel "Special Exits."
"When people say, 'What is your book about?' I say it's about two old people dying," said Farmer. "And that's basically it."
"Special Exits" is a memoir about Farmer's experience during the 1980s and '90s caring for her ailing elderly parents. Told chronologically, the graphic novel focuses on her father and stepmother's struggles to maintain independence in the face of lung cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and Farmer's increasingly all-encompassing role as their nursemaid and provider.
"I'm an artist, I always did really edgy stuff, and I started realizing, 'This is a book," said Farmer. "I had all these stories of things that happened -- so I wrote it down."
Thirteen years in the making, "Special Exits" is Farmer's first graphic novel and marks a return to the world of comics after a decades long hiatus. During the 1970s, Farmer was part of the burgeoning underground comics movement, and became known for her work on feminist comics such as "Abortion Eve" and the all-woman graphic anthology "Tits and Clits." Tackling cultural taboos is a large part of her work and "Special Exits" is no exception. Farmer spoke frankly about the detrimental treatment her stepmother received while in a nursing home, culminating in her falling out of bed due to the orderlies' negligence.
"They killed her," said Farmer. "You drop an eighty-six year old person three feet to a concrete floor, it's going to end their life."
Despite its dark tones and serious subject matter, Farmer emphasized the important role humor played in the novel and in her parent's lives. "I wanted to keep humor in the book," said Farmer. "I had a lot of fun in there, a lot of funny stories. I tried to make it an honest book, and show the universal in the daily minutia."
Opening the floor to questions, audience members asked the artist about her creative process. Farmer replied she never planned on writing a graphic novel, however, "I just couldn't help it! Things kept coming to mind and I kept going, 'This would be interesting for everyone.'" The project was artistically difficult for Farmer, who ended up throwing out the first thirty-five pages of her book after deciding the artwork was not up to her standards. As every page of her two hundred-page novel is hand illustrated, this meant a lot of re-drawing and re-working of the story.
"Page thirty-five was amateur hour compared to page fifty-five," recalled Farmer. "Every page has about thirty errors on it I fixed with white-out. It was a very intensive process." Farmer explained that she purposefully drew eight panels per page as she felt it would allow people to read "Special Exits" like a novel without the potential distraction of splash pages or other traditional comic book visuals. Farmer then secured an agent who began sending out her work, garnering rejections from multiple publishers before Fantagraphics signed a contract with her. In fact, the novel is in black and white partly because, prior to finding an agent, Farmer thought she would have to self-publish.
"I knew if I had to publish it myself, I couldn't afford to pay the printer for the color!" laughed Farmer.
Moving to the topic of her early work, an audience member asked about the genesis of "Tits and Clits." Farmer responded that it came out of wanting to counteract the violent misogyny prevalent in underground comics at the time, especially Robert Crumb's "Zap Comix." Collaborating with creative partner Lyn Chevli, the two women decided to create a comic book that looked at sexuality from a female point of view, eschewing the sexist tones of "Zap."
"Tits and Clits [looked] at women and how they actually look at sex: they're worried about birth control, they're worried about menstrual factors," said Farmer. "There's many factors to sex that men don't pay any attention to, and women have to pay exquisite attention to, or we pay heavily." Farmer and Chevli published the comic themselves, paying printers directly to print and bind each issue. Though recognized in the underground community as part of the growing women's comics scene, "Tits and Clits" never reached mainstream audiences.
"The problem was, we were doing things men didn't want to know about," said Farmer. "A woman was pretty much an object, a personal possession and a whole bunch of things that they aren't now."
When asked if she regarded Crumb and "Zap Comix" as her rivals, Farmer said she actually sent Crumb a copy of the first "Tits and Clits" issue. "He wrote back an said it was a masterpiece," said Farmer. She added with a chuckle that she still has the letter framed at home.
Returning to "Special Exits," Farmer told the audience she has macular degeneration, which interferes with her ability to draw. "Of course, I just finished all the penciling and had to have macular degeneration surgery for my eye!" said Farmer. Whipping out the eye-patch she uses while drawing, she took a moment to model it as her audience laughed.
On a more somber vein, Farmer touched on the difficulties of writing about the slow and painful disintegration of her parents. "I had no private life, I had no public life, I didn't read anything, I was just doing ["Special Exits"] for such a long time," said Farmer. Though writing the novel was cathartic, Farmer did not identify it as part of the mourning process. "When you're taking care of somebody for five years, you almost get the mourning done before they've gone because you see how a person deteriorates, and you don't wish them to stay alive beyond a certain point," said Farmer.
In response to questions about future projects, Farmer replied that she had many ideas, though no definite plans. "I don't do pretty pictures. As a result, I want to find something that's important enough to do," said Farmer. "Writers have to have a certain amount of push, and anger is the push -- at least with 'Tits and Clits.' If we weren't angry, we never would have done it."
However, Farmer believes comics have opened up much more since the 1970s, citing Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" and other edgy memoirs as proof of how far the medium has come. And though many have expressed an interest in publishing collections of the old feminist comics, Farmer said she had more than enough on her plate with "Special Exits."
"In fact, I've been thinking; what would I do if I were to do a new 'Tits and Clits?' And I'm going, 'Meh, I'm not interested anymore!'" laughed Farmer. "The time for that is gone. Let somebody else do it."
Honest to the end, Farmer did not hesitate when asked what she considered her masterpiece work. She proudly held up a copy of "Special Exits" and pointed to it as the audience burst into applause.