In the 1970s, Joyce Farmer was one of the leading female cartoonists in America. She contributed to the renowned “Wimmen’s Comix” anthology and founded one of the era’s other great — and controversial — anthologies, “Tits and Clits.” Her work is typically distinguished by its unflinching honesty. Whether discussing sex, menstruation, abortion or other taboo topics in the ’70s and ’80s, or the subject of dying, as in her new book “Special Exits,” Farmer is concerned first and foremost with the truth. If the story occasionally shifts from a realistic perspective to a more expressionistic style, it is because she is sacrificing realism for a greater emotional honesty and truth.
For the past thirteen years, Farmer has been working on “Special Exits.” The story of her father and step-mother, the book isn’t about how they met and fell in love, but rather it details the last few years of their lives. It’s a story told without the fake, heartwarming nonsense that colors so many stories about this topic. The book is both funny and heartbreaking, sometimes on the same page, dealing with the quiet hopeful moments and the nerve-wracking agony that come from a situation that is all too common and spoken of far too little.
CBR News spoke with Farmer about the project by phone at her house in California.
CBR News: What was it like putting together a graphic novel for the first time? You’ve made many comics in the past, but a project this large is something else.
Joyce Farmer: First of all, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Second, I didn’t really know how to write something like this. I don’t consider myself a writer. It was overwhelming, and because it was overwhelming, it took me thirteen years. I would work and get to a certain point and then get overwhelmed both by the problem of putting my parents on paper and by the problem of a book. Then I wouldn’t work for as much as a year and then I’d beat myself up that I’d figured out this wonderful book and should get going before somebody else thought of it or it wouldn’t be of interest. Because the book is set in a certain number of years, named years in the book, I couldn’t let it go on forever, although I nearly did.
It was overwhelming. I think these younger people who do graphic memoirs seem to use a lot of paper and ink to say very little and it takes them quite awhile [to say it]. I’m not saying what they say is not worthwhile, I’m just saying that they’re not as condensed as I intended to be. It was way more work than I ever thought. Every time I’d get the book to a certain point, like the first drawing, somebody would suggest something that would be so obviously needed, I would have to go through the whole book and fix it. Then later when I’m inking, the same type of thing happened.
The first thirty-five pages I threw away after they were inked. I started completely over. Because it took so long, I learned how to draw and ink during that time. I called S. Clay Wilson, who’s an old friend of mine, to give me some tutorials on proper inking. He didn’t have time and I decided I could teach myself. The problem was that I learned while I was doing it. I’d get fifty pages or one hundred pages done and realize that the first fifty or one hundred pages were inadequate. Once you’re inking, it’s really hard to correct for that, so I just did the best I could. Last January, when the book was actually sold, I took all 1600 panels and went through them one by one and tried to make them consistent with each other. That was a horrendous job. It took about three months.
As you said, it’s a book set in early 1990s and the years are named. When exactly did you start?
I had wanted to do a big project for a long time. A few months before, I had realized that maybe my parents’ story was a worthwhile project. I was on vacation and I decided to write out the various stories that I remembered. This was three years after they died, so I’d had some time for some stories to die away and other stories to stick in my mind. I had one hundred stories, approximately, and I thought well, this is a book. I knew about “Maus,” of course, and other graphic work, and I thought, I could do that. [Laughs] I got started and I warned my husband that this was going to be a big tough deal, that he should be prepared for three or four years of hard work. Of course it turned into much more than that, but I didn’t work all the time.
Was the idea you had back then essentially “Special Exits” in the sense that it was this time period, this approach, this tone?
Oh yes. I was driving my parents around and watched them be more or less mauled by the medical community. I put a lot of that in the book. I thought it was a topic that people hadn’t worked on before at that time, either in print or in comics. I thought it was a very worthwhile topic, this gradual decline. A lot of my friends’ parents have been very angry about their decline. My parents didn’t seem to be particularly angry. This is my father and step-mother, my own mother died when I was very young. They didn’t seem to be angry, but they were, I guess, as clueless as everybody else is when it happens. It’s hard to deal with.
There’s a lot of denial as well, on the part of everyone, which you document very well.
Yes. My dad’s denial was to avoid doctors and not pay attention to his body. My stepmother, as it says in the book, lost her faculties early on. I didn’t say this in the book, but we were really happy that she was blind and not able to move off the bed because otherwise she’d be one of these ladies taking off her clothes and running around in the street. This is no disrespect to her. Her mind blew out like a lightbulb.
Was the original idea to show it in this very unsentimental and matter of fact way?
There isn’t any other way to do it, in my mind. I didn’t want sentiment in there. I think it sneaks in once in a while, but I didn’t want it in there, because that wasn’t how it was. There’s no fun in getting old. There’s no joy in seeing your body disintegrate.
There was one artistic choice I was curious about; The character “Laura,” who I presume is you. What was your thinking behind having a fictional character stand in for yourself?
Laura and I do not look at all like each other. I was thinking that the two main characters were old and going to disintegrate further and further into death and it was not going to be pretty. There had to be something light in the book. As much lightness in the book as I could get. Laura is pretty because the rest of the book is not.
It’s interesting that Laura’s appearance changes in expressionistic ways in a way that other character do not. When yelling at the nursing home staff, for example.
That goes into real cartooning, doesn’t it? [Laughs] Instead of more or less illustration throughout the rest. This was a very peaceful book. There’s no great drama. There’s no swearing or sex or violence. Criminal violence. Once in a while I had Laura go off the deep end and do it in a very cartoonish style. I felt that it was appropriate for the book. I might be wrong there.
I kept the panels very regular. Eight panels per page. Page after page after page. Hardly ever a double panel or any change. I wanted to do the really regular panels in order to keep the reader’s mind off the page and in the story. It wasn’t a lack of imagination that prevented me from doing splash panels. I just didn’t want them.
I considered it akin to 35mm film. You take a picture, and you can crop it later, but what you frame and what you work with is what’s there. I’m looking at the panels right now and they’re the size of that. Roughly the same proportions as what 35 mm film would give you for the most part.
Also having the scenes take place in a grid really gave the story a sense of claustrophobia in many scenes, which worked well.
A lot of the panels, especially regarding their house, are very chaotic, which I intended of course. The cat was there to lighten it also. The cat and Laura were the only things to really lighten this book. Sometimes the stories were really fun, but the stories are all true.
You say that, and certainly describing the book will make it sound dark, but it’s not grim. There is a lot of humor and light moments, though I wouldn’t describe the book as light.
I never voiced it, but I intended for this to be, in a way, almost a how-to manual. For not only the caregiver, but also for the person who’s getting the care. Old folks don’t really know how to get old and how to treat their children or whoever is caregiving. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from friends about how really awful their parents were. Especially giving up power, giving up the ability to pay your own bills or to drive. In the end I started thinking that this book is — not that older people will read it because I know they’re not graphic readers particularly — kind of a working manual for how to cope.
I think that’s very true. And through Laura we see her agonizing over what to do, debating what it means.
Dad was pretty gracious about giving up power. It wasn’t very long before [the events in] this book started that I had advised him of a couple of things and he had completely blown me off. I think it was regarding auto insurance. Some basic thing that I knew and he didn’t and I tried to advise him and he blew me off. I think he came to realize that I wasn’t that dumb later on and he ended up feeling pretty comfortable with letting me deal with his situations. But many, many parents or grandparents don’t get there.
How did you end up at Fantagraphics?
I don’t know. I got an agent in October or November of 2008 and she went to New York in January of 2009 and had a lot of nibbles on the book from New York publishers, but then the economy immediately started being iffy. Fantagraphics knew me because they had published a couple little things in the past and they also knew me from stuff I did in the seventies and eighties. It was my agent’s choice of where to go and I left it up to her because she’s a professional.
Did they have anything to do with shaping the story, or was there anything they asked you to change or rework?
No. The story was finished. This is ink on paper and changing even one word is very difficult because you have to white out or do whatever you do. This book has never touched a computer. I hired, for myself, a text editor and an art editor, and I had one friend who was a cartoon teacher who nurtured and mentored me all along so there were no mistakes. Or very few. I’m not going to say there’s none.
Fantagraphics was presented the full book, take it or leave it. They never tried to change the name, which I expected, because most publishers like to have some sort of input on what you do. But no, it’s presented the way it was, and they took it.
The title, “Special Exits.” Where did it come from?
Well, there [was] thirteen years time to think about this. I had a lot of really bad titles, but every time I thought of a title, bad or good, I’d put it on a piece of paper in a notebook. “Special Exits” was the only one that shone through. It wasn’t sentimental. It wasn’t ordinary. It hadn’t been done before. It just became the one to do. You know I did a bunch of comics back in the ’70s? I invented that title. I’m good at titles. [Laughs] I went to Art Center School, which is now called Art Center College of Design, back in the ’50s. I was just out of high school and I took advertising design. I was only there for two semesters, but what they taught me has been ingrained so thoroughly that while I was doing “Special Exits” I looked at every step as to whether I’m going to turn off or turn on buyers. I have to say it was done with the reader in mind to a massive degree, but I still wanted to keep it real, and I walked that line.
You’ve anticipated my next line of questioning. Has there been any talk of collecting your older work or the anthology that you co-edited?
I’ve been approached, a couple months ago, and I said I didn’t want to think of it. Mainly I don’t have time to deal with it right now. I’m nurturing “Special Exits” and when it’s born and on its way, it’s going to be different and I’ll think about it. I’d be happy to have “Tits and Clits” go into something. Of course, “Tits and Clits” was done with a partner. She has different ideas than I do, but I think we both wouldn’t mind seeing them in an anthology. I’d like to wait. If “Special Exits” goes nicely then I’ll have some sort of name and a little pull to get it done right because these things only happen once and I just don’t want to give it away.
I know that Trina Robbins was talking with Fantagraphics about a collection of “Wimmen’s comix,” which you contributed to. I run into a lot of younger female cartoonists and there is this lack of awareness on the part of most people concerning what was going on in the underground scene during that period.
You often hear people say, “Oh there weren’t any women cartoonists back then.” It’s just that they were in plain sight.
People will know one or two names. Aline Kominsky-Crumb is known and respected, but just from reading about it and reading people’s work, there did seem to be a movement and a community.
We all talked to each other. We all knew each other. We were generally friendly with each other. Still are, in fact. I’m in contact with Trina [Robbins] fairly often and, in fact, I am beholden to Trina for a number of heads up on different things. She’s involved with something and she’ll invite me and I really appreciate that. I haven’t been in the comics community for years. Part of the reason why is that “Tits and Clits” was so poorly misunderstood when we did it. I got enough negative flack from enough people that I just went on with my life and didn’t worry about it. If something happens now it’ll be nice.
Having been a little too young to be around when “Tits and Clits” first came out, what was your intention and how was it received back then?
Originally we were doing it in response to the “Zap Comix,” which were really brutal against women. As [co-founder and co-editor] Lynn Chevely and I were talking about it and deciding what we were going to actually do, we found that we were incapable of expressing that kind of violence against men. We started talking a little more and we realized that the sexuality of women had only been depicted through men, for the most part, and so we decided to do stories on how we felt about sex and menstrual periods and being a woman in general. That brought out “Tits and Clits.” We knew we needed to have a really striking title or else we were going to fall into the cracks like most of the other underground comics. That’s how it started. I’ve never been sorry. I have to say back then that my art talent wasn’t too good and there’s many things I probably wouldn’t do now. In fact, [there are some things] I know I wouldn’t do now. I don’t particularly want them to see the light of day, but once something’s in publication you have no control over it.
I would be interested to see how a contemporary audience would receive “Tits and Clits.”
I can go through being rejected twice. [Laughs] I knew that the history of “Tits and Clits” would come up when we published “Special Exits.” I knew it couldn’t be avoided, but I also don’t particularly want to have interaction with people who have all the wrong ideas. I’ve gotten really bored with trying to explain who we were and why we were doing it to people who are wanting to satisfy their prurient interests.
I’m sure many people would still misunderstand it, but I know many female cartoonists who deal with these topics and I think it would find a much larger, much more receptive audience today.
I would hope so. Julie Doucet has done really remarkable stuff. A lot of the stuff that she originally started doing was a takeoff on the stuff that we had already done. She did it from perhaps a bit more personal and fantastic point of view but I was really glad to see her get going. Again I haven’t followed people very much. I’ve been so busy with this book that nothing else has gotten done either in my home or professionally or in keeping contact with people.
You’ve spent a lot of time crafting this book.
When people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” you get a main idea, but all of my work was done in complete silence. No radio, no entertainment, no music, no nothing. The comic would tell me what it needed and I had to be really quiet and concentrate in order to have it speak to me.
You really have to immerse yourself in the work.
I was so immersed. I was a bad tempered bitch for a while. My husband is really a hero. [Laughs] I did this book basically alone. I developed macular degeneration halfway through the book and I’ve been forced to do this book with an eyepatch, which is a real trick because I don’t have binocular vision. I had my first vacation in eight years just a few weeks ago and it was really nice.
“Special Exits” is on sale now.