Dangerous Minds pal Deborah Vankin has gotten some nice scoops lately from the normally press shy Robert Crumb in her new gig contributing to the Hero Complex blog at the Los Angeles Times. Speaking to Vankin, Crumb recently extolled the virtues of Special Exits (Fantagraphics), the new graphic novel, 13-years in the making, from Joyce Farmer.
“It’s a completely unique work,” he says. “Nobody else will ever do anything like that again.”
Farmer was once a fellow traveler of S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and R. Crumb. In the mid-1970s, Farmer, along with Lyn Chevely, decided to counter the male chauvinism they dealt with in the world of underground comix, by publishing a title called Tits and Clits. Tits and Clits called it quits in the late 1980s. Farmer found work as a bail bondsman and cared for her elderly parents. Special Exits is a 208-page chronicle of their slow deaths.
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.
As Crumb was about to hang up the phone, he sweetly told Vankin, “Tell Joyce she was very beautiful back then.”
R. Crumb: Joyce Farmer’s ‘Special Exits’ on par with ‘Maus’ (Los Angeles Times)