A New Times Art Critic Reconnects with Underground Comic Icon Joyce Farmer, the Person Who First Inspired Her to Be One

California artist and fabled '70s underground cartoonist Joyce Farmer was using raw meat to make a statement decades before Lady Gaga ever dreamed of showing up at a music awards show in a designer gown made of the smelly stuff.

More than 40 years ago, the artist got tired of her alcoholic second husband, Gordon Brown, passing out every evening after swilling a pint of vodka before he came through the door. One evening, Brown brought home several well-marbled steaks and a bag full of fresh mushrooms for dinner, predictably blacking out before Joyce could get any of it on the table. Hubby finally woke up to a kitchen decorated with a 12-foot macramé string of carefully cut-up uncooked meat and mushrooms, his wife nowhere in sight.

For previously untold reasons, Joyce Farmer was a critically important figure in my early adulthood. She'll deny it, but if I had never met and befriended her, I never would have acquired the background — or the balls — to become an art critic.

One of artist Joyce Farmer's favorite
pages from Special Exits, a graphic novel 13 years in the making, about the decline and deaths of her parents.
Kathleen Vanesian
One of artist Joyce Farmer's favorite pages from Special Exits, a graphic novel 13 years in the making, about the decline and deaths of her parents.
Tits & Clits
Kathleen Vanesian
Tits & Clits

Location Info

Map

Changing Hands Bookstore

6428 S. McClintock Drive
Tempe, AZ 85283

Category: Retail

Region: Tempe

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Joyce Farmer will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 22, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe to sign her book and participate in a Q&A led by local artist Jon Haddock, co-founder of the Comic Book Creators Support Group. Visit changinghands.com.

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Notoriously slow when it comes to checking my mailbox at the New Times building, I finally got around to opening a Christmas card, in early December 2010, that was sent to me a year ago. It was a cartoon from Joyce Farmer, a very old friend of mine, featuring distraught polar bears floating on melting ice floes in an azure sea, with an igloo bearing a red "Chez Palin" flag on one of them. Also in the card were her phone number and a note to call her.

Shamefaced, I picked up the phone. That's when I found out that a new graphic novel Farmer had finished, Special Exits, was about to hit bookstores. The 200-page book, rendered in Lilliputian black-and-white detail, took her about 13 years to complete, under more than stressful conditions. It's received glowing critical acclaim from Publishers Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times Review of Books, The Huffington Post, and a raft of small Southern California news publications proud to claim one of their own.


Joyce also is one of Phoenix's very own, having spent years ferrying back and forth between here and Los Angeles to visit and live with grandparents and an aunt, uncle, and cousins on her mother's side, not to mention her first husband. And given the fact that I've known Joyce for over four decades, she's personally one of my own as well, though we spent close to 28 years split apart by misunderstanding.

There is no misunderstanding when it comes to her book. But don't just trust me. Along with the media accolades is the fact that Robert Crumb, reigning king of the alternative comics world and creator of Zap Comix, has given Joyce's graphic novel his overt imprimatur on the cover of her ambitious project. Per Crumb, Farmer's book is "[o]ne of the best long-narrative comics I've ever read, right up there with Maus [by Art Spiegelman] . . . I actually found myself moved to tears."

Special Exits is a profoundly poignant, no-holds-barred cartoon treatment of Farmer's often funny, often unbearable, and exhausting experiences in caring for her father and stepmother, Roy and Esther Farmer, in their run-down South Los Angeles home during their physical and mental deterioration and eventual deaths.

With real-life characters renamed, the book chronicles even the most unsavory aspects of her parents' aging and infirmity — denial, anger, physical burdens, mental decline and, yes, the physical pain, bedsores, and bodily fluids involved. The book was fueled by Farmer's personal outrage at the unacceptable treatment of her elderly parents at the hands of medical and nursing home establishments. And she'll pooh-pooh the idea that making the book was psychological therapy of any sort.

"It was in no way cathartic. It was really, really depressing," she told me any number of times.

This is classic Joyce Farmer, drawing, writing, and satirizing taboo and socially risky subjects. She breaks down communication barriers on untouchable issues that have been pushed into murky corners and avoided like the plague by the politically correct. Joyce, in partnership with writer and sculptor Lyn Chevli, is a creator of Tits & Clits, the first underground comic completely produced and published by women during the heady days of women's liberation and feminist activism in the early 1970s. (For the picayune, It Ain't Me Babe, an all-female comic published by Ron Turner of Last Gasp in 1970, doesn't count, since the publisher was male.)

In 1972, Joyce and Lyn each came up with $600 to print 20,000 copies of the first issue of their comic under the name of Nanny Goat Productions. "We're both Capricorns," Joyce says, "and it was the era when astrological signs were very important."

I love the fact that both the Los Angeles Times and New York Review of Books delicately avoided using the comic's title in recent reviews of Special Exits, saying the name couldn't be printed in their articles. So much for liberation.


I was 21, when I met Joyce, then about 30 and known as Joyce Farmer Brown, in a first-year Latin class at UC-Irvine in 1969. Joyce had taken her second husband's last name and had entered college later in life. She was a classics major, studying Greek and Latin. That becomes evident when you read her book, which has more than one reference to the ancient Greek mythological character Charon, the ferryman of the underworld who rows the newly departed across the River Styx. Early on, for a couple of semesters, she had attended Art Center College of Design, the long-established art school dedicated to teaching industrial design, photography, illustration, and advertising, when it was still on Third Street in midtown L.A., near Fairfax Avenue.

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9 comments
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helentroy4
helentroy4

It is such a pleasure to come to the New Times website and see Ms. Farmer on the home page. She has such lovely skin with an almost luminescent glow. Thank you for writing this article. I was not familiar with her work.

As for the naysayers who say that kids these days are uninterested in this genre, and are naive ignorant sad sacks when it comes to these kinds of publications, I think that you are woefully ignorant of the popularity of what are now called graphic novels which are this generation's underground comics.

The Snoid
The Snoid

I have a collection of about 400 old underground comix from the 60s and 70s from all different writers and artists.

Movermoves
Movermoves

can't understand why there would be an art critic in phoenix. there isn't any art here.

Self Help Guru
Self Help Guru

there is no culture here either or blues music culture. phoenix is just a very unsophisticated boring dusty sandy desert in the middle of nowhere looking for a city. but i love the sunshine, blue sky's and hot dry desert heat so i put up with this boring burg even though there is nothing to do here but ride motorcycles, swim and get skin cancer.

Crazed Country Acid Head
Crazed Country Acid Head

todays yuppies could care less about underground comix. those days are gone with the 60s and 70s hippie generation. the punks today dont even know what underground anything is. they are all ignorant naive mental sad sacks.

 
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