Longform

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.


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.

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Kathleen Vanesian