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.
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.
I was an English lit major who chose Latin as a language requirement because I had studied four years of it in an all-girls Catholic high school and figured it would come in handy if, serendipitously, I was ever granted an audience with the Pope.
We entertained ourselves by looking for the dirty parts in Petronius' Satyricon and Catullus' erotic love poems.
There is absolutely no question that Joyce and I were certified geeks even before that word was coined. Since she was prematurely salt-and-pepper in college, Joyce projected infinitely more gravitas than I did with my long hippie hair and Navy-surplus bellbottoms. If you didn't know her, she could be intimidating. She became a member of Mensa, an exclusive society of intellectuals, after acing an IQ test. Though she encouraged me to join, I was not up for the abject humiliation of possibly flunking Mensa's entrance exam. Through the years, it was Joyce who dragged me to folk dancing when all things ethnic were in vogue, even though she recognized I was not exactly fairy-footed. It was Joyce who took me to a women's meeting (which, in retrospect, was a consciousness-raising group) in Laguna. It was Joyce who introduced me to antique treasures from far-flung cultures by taking me to Ancient Arts, an antique shop owned by artist and antiquarian Leonard Kaplan, who would become her live-in boyfriend for a number of years. And it was Joyce who would drive Leonard and me in her VW bug to L.A. to cruise the cutting-edge contemporary art galleries and antique shops that flourished on La Cienega Boulevard in the 1970s.
For both Joyce and me, Leonard Kaplan was a pivotal influence in our learning about art, art history, and antiques. A Laguna Beach institution originally from the Lower East Side of New York, Leonard was well-known by art and antique collectors across the country, including actors Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, and Peter O'Toole, not only because of his incredible eye, impeccable taste, and endless knowledge of art and cultural history, but for his own surrealistic, collaged watercolors in which he used cut-up imagery from original 18th- and 19th-century prints. No matter what Leonard sold — pre-Columbian tomb figures, Ming Dynasty ceramics, 16th-century choir book pages, antique Chinese Buddhas and Quan Yins, Middle Eastern tribal jewelry — you could be certain that it would be something very special.
After we graduated, Joyce wanted to go to law school, but the pressures of single motherhood and everyday life forced her into the workplace as a paper-pusher for an insurance agency located next to Fahrenheit 451, the legendary countercultural literary haven on the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna. A bit later, she became a pager-toting bail bondsman working for Ronald Kaufman, one of the founders of Laguna Beach's Free Clinic, in 1970. I was the one who ended up going to law school at night, in 1972. While she was bailing suspects out of jail, I was learning how to defend them in a criminal law class taught by then-district attorney of Orange County Cecil Hicks, who happened to have a great sense of humor. But what his office did at one point to Joyce and Lyn Chevli was not so funny to me.
Fahrenheit 451 was Southern California's answer to San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore. It was open in 1968 by Lyn Chevli and her British husband, Dennis Madison (and, yes, Ray Bradbury had given them permission to use the name). Lyn would end up selling the shop in 1972 after she divorced Madison. She would also end up working as my housecleaner for several years in Orange County to supplement her income, given that writers and cartoonists are generally grossly overworked and underpaid.
In August 1972, Joyce Farmer (Joyce Sutton at the time) and Lyn Chevli published their first issue of Tits & Clits, a raunchy but hilarious, for-adults-only comic that dealt head-on with unspeakable girl stuff, like sex, menstruation, birth control, and abortion — not to mention social and economic discrimination. T&C was the duo's reaction to the portrayals of women in underground comics, which, though satiric, were overtly sexual — sometimes bordering on the depraved — and often very violent. Fahrenheit 451 stocked the now-collectible comic, as well as classic underground comics by a group in San Francisco (spearheaded by R. Crumb) responsible for Zap Comix.
One of Cecil Hicks' minions during this time was deputy D.A. Oretta Sears, who was still smarting from losing a case in the U.S. Supreme Court that would change obscenity standards from "utterly without redeeming social value" to a rigorous three-pronged test involving community standards. In November 1973, Sears would try to prosecute Joyce and her partner on obscenity charges stemming from the first issue of Tits & Clits.
It all started when one of Joyce's friends, married to an Orange County fireman, made the mistake of showing the comic to her husband, who passed it around to his firefighter and police buddies. Laguna cops raided Fahrenheit 451 and arrested its fairly new owners, Gordon Wilson, an English professor teaching at a college in Riverside, and his wife, Evie, who was not only an ex-Carmelite nun, but pregnant to boot at the time she was arrested for selling allegedly obscene underground comics.
Joyce recalls that the law-abiding Wilsons were "the absolutely perfect defendants for an obscenity case."
After a lot of saber-rattling and feather-fluffing, the D.A.'s office backed down from the prosecution, mainly because the representative from the D.A.'s office who bought the offending mag happened to purchase the last copy in stock and the ACLU had become involved. That left only San Francisco-based publishers, like Don Donahue (the printer/publisher of Zap Comix #1 and other Crumb comics), retailers like Gary Arlington, founder of San Francisco Comic Book Company, and cartoonists like Crumb and his cohorts to pursue, and the D.A.'s office knew that was a tough row to hoe.
In keeping with the spirit of the times, Joyce and Lyn kept on truckin', sporadically publishing nine issues of T&C between 1972 and 1987. After dealing with the threat of prosecution for obscenity, they put out two T&C comics with different titles, Pandora's Box and Abortion Eve, mainly to assuage consumers — and cops. Joyce would get to meet and mix with a number of important underground cartoonists who contributed to Zap Comix at the first comics convention, mounted by Clay Geerdes (later to become famous for his photos of The Cockettes and star of John Waters films Divine) in Berkeley in April 1973.
They included Robert Crumb (Mr. Natural, Devil Girl, Fritz the Cat), with whom Joyce has corresponded for a number of years; S. Clay Wilson (The Checkered Demon); Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers); Rick Griffin (born-again Christian surfer artist responsible for The Man from Utopia); and New York's Art Spiegelman of Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus fame, and the man who gave the world Garbage Can-dy.
Farmer and Wilson became good friends. Joyce also met pioneering female cartoonists outside of the no-chicks-allowed comics club, like Trina Robbins (It Ain't Me Babe and Wimmin's Comix) and Lee Marrs (Pudge, Girl Blimp). She even remembers meeting Leonardo DiCaprio — he was about 2 — when she visited with George DiCaprio, comics publisher and creator of Cocaine Comix, in L.A. during the '70s.
Though the early '70s were a party-hearty time of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, Joyce and Lyn "were not the kind of people who they offered drugs to — I had my bail bonds license to worry about and we had to drive home."
By 1986, Joyce stopped working for Ronald Kaufman and started her very own bail bonds agency, which, she recalls, took off with a vengeance. Within that 15-year time frame, I had practiced law as a personal injury defense attorney, hated the grind, left truth for beauty, and bought into a contemporary art gallery in Tustin, eventually leaving that behind as well.
Joyce and Leonard Kaplan were no longer a couple after an outwardly acrimonious split on April Fools Day 1982, though in truth they loved one another dearly. She couldn't take the lack of privacy that came with living with Leonard, who continually held court in the living room/studio in back of his shop, hosting a mélange of celebrities, artists, actors, pickers, collectors, and sundry ne'er-do-wells. (I remember being introduced to a Russian Orthodox archbishop one time and that, at one point, Lenny let a toothless, homeless guy live in a tent in his backyard for weeks.)
For his part, Lenny wasn't happy with the fact that Joyce would retreat to her beloved Greece for two months at a time, her way of escaping Leonard's artistic three-ring circus. Unbeknowst to me, since Lenny never mentioned it to me even in passing, Joyce and Lenny remained good friends until Lenny's death, with Joyce taking him to doctors' appointments as he battled lung cancer.
Leonard, an inveterate gossip and master at manipulating people, had a way of making you feel disloyal if you consorted with "the enemy" — or so I was led to believe. After Joyce and Leonard officially split in 1982, I rarely saw Joyce, though she wanted to keep our friendship going. Before responding to her Christmas card, the last time I had seen and spoken with her was at Leonard Kaplan's standing-room-only memorial at Laguna Art Museum in 2008. It took Leonard's death to free us from the invisible ropes with which he had psychologically hog-tied us — mostly me, if truth be told.
Almost 28 years later, we've re-entered each other's lives. I had completely forgotten about Joyce's close ties to Phoenix, the place I would move to in 1992 and where my career as an art critic really began. Had I stayed in Southern California, I never would have had the opportunity to write for New Times on and off for 17 years or for other art publications, both national and international, to which I've been privileged to contribute.
But Joyce's artistic career really didn't begin until after she left Arizona for good.
Joyce Farmer's connections to Phoenix run wide and deep. And when you know her history, you aren't surprised that she embraced feminism with a passion in its formative days. Three marriages ending in divorce (though she's been married to fourth husband Palma Goulet for almost 20 years), a rape, a stalker, and a whole lot of instances of someone telling her she couldn't do something because she was a "girl" made her a prime candidate for female liberation.
Her real mother, Cordelia Freeman Farmer, who appears in Special Exits in flashbacks, died in the Goodyear ranch house of Joyce's maternal grandparents, Roy Lawrence Freeman and Myrtle Brooke Freeman. Cordelia died at the age of 37 of congestive heart failure caused by having contracted diphtheria as a child. Joyce, her only child, was 11.
"I think my grandparents went to Phoenix in the teens, but they didn't stay because my grandfather moved around," Joyce told me. He was a manager for Kress five-and-dime stores, whose job was to open a new store, get it running, then move on to starting another store. Luckily, before the stock market crash of 1929 came along, her grandfather sold off his Kress stock, for which, according to family legend, he was summarily fired.
By that time, the Freemans had purchased a 160-acre parcel of land 41/2 miles west of Goodyear from its original homesteader owner and had a place to go after Roy became unemployed. Roy and Myrtle built a house on their cotton ranch, using river stone they foraged from the Gila River.
It was a well-known ranch house to the Goodyear and Avondale communities, according to Joyce, because they had a swastika, an ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Navajo symbol, on the chimney. Her grandmother was an artist and into Indian philosophy, Eastern and Western. During World War II, that swastika stuck in the craw of her grandparents' neighbors, but her grandmother steadfastly refused to get rid of it.
Joyce also has vivid recollections of playing with her two older cousins in the irrigation ditch that supplied the ranch with agricultural water, a pastime in the mid-1940s that would give most present-day parents panic attacks. "We were warned the pump was dangerous. The oldest, 11, was in charge of our safety. Playing in the catch basin where the 12-inch pump pipe discharged its waters was a common activity for kids back then."
After Joyce's grandparents sold the ranch in 1952, they lived in the Palmcroft district near downtown Phoenix. The old ranch house was finally pulled down only four or five years ago to make way for residential tract housing.
Before her father Roy's remarriage to second wife Esther (Lars and Rachel in the novel) in Los Angeles, Joyce was shipped off to live with her maternal aunt and uncle, who enrolled her in eighth grade in Avondale. She went back to L.A. to Samuel Gompers Middle School for ninth grade, where she vividly remembers an incident at school: "In junior high, they wanted you to choose what your career would be. I wanted to be a draftsman like my father; I was told I couldn't because I was a girl."
After high school, she met her first husband, Don VanderLinden, at Art Center, married him in 1958, and produced a son, Paul. The fledging family moved to Phoenix in June 1961 when Don got a job as an industrial designer for General Electric.
"It was either that or Detroit," she says.
"We bought a house right away with a hundred dollars down and the G.I. Bill in Moon Valley for $13,500 and then we got an air conditioner, so it made it $14,500 . . . We were the tops in our tract.
"We paid extra to get cork-looking floors — it was still asbestos tile. I didn't have to clean mine much because it was the same color as the dirt outside. I was never a big housekeeper," she says.
Joyce couldn't drive a car when she first came to town, mainly because her husband "told me I was mentally unfit to drive because I was too nervous and high-strung. I thought otherwise because there are lots of drivers out there that were as nuts as I was.
"I was a stay-at-home mom, doing crossword puzzles and reading Agatha Christie until there weren't any more at the grocery store that I hadn't read. Then I realized I was totally bored." That's when she began reading Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, and Tolstoy's War and Peace.
"I started to realize there was life after Phoenix beyond the Black Canyon Highway, which was about as far as I could get on foot."
Joyce secretly appropriated money out of her weekly grocery allowance to pay for driving lessons and eventually got her license. When she proudly presented it to her husband one day, he responded, "You're not going to need me anymore," she recalls. "And that turned out to be quite true, but I hadn't thought of it before."
Several months later, she left him and moved into an apartment at the Turney Twilighter on Seventh Street, taking her 5-year-old son with her, and got a job as a file clerk at an insurance agency. By that time, Joyce was unabashedly displaying that wacky sense of humor that would characterize her art later on. "I had a copy of Mein Kampf on my desk at work and was finally asked to put it away," she says. "I never read it and only had it there to see people's reactions."
On the first day of the Watts riots in 1965, an event that is immortalized in Special Exits, Joyce Farmer returned to Los Angeles, not sure her parents, who lived in the riot zone, were even alive.
Despite its current popularity, the graphic novel has been around for centuries. Basically, the term "graphic novel" is just a fancy name for a long narrative, whether fictional or factual, illustrated with drawings and/or paintings and text. Medieval scribes created minutely detailed illuminated manuscripts that told tales from both Old and New Testaments. Pre-Columbian Aztecs produced bark paper codices with both pictures and text tracing their tribal history and social customs. Well before late-20th-century manga hit the comic book scene, the Japanese were using ink-painted images with text on scrolls back in the 12th century. William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1735), a portfolio of printed engravings based on paintings that feature the moral fall of a young man into the abyss of drink, prostitution and gambling, ending with his incarceration in an insane asylum, could be considered an early graphic novel.
According to Stan Tychinski in A Brief History of the Graphic Novel, the title of the first modern graphic novel might be awarded to a book containing The Yellow Kid comic strips, put out by the Hearst newspaper syndicate in 1897. In the United States, the 1920s and '30s saw the rise of cheap, but lavishly illustrated, pulp paperbacks based on war stories, Westerns, and science fiction. In 1933, M.C. Gaines created his own comic book, New Funnies, a compilation of daily newspaper comic strips. Later that year, Detective Dan, the first completely original comic book, was published by Humor Publications.
In the late '30s and '40s, the public was introduced to its first superhero comics, while the late 1940s and '50s would usher in the era of crime and horror comics, as well as luridly graphic romance potboilers. Underground comics came to the fore in the mid-1960s, reaching an apex in the '70s; they capitalized on sex, youth culture, drugs, and violence, together with contentious social and political issues that had divided the country, including civil rights and the Vietnam War,
The 1980s seemed to be the time when eminently serious subject matter became fodder for graphic novels. Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986, 1991), the story of Spiegelman's father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, is a classic graphic novel of great import, both historically and personally. Lately, graphic novels have taken on a number of equally heavy biographical subjects. For example, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, deals head on with a father's homosexuality, pedophilia, and suicide and a daughter's coming of age as a lesbian. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is a gripping memoir of a girl's youth in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, while The Ride Together, by siblings Paul and Judy Karasik, grapples with the lasting effect of severe autism on a family. And in a major turnabout, Robert Crumb's recent Book of Genesis includes elaborate illustrations to accompany every word of the first book of the Bible.
Joyce Farmer's Special Exits, which documents her personal experiences with the ravages of aging, debilitation, dying, and death, as well as relationship dynamics and family history, carries on in this vein. Though Joyce expected her target audience to be 45 and older, she was surprised to find out the book already has a following in the 19- to 25-year-old range.
"It turns out the target audience is more 20-somethings [who] are very interested in their grandparents, and even their parents, and the problems their parents have to face," she says.
Maybe the rise in popularity of graphic novels in the past few decades is the inevitable result of technological advances that have pushed people into getting overwhelming amounts of information in small, manageable chunks, which is reflected in the very format of comics and graphic novels. In addition, the Internet age has unquestionably fostered an expectation of and demand for flashy visuals with text.
Whatever the reasons, Gayle Shanks, co-founder of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, says the form has really taken hold. "In and of itself, the graphic novel has now become a genre that many authors are writing in and nothing else," she notes. "You have authors who are experimenting with this new model . . . and they're starting a following.
"I think the thing that's most exciting for me and for us at the store is that the graphic novels are attracting a younger audience — that audience that might be reading on electronic devices rather than from real books. [They're discovering] it's much more fun to hold that book in your hand and look at those pictures in real life than it is on the computer."
And, she adds, "Teachers are using them as a way of getting reluctant readers to read. And that's been the case with comic books. I remember learning that if you can get kids to read comic books, you might get them to read a novel."
Krysten Schoville, the young ASU student in charge of the graphic novel section at Shanks' bookstore, adds that the art in a good graphic novel is just plain mesmerizing: "These authors are not only telling you a personal story, but they display their art so vividly that you become involved with their ideas and emotions, not just what you're imagining when you're reading a 'regular' novel."
On an overcast Friday in December, I drive from north Phoenix to Orange County for Joyce's first book-signing, at Latitude 33 in Laguna, two days before Special Exits is officially released. The next day, we take Amtrak to downtown L.A.'s Union Station (another first provided to me by Joyce, the child of a railroad man). I'm along to provide moral support and potential bodyguard services.
During the train ride from Irvine to L.A, Joyce and I take inventory of body parts that have betrayed us. On the list are broken bones and breast cancer (she had two breasts removed, while I opted for reconstruction after a unilateral mastectomy). She had lost both parents by 1994, while I lost my father in 2003 and, the following year, my middle sister.
My sister, Janet Wright, died after a long, painful struggle with breast cancer, which had spread into her bones. My mother, youngest sister, and I tag-teamed in home hospice for several months, so I know all about the hospice experience covered in the last part of Special Exits.
As my dad was fond of saying, no one gets out of here alive.
Probably the worst thing that had happened to Joyce since I had seen her, physically speaking, was wet macular degeneration, which hit just as she finished drawing and had not yet inked Special Exits. Macular degeneration is an eye condition, usually affecting older adults, that results in the loss of vision in the center of the visual field. Surgery failed to correct the problem and, in fact, caused scarring, then cataracts, so Joyce was forced to wear an eye patch, working about eight inches from the paper on which she was drawing or inking with an old-fashioned pen nib.
That had to be especially grueling when she decided to re-draw and re-ink the first 35 pages of the book, each of which featured a different composition and obscenely small detail in every frame.
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"I redid them because the artwork was black, dense, and unfocused. It just wasn't suitable. I tend to draw in great detail," she says. Added to this is the fact that she can't draw or ink with the radio or TV on, "or any distraction whatsoever; if my husband comes through the door, I have to wash up the ink and stop," she notes. "I cannot be interrupted, because this is a flow and I am thinking every second of what the next line should be and how funny I can make it."
Joyce's interviewer in Santa Monica, Richard Metzger, is founder and former creative director of The Disinformation Company, a publishing house and its website, and was the host of Disinformation, a British talk show. His latest foray into subcultural matters is his website, dangerousminds.net. He chauffeurs us to a taping room at Mahalo.com, located in a strip mall on Colorado Avenue. I sit four feet outside the room, looking up at a gigantic monitor displaying the interview. Before they begin talking, I overhear Joyce asking Metzger whether or not she could swear on camera; Metzger gives her a thumbs-up.
During the interview, Joyce charms Metzger with a story about the first time she met R. Crumb in San Francisco, a tête-à-tête during which he, without warning, jumped on her back for a piggyback ride, straight out of Zap Comix.
It's then I realize, with particular clarity, that I would never have been introduced to the world of art or the art of speaking one's mind fearlessly about art, had I not befriended Joyce Farmer back in first-year Latin class. Joyce is one of those people who always will be a constant in my universe, remaining essentially unchanged, despite everything life, or I, might pitch at her.