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

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian