Longform

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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"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.

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Kathleen Vanesian