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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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.

"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."

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Kathleen Vanesian