Special Exits (A Graphic Memoir)

By Joyce Farmer (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-381-1

There’s no happy ending here. The heroes die. That’s the point…

Joyce Farmer has been a “name” underground cartoonist since 1975 when she and Lyn Chevely formed Nanny Goat Productions in response to the oppressive, aggressive sexism prevalent in a most Counterculture commix of the time. Among their shocking, groundbreaking and extremely influential creations were the informative 1973 graphic tract ‘Abortion Eve’ and their women-only anthology series Tits & Clits. Farmer has since appeared in Wimmen’s Comix, Zero-Zero and other alternative publications.

In this deeply moving fictionalised account, Farmer uses all her considerable skills to confront the issue of ordinary mortality on the most personal terms as she tells the tale of the four years in which she saw both her parents slowly fade away. Death is a bastardised, trivialised and melodramatically sensationalised phenomenon in comics, and how genuine lives end a touchy subject in our medically nigh-miraculous modern world, so serious, sensitive and above all sensible explorations of the inescapable situation that faces us all are pretty few and far between.

Set at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s this slowly unfolding, quiet drama follows Lars and Rachel as age and increasing infirmity eat away at their treasured independence, and tracks their growing voluntary isolation and inescapably increasing reliance on daughter Laura for the basics of life. Food, sanitation, even human company, all slip inexorably from their own control leading to loss of facility, faculties, confidence, companionship and inevitably, life itself.

That bald statement tells what happens, but the seductive power of this story is not “what” but “how” as with concise, underplayed warmth and deceptively simple line drawing Farmer makes Lars, Rachel and Laura come vibrantly alive. Rachel’s unswerving faith, once-rugged Lars’ stoic acceptance of diminishing physical and mental resources and Laura’s dogged determination to defend her parents’ wishes and dignity from a society and system that increasingly has no room for anybody who won’t go with the flow, in the face of her own imminent loss, is a master-class in grace under fire.

It’s a hard, harsh narrative trick to introduce characters just to kill them off but even with that knowledge paramount in our minds it’s impossible not to become great friends with these good people deep in the act of leaving us forever.

Written with impressive empathy and obviously heartfelt, angry frustration even years later, this memoir confronts issues that will affect every single one of us whether or not we have the guts to face it, and the light airy art and terrific supporting cast – especially Ching the cat – keeps the tone hopeful and ultimately upbeat even through the worst of all times.

This is a book you must read. Like Robert Crumb, I too found tears in my eyes at the book’s end – and so will you. There is no conclusion reached; just a resolution to move on… but the brave example of the ordinary heroes is one we should all learn from…

Unsentimental, education and inspirational Special Exits is a tale no rational mortal can afford to miss.

© 2010 Joyce Farmer. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.