There's a line in Joyce Farmer's excellent graphic novel Special
Exits that hit home with me this week. Her rather more than
semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Farmer's alter-ego,
Laura, as she copes with the declining, final years of her father and
step-mother, Lars and Rachel Drover. In it, there's a line said by
Lars, which captures the slow erosion of time: "Things get worse in
such small increments that you can used to anything."
The line hit home because over the past week, I found myself stranded
while visiting my parents, as Scotland ground to a halt under heavy
snowfall and sub zero temperatures. My father's 84 years old, with a
heart condition, which means he may drop dead at any moment; my
mother, in her seventies, is breathless but still feisty. They both
thought it fortunate I was there, to help clear the drive, get the
groceries, do the chores, and tend to those things my parents would
hope to do. As the winter moved in, we became snowbound and the snow,
like age, slowly closed down the once busy highways, until all
Farmer's beautiful, moving and truly exceptional book deals
with the very real closing down age brings, and its problems. Rarely
have I read such an honest, heart-breaking, yet darkly humorous tale.
It is understandable why Robert Crumb has compared Special Exits to
classic graphic novels like Maus by Art Speigelman and Persepolis
by Marjane Satrapi, for truly Farmer's book is in that league.
In an interview,
Farmer explained how the impetus for the book was her step-mother's
treatment in a nursing home. "I was so outraged by her experience,"
As her father was too frail and Joyce didn't have the time to take
care of both her father and step-mother, it was decided to find her
step-mom a nursing home. "The way to do that was to take her to an
emergency room, where they would then recommend a nursing home because
of the situation. And I've dealt carefully with this in the book, but
when I took her to the emergency room the doctor said 'She's perfectly
healthy, there's nothing wrong with her' and you can take her home."
This indifference to her step-mother's plight left Joyce in a
"I was forced to find the quickest nursing home I could find, because
they wouldn't hold her in the emergency room, I couldn't take her home
and then take her out again It was an ambulance trip every time and it
wasn't possible." One was found, and her step-mother, who was ill and
blind, was admitted. What should have been an ideal respite for all
involved turned into a nightmare. To ensure the nursing staff knew her
step-mother was without sight, Joyce wrote the word 'BLIND' on a sign
and placed it above her bed. Joyce hoped the staff would see the sign
and then help her step-mother to be fed and looked after properly.
"When I would visit her, every time I visited her, she was enormously
hungry, and I didn't realize they weren't reading the sign, and then
I'd go and the sign would be torn in half or non-existent. I realized
there was a bunch of angry people taking care of helpless people in
the nursing homes.
"Ten days after this healthy woman went into the nursing home, they
left the sides of her bed down, and she decided to go get her own
food. She was hungry, and she fell and broke her hip, and the nursing
home hospital didn't recognize this for several days and when they
did, there was nothing that could save her and she just ended her life
after two-and-a-half months of pain and suffering. It was beyond my
ability to handle anything at that point. I was completely outraged at
the nursing home and how they took care of elderly patients."
It was this sense of outrage that later inspired Joyce to start work
on Special Exits. Over thirteen years, she worked on the book,
drawing, penciling, inking, writing each page frame-by-frame. She
worked in black and white, as Farmer thought she might have to publish
it herself, and didn't know how to publish in color, let alone know
who would take her stories or even if they would be interested.
But Farmer shouldn't have feared, for this was really a return to her
talents than starting something anew. Back in the 1970s, Farmer and
creative partner Lyn Chevli kicked off a feminist revolution in
comics. Horrified at the "violent take on women" depicted in the
underground comix and through magazines like Playboy and
Penthouse, they decided to do their own "violent take on men and get
"But we soon realized we couldn't do violence," as Farmer told
Metzger, "And we thought, 'What else can we do?' We're angry and we
realized none of these magazines that were out there at the time, that
thought they had a bead on what women wanted, were all off track and
just saw women as photographs that needed to be air-brushed and women
who were bed mates and not much else. We started looking at ourselves
and our sexuality and we realized our idea of sex had a lot to do with
birth control, and menstruation and sanitary pads going FLOP on the
ground when you didn't want them to."
Joyce Farmer, interviewed by Richard Metzger
This was how Farmer and Chevli started the proto-punk Tits & Clits
Comix which ran intermittently from 1972-87. Tits & Clits was
condemned on both sides, but has now proven to be an inspirational
influence on younger feminists, as it "exposed the phoniness of what
men thought about women."
In the same way her comics in the seventies changed outlooks about
sexism, Farmer hopes Special Exits will inspire people to think
differently about older people and the aging process today.
"If anything I hope the book gets people who are working with the
elderly, to understand that the elderly have had a past life that is
way more interesting than you'll ever know. And if that's interesting
to you, well that's interesting to them, and they should be honored
for having lived that long."
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