Every time I read a new interview with or profile of Joyce Farmer, the underground comics trailblazer who recently returned to the forefront of the medium with her moving memoir Special Exits, I’m struck by how intense the creation of the book was. Josie Campbell’s report on Farmer’s in-store appearance at Los Feliz’s Skylights Books for CBR is no exception.
Even beyond the fact that Special Exits about the slow decline and death of her parents — brought on in part by a nursing home’s careless treatment of her step-mother, as referenced in the quote above; “You drop an eighty-six year old person three feet to a concrete floor, it’s going to end their life,” she says bluntly — the process of creating the book just seems to have been so demanding, almost punishing.
Farmer famously threw out the first thirty-five pages of the book and drew them all over again when she decided they weren’t up to snuff; she tells the audience at Skylights that “Every page has about thirty errors on it I fixed with white-out.” She goes on to say that the book’s creation basically swallowed her whole — “I had no private life, I had no public life, I didn’t read anything” — and necessitated eye surgery for macular degeneration upon its completion. All this in service of a 200-plus page book she figured she’d have to self-publish because no one else would want to. Thank goodness (and Fantagraphics), she was wrong: Special Exits was one of the most powerfully moving comics I read all last year, and I think it’ll move you too.
P.S.: Make sure to click the link — the story has a happy ending that nearly moved me to tears all over again.
At least that’s my takeaway from Alex Dueben’s excellent interview with Farmer for Comic Book Resources — and given the book’s extremely intimate subject matter of the cartoonist caring for her aging parents as their health declined leading up to their deaths, I’m not surprised.
CBR News: What was it like putting together a graphic novel for the first time? You’ve made many comics in the past, but a project this large is something else.
Joyce Farmer: First of all, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Second, I didn’t really know how to write something like this. I don’t consider myself a writer. It was overwhelming, and because it was overwhelming, it took me thirteen years. I would work and get to a certain point and then get overwhelmed both by the problem of putting my parents on paper and by the problem of a book. Then I wouldn’t work for as much as a year and then I’d beat myself up that I’d figured out this wonderful book and should get going before somebody else thought of it or it wouldn’t be of interest. Because the book is set in a certain number of years, named years in the book, I couldn’t let it go on forever, although I nearly did.
It was overwhelming. I think these younger people who do graphic memoirs seem to use a lot of paper and ink to say very little and it takes them quite awhile [to say it]. I’m not saying what they say is not worthwhile, I’m just saying that they’re not as condensed as I intended to be. It was way more work than I ever thought. Every time I’d get the book to a certain point, like the first drawing, somebody would suggest something that would be so obviously needed, I would have to go through the whole book and fix it. Then later when I’m inking, the same type of thing happened.
The first thirty-five pages I threw away after they were inked. I started completely over.
Dang. Special Exits ranked #29 on CBR’s countdown of the Top 100 Comics of 2010, and as I said in my write-up, it made me cry. Please do check it out, and read the whole interview, too.