Sunday, July 28, 2013

Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir by Joyce Farmer

Joyce Farmer's Special Exits is a tender, fictionalized memoir in comics of her elderly father and stepmother's final years. Increasingly frail and ill, one nearly deaf and the other blind, Lars and Rachel are determined to remain independent in their home in south Los Angeles. Their daughter, Laura, regularly drops by to help.

Farmer's meticulous black ink artwork depicts the piles of stuff that the old couple have accumulated over decades, as well as the decrepit exterior of their bungalow. As Laura cleans and clears things away, Lars and Rachel share the stories connected with various objects.

The couple experiences the outside world mostly via television news. When he hears that former President Nixon died (at age 81), Lars raises his fists in victory: "Look! I beat out Nixon!" Deaths of celebrities like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a major earthquake, and the riots after the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King case all contribute to the strong sense of time and place. Lars and Rachel are complex, fully realized characters. I thought of my dear grandmother, Mary, who died last year. She was in her own home until she was 94. (The inside of grandma's house was crowded with treasures too.)

Laura gets understandably upset with her father's adamant refusal to be a bother. When he can't get up after a fall, he lies there for a day and night even though the telephone is within reach. Laura asks why he didn't call her. He says, "I knew you were coming today."

In hospital for a few days for tests, Lars doesn't complain that he has no view. Instead, he says he enjoys watching airplanes in the sky. "I think about all the people in those airplanes and where they're coming from." He reminded me of Astrid in the YA novel Ask the Passengers.

Farmer's style is similar to that of Robert Crumb, who says of Special Exits "One of the best long-narrative comics I've ever read, right up there with Maus." I agree.

Readalikes: Ethel and Ernest (Raymond Briggs); Mom's Cancer (Brian Fies); and You'll Never Know (C. Tyler).

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