Special Exits

Comics is a reductive language of shorthand shapes and squiggles evaporated to their essence to facilitate communication. We are used to comics that deliver the goods briskly and efficiently through our impatient retinas and into our story-hungry brains.

It follows that most comics stories themselves are pared down, too, stripped of nuance and details that give real life its richness as well as annoying ambiguities. People in comics tend to become symbols.

In Joyce Farmer’s powerful Special Exits the people are more people-like than I have encountered in comics in a long time.

Being a comics snob, I entered the book kicking and screaming.

Bad title. Ugly cover. Scratchy drawings. And soooo old school. (Did I detect the use of Wite-Out in some of her crow-quilled panels?!) I picked the book up between thumb and forefinger like a curious lab specimen and set it on my night table.

Then the thing snuck up and bit me on the ass. It is moving without being sentimental. Real without being pedantic; a solid graphic novel that reads, well, like a novel!

Special Exits details the deterioration of Lars and Rachel an elderly couple whose internal organs falter and fail as their external lives shrink and crumble.  Their middle-aged daughter (Farmer’s stand-in?), Laura, while not exactly the Narrator, bears witness as she provides support for their final years. Dubbed “A Graphic Memoir” on the book’s cover (yet there is no interior note describing the extent of the truthfulness), Special Exits is packed with details that can only come from observation and experience. Farmer is a close observer.

Special Exits (yikes, I have a hard time even typing that title!) embraces life as it chronicles death… and I don’t mean the uplifting Lifetime Network special kind of life embrace. Special Exits embraces life by chronicling the counterpoint that defines life. Although the action takes place largely within the home, the production is not stage-like. The four walls of their cluttered bungalow contain the lives of Lars and Rachel. The place is bursting to the rafters with the possessions of a lifetime. Farmer’s panels are chock full, reflecting and amplifying the claustrophobia. We are not looking in from afar. Farmer deftly spins the reader through the space allowing for a deep understanding of the wilting details within the interior.

All of the details: The fetid refrigerator. Pustulous skin. Dust motes. All are delineated with care and intention. You can practically smell the moldy interior of their house.

This uncommon attention to specifics is also apparent within the storyline. We get to know the players very, very well as their elderly bodies begin to incrementally fail. Special Exits is one of the most engrossingly human comics and, ultimately, one of the most moving, despite one of its most notable flaws: the characters facial expressions are odd. Eyebrows are one of the most important of a Cartoonist’s tricks to covey emotion, intent, and focus. Eyebrows in Special Exits are rigid and yet...

At first glance, the work appears bereft of the splendidly sparkling surfaces of a typical 21st century graphic novel. We have become used to being served up clever formal innovative gymnastics based on a deep understanding of the history of comics, fired by graphic invention, and burnished by Photoshop. Chris Ware this ain’t.

That said, Ware and Farmer are interested in many of the same fundamental issues. As Jacques says in As You Like It, “…from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, And then from hour to hour we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.” Both Ware and Farmer are concerned with ripening and rotting…they just go about discussing it in opposite ways.

Farmer’s way is to lull the reader through regimented panel layout and brief dialogue into thinking that not much is going on. At first glance, her decision to stick to a fairly rigid grid appears monotonous. But it is, in fact, a brilliant move that allows every small sidestep off of that grid to take on a deliberate meaning. More importantly, the grid serves like a metronome for these lives tick, tick, ticking away. The power of similar sized panels forces the reader to ingest material at a specific rate and rhythm. As in real life, parched lips tasting a cool Dr. Pepper is as big (or as small) a moment as feeling the rumble of a California earthquake. They are all but moments that make up a life. This beat is reinforced in the dialogue. Her characters rarely say more than a sentence or two in any panel, but her dialogue is crisp and funny. Yes, funny. We often diffuse pain with humor. We often avoid sentimentality with humor. One of the greatest assets of this book is how the maudlin is sidestepped by humor.

We pretty much sense from the start that we are reading a chronicle of a death foretold. But when these deaths come, they are not heralded with a lot of hoopla and double-page spreads. One death almost barely seems to have happened. Just another eighth of a page heart beat. Turn the page too quickly and you might miss that this heartbeat has stopped. Life goes on.

I could imagine younger readers than middle-aged-me ignoring Special Exits. Not just because of its low-tech aesthetic, but also its central theme to which they might not relate. I urge you youngsters to sit down and read this book. Several of my colleagues were put off at first, but gave the book a chance and it worked its magic. About the book, R. Crumb said, "I actually found myself moved to tears.”

Make no mistake: This is the work of an older cartoonist. It could only have been created by someone who has experienced the ticking metronome day after day, month after month, year after year. Joyce Famer has brilliantly conveyed what it is to be human. To live, to die. To ripe, to rot. And thereby hangs her tale.


22 Responses to Special Exits

  1. Paul Karasik says:

    Hey Dan.

    The review with your byline for “Special Exits” is extraordinarily good. I agree with every word! In fact, I could have written it myself…WAIT!!!! I did write it, myself!!!!

    -Paul Karasik

  2. Tim Hodler says:

    Sorry, Paul! I have corrected the byline. Apparently Dan thought he could get away with taking credit, what with being out of reach in Japan & all. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. vollsticks says:

    What’s wrong with using white-out?!? Not everyone can afford a Mac and a load of expensive art programs. Gotta have some non-repro blue pencil and white-out on those original pages!

  4. A. T. Pratt says:

    Hi Paul!

    (This is me, Andy from your comics class, just in case the A. T. threw you off) Great review! I could hear your critical voice emanating from every sentence. I hope you keep doing reviews for TCJ, your discerning eye for the comics medium is second to none. I’m definitely going to check this book out, I’m interested to see how it revels in lifelike detail as opposed to paring down for streamlined/symbolic clarity. Also, the rigidity of the same-sized panels creating a rhythm of beats that represent same-length moments in time brings to mind your advice to me when we were formulating the plans for my final 24-pager. I hope you liked the fancy deluxe edition I sent you in the mail.


    A. T. Pratt

    (p.s. We got your faculty report of student progress/performance in the mail, and I’d like to thank you for saying such nice things about me. I’ll keep you posted whenever I decide take up any big new projects.)

  5. Paul Karasik says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Andy. Your work keeps getting better and better!

    For those of you who were not in my class at RISD this past spring, Andy created a 24 page mini-comic that described, without words, the journey of a hamburger from pasture to toilet bowl that ran backwards in time. It is some kind of nutty, disturbing, and disgusting masterpiece. This kid’s going places!

  6. Paul Karasik says:

    Down, Sandy, down.

  7. Paul Karasik says:

    I, myself, use plenty of Wite-Out…even better, though, are Avery stickers ’cause the surface is smoother than Wite-Out…but both are old-school of which I am an alumni and present-day Board member.

  8. patrick ford says:

    Paul, Is the Fletcher Hanks well now a dry hole, or have you unearthed anything in the past year?

  9. Paul Karasik says:

    SInce the release of the second volume of Hanks’ tales I have only uncovered a single additional story, and it is just a recycled Big Red McLane story with the faces redrawn. No, I am afraid that the world’s supply of Fletcher Hanks has been discovered, mined, and depleted.

  10. patrick ford says:

    Paul, This might be of slight interest. It’s clearly fictionalized but is it 90 or 100 percent.

  11. Chris Duffy says:

    I completely agree with Mr. Karasik’s review. I could not put this down. I was swept up by her ability to portray old age without getting sentimental or gloomy. She’s right there with them–in their world. It doesn’t hurt that the couple in question are pretty funny and sweet. (though I imagine a different cartoonist could have played them up as goofy old timers or ignored the positive and just lamented the clutter and decline…).

    Unlike Mr. Karasik, though, I was really eager to read this!

  12. Paul Karasik says:

    Clearly, Mr. Duffy is a man of discerning taste and much less of a comics snob than I. Plus, he wears awesome glasses.

  13. Paul Karasik says:

    If you are going to San Diego, I recommend that you attend Joyce Farmer’s panel on Special Exits. If I were going to the Con, you can bet your ass I would be there.

  14. Dane Martin says:

    This is one of my favorite comics in the world right now. I would never expect to love it, but I do. Those characters move around the page so nicely like wonderful dust ghosts. The movement of the characters in their environment didn’t gross me out like it does in so many comics I’ve read lately. It seems like the underground standbys know how to keep a character peacefully, elegantly still but not dead. I hope that makes sense. I keep thinking about this book a lot, and I think it has informed decisions in my own cartooning, which is as visually distant from Farmer’s as you can possibly get. This is the first review of any sort I have read of the book. I have not heard anyone mention it in real life or on the internet. Long live decay!

  15. Paul Karasik says:

    Excellent description, Dane! Tell your friends about this book. Joyce Farmer’s got the real stuff!

  16. Rob Clough says:

    Just read this today. A masterpiece. Farmer’s line is so lively, even though it’s in that “old-school” underground manner that Paul mentions. On page after page, there’s simply beautiful, understated cartooning. It seems like it should be stiff, but it’s not. Little gestures, little exaggerated movements, power every single page, because Farmer is in total command of the page. Farmer was a relative latecomer to comics (age 38 or so), but she made a big mark in the 70s as an editor and has certainly made a mark late in her career. I hope she has a few more books in her.

  17. Paul Karasik says:

    Exactly, Rob, tell it like it is and tell it loudly and often. I am on a one-man campaign not to allow this book go ignored! High up on my list for Best Book of the Year!!!

  18. Paul Karasik says:

    Art Spiegelman sent me a note saying that after reading my review he gave “Special Exits” a second chance and found the book “very moving.”

    Get over your snobbery, gang: pick up this book today and give it a read. You will be rewarded.

  19. Paul Karasik says:

    WAIT! STOP!!! Before this review gets kicked off the front page can we get one more testimony from a reader who feels that this book deserves a wider audience?

  20. Rob Clough says:

    It’s in my top ten for 2010. I’m actually publishing this long-delayed list in the next couple of weeks (it took me a while to get to some key books).

  21. Paul Karasik says:

    What Rob says, above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *