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.