Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Graphic Details: A Comic Book Review

[A new contributor to Fair and Unbalanced, sasqi is the pseudonym for a poet, academic and dear friend.  Among many other things, she is a Lecturer in Writing at U.C. Santa Cruz.  -- Lovechilde]

Dear baby boomers, children of boomers, boomer-lovers, and anyone else who realizes we’re all going to die: I need to recommend the comic-form memoir Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir by Joyce Farmer, even though I just put it down and said to my husband, “this is not recommendable.” I uttered that because the book is about a woman's two aging parents and the mundane details of their last years. It is an incredibly smart portrayal of the way two elderly people (Lars and Rachel, pseudonyms for Farmer’s parents) slog onward in the face of their obviously imminent demise and of the way their middle aged daughter “Laura” attempts to take care of them. Farmer somehow manages to get humor into the most grimace-inducing emotional episodes, episodes which apparently took place many years before she was able to put them down on paper. But overall this book is not funny or uplifting.  The book ponders dying, not death, and Farmer is candid in her assessments.

There is a deep compassion that resides inside Farmer’s dark and meticulously-drawn panels, a compassion which wants to find an alternate reality about what happens when we age--but doesn’t. Farmer’s realistic visual style, accompanied by verbal reminders that her parents’ last years take place, for the most part, in the same house, eating the same food, and saying the same things, reveal a daughter’s quiet horror about the monotony of the aging process. She plays with this by mimicking the traditional panel captions used in comics to tell readers about elapsed time. “Another day,” “Some weeks later,” “Time marches on,” and “Another day, another test” all make appearances at the top of a new page. A reader begins to feel the eventuality of it all.

[Read more after the break]

Special Exits is an excellent argument on behalf of comic narratives because it uses elements of the form to deliver a message that would be less potent or memorable written only in sentences and dialogue. Instead, Farmer takes advantage of slow, unfolding scenes of her ailing stepmother to illuminate details of the state of their home, or the affection their cat Ching lavishes on the two old people but withholds from Laura (a gag of a struggle that continues to the very last pages of the book). In a short interlude when we watch the couple wait out the Rodney King riots from inside their home for four days, the only clue about how near the danger lurks appears in bullet holes Farmer draws in one panel. And no one ever needs to say that Rachel has begun to fail. In the middle of the book her face and body begin to look more and more gaunt. This disintegration continues visually until her death. Especially penetrating is Farmer’s ability to capture one sense which escapes most comic artists: smell. If you’ve spent any time in Laura’s role, with elderly loved ones, Farmer’s odor lines will immediately remind you of the smells that might have first made you queasy -- the armpits and bodily folds made up of old skin, the scalp that stops getting frequent washes, the bad breath.

The characters in the book almost never talk about their sponge-baths, or that they are becoming accustomed to being (or being around) naked aging bodies. Using the graphic form to the nth degree, Farmer creates a conversation taking place between the frames - in the gutters - that we are eavesdropping upon. There is one very careful encounter when Laura tries to ascertain what Rachel does since she has stopped being able to move from the sofa and Lars won’t ask her to wear diapers. Lars reveals his willing use of the washing machine: “The washing machine doesn’t care. I just put those towels through twice.” These are instant intimacies of a kind you won’t have with your parents until you find yourself sponge-bathing them.

Art Spiegelman, in his field-defining comic Maus I and II, chose to use mice as stand-ins for the Jewish characters in the book. The mice allow Spiegelman to skirt the danger of oversentimentalizing survivors while creating characters even non-Jewish readers could identify with. Farmer’s choice not to allow readers to hear “I” or “me” in a book subtitled “A Graphic Memoir” accomplishes a similar feat: while readers understand this is the middle-aged Laura/Joyce’s story of her parents, we are also invited to make comparisons to our own life, wonder about our own futures, and laugh and cry along with the main character. We become infuriated when the nurse at the nursing home has missed the hand-lettered signs above Rachel’s bed (which Farmer subtly enlarges in the pages leading up to this scene) that say, “Blind--Must Be Fed” (can’t that nurse READ?) and no matter our own personal experience with health care, we participate in Laura’s rage over Rachel’s neglect.

Farmer’s facility with the comic form, and its canny magic at involving readers in a narrative, will also make you wonder whether the end of your own life -- or of any of those you love -- could somehow be made to be different, and whether your particular community might be missing some crucial information. Farmer has given us a small guidebook on old age buried in her personal story. We watch Laura figure out what needs to happen in order to succeed at getting Meals on Wheels delivered. We learn ways to skirt certain medical rules when a parent refuses care. We delve deeper into the choices the entire family needs to make, and how they’ll benefit, when entering hospice care.

Even though Lars and Rachel never explicitly discuss the shame they must feel about their failing bodies, it is possible to understand how real that shame is. Laura handles matters of personal hygiene with delicacy, and Farmer chooses just a few powerful images and scenes to convey the feelings which must have pervaded the family’s experiences. At the same time as I grappled with this shame, I simultaneously felt grateful that someone was aiming to speak the unspeakable -- reflecting the awful, boring, funny, and surreal memories one carries with you once you’ve been close to anything similar.

It didn’t surprise me to find out that Joyce Farmer didn’t come late to the game of breaking social taboos of what to talk about, and how. With Lyn Chevil, Farmer created and published Tits and Clits -- one of the earliest and bravest feminist comic book series of the underground comix era. Farmer the artist doesn’t worry about offending, and her account here is unflinchingly compelling.

Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir. By Joyce Farmer (Fantagraphics Books). 200 pp.


zwood said...

Great review of a great book!

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