The ability to make me cry is not generally something I praise in a book. I don’t feel like it takes any great skill to trot out some standard emotional triggers and manipulate your readers into tearing up. It’s as effective and artistic as chopping an onion. But in Special Exits Joyce Farmer pulls off something much more difficult — she takes a true story and plays it straight without any overly dramatic embellishment. Her frank honesty lays bare the emotional core of the story. By the end of the book I was blubbering away and (here’s the impressive part) not resenting it at all.
In the book, Laura, Farmer’s stand-in, does her best to care for her father Lars and stepmother Rachel as they age and their health declines, slowly at first but then quite dramatically. The first few pages establish a lot about these characters and what’s to come. In the first scene, Laura stops by her folks’ house to check in and gets bitten by their cat. Hoping to console her, Lars shows off his own arms, covered in scratches and band-aids. They look awful, definitely the sort of thing that would lead one to avoid further interactions with an animal, but he’s unconcerned. Scratches and bites are just part of his life; he puts on some band-aids and waits for them to heal. In the next scene, Rachel’s laid up on the couch with a headache, which appears to be a frequent problem. It’s time for lunch but the cupboards are bare, the kitchen’s a mess, and Lars just doesn’t feel up to fixing anything so they go out. While they eat, they discuss Rachel’s headaches and the state of the house. She gets frustrated and cries out, “If I could, I’d go live in an old folks home!” Lars says that’s not an option; they have too little money and too many possessions that would need to be dealt with. As he sees it, “We either have to make some big changes . . . or we have to make the best of it.” From what we’ve seen, big changes don’t seem likely. Many of Lars and Rachel’s larger problems stem from their inability or unwillingness to take care of their smaller problems, something that will ring true for anyone who’s watched a parent or grandparent age. This could strain the reader’s sympathy — it’s hard to care about characters who don’t seem to care about themselves — but Laura/Farmer’s affection and patience shine through at every turn. Since the reader sees her parents as she does, it’s hard not to want the best for them.
The story is also lent both interest and emotional import by several scenes in which Laura learns more about her family’s past. In one such scene the discovery of a pair of antique firearms in the garage leads Lars to relate how his grandparents came to America. It’s endearing to see Lars light up when discussing a subject he clearly enjoys and the interlude from the main storyline helps insulate the reader against emotional fatigue. At the same time, these scenes underscore the knowledge and history that are lost when a parent dies, adding another layer of poignancy to the tale.
Farmer’s black and white line drawings are detailed and expressive, but never flashy. Her art is straightforward, as befits the story. She never breaks out of her eight-panel grid to play around with page layouts, which fosters a sense of claustrophobia appropriate to a story that takes place mostly in Lars and Rachel’s small, rundown house. Most importantly, Farmer isn’t afraid to show the grotesque side of aging and illness. Rachel, in particular, starts to look quite gaunt and haggard as the story goes on. Farmer manages this as a subtle transition that I didn’t notice from page to page, just as these changes would sneak up on one in real life.
Farmer’s art bears a strong resemblance to that of R. Crumb, which makes sense as both cut their teeth in the underground comix scene. They knew each other in the 70s and kept in touch after Farmer left comics. She first drew autobiographical comics about her parents just for herself, to help deal with her grief, but sent samples to Crumb. He encouraged her to continue the project and contacted Fantagraphics about publishing what would become Special Exits. The end product is as honest and unembellished as a personal journal and we’re lucky Farmer’s chosen to share it with us.