In one whirlwind day at the San Diego Comic Convention I came into contact with two radically different women working in the comic field. Jo Chen is a 34 year old traditionally trained artist from Taiwan best known for manga, yaoi, and cover art for Buffy The Vampire Slayer (vol 8). Joyce Farmer is a 71 year old underground comic artist from California coming back to the scene after a 24 year hiatus to make waves with her new graphic novel, Special Exits. Together, their work offers intriguing samples from diverse sub-genres in the field of comics.
Jo began her career in comics at 5 years of age when her older sister Christina Chen, an avid comic fan, wanted someone to draw with her. Christina eventually enticed Jo to follow her to Fu-Hsin Trade & Arts School: a very strict program with an intense focus on traditional methods. Comic art was not allowed. During the rigorous training she consoled herself by saying she was doing it for the comics. Now she greatly appreciates the traditional training she received and her magnificent painterly covers bear the mark of that training.
After several years of producing manga for Asian companies, she got her first job in the US when the creators of Speed Racer were looking for a cover artist. Until then Jo had not drawn much in the way of cars, so she quickly got to work becoming proficient at them and landed the job. Her big break came when Marvel hired her to do the covers for Runaways. In 2005 she got an email from Joss Whedon (she had no idea who he was at the time) asking if she would do cover art for Serenity, which in turn lead to her doing the cover art for Buffy. She did all but a few of those covers, taking maternity leave in the middle to have two children.
More recently, she did the cover for Marvel’s Girl Comics #3. Jo mostly sticks to cover art for these mainstream comics because the internal art involves so many artists (pencillers, inkers, colorists etc) and she doesn’t like other people working over the top of her drawings. Creating cover art allows her complete control of every stage of the process. Likewise, she is active the yaoi genre where she has more freedom to independently work on her own stories and internal art. You can see more of Jo’s work on her facebook page and at her comic art community page.
From 1972 to 1987 Joyce Farmers participated in the feminist underground comic scene and helped create the anthology Tits and Clits, a raunchy and hilarious commentary on gender issues and social discrimination. Fun fact: in 1973 Orange County District Attorney Oretta Sears tried but failed to prosecute Joyce and co-creator Lyn Chevely on obscenity charges connected to the first issue of Tits & Clits. Another fun fact: last year both The L.A. Times and the New York Review of Books declined to print the title “Tits and Clits” in their articles on Joyce. LA Times‘ Deborah Vankin demurely referred to them as “an edgy comic with a name that can’t be printed here”.
After 1987 Joyce dropped out of the public eye until the 2010 publication of her graphic novel memoir Special Exits; a personal project that was 13 years in the making as she documented her parent’s declining health and eventual death. Talking to a group at Skylights Books, Joyce explained: “When people say, ‘What is your book about?’ I say it’s about two old people dying, and that’s basically it.”
While creating Special Exits, Joyce developed wet macular degeneration, an eye condition that results in the loss of vision in the center of the visual field. To combat the effects, Joyce wore an eye-patch and worked with her face about 6 to 8 inches from the page. The book is the laborious product of hand inking and lettering all 200+ pages with an old fashioned pen and nib, panel by panel, making corrections with white out. (Not to mention throwing the first 35 pages out after realizing her style had changed in the process of creating the work.) Initially she thought she was going to have to self publish the book (one of the reasons she stuck with black and white) but the book was picked up by Fantagraphics and received endorsement from old underground comic associate Robert Crumb who said that Special Exits was on par with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bedchel’s Fun Home. For more about Joyce you can read her interview with Comic Book Resources, get an extensive look at her life by art critic Kathleen Vanesian, and take a closer look inside of Special Exits.
Jo Chen and Joyce Farmers together satisfied my undying love of the superhero, got me to read backwards, ripped me out of my comfort zone with an alternative comic’s cultural critique, and deeply moved me with a thought-provoking memoir. These two women represent the divergent pulls I experience while pursuing my own artistic career in the genre and comic fields. There are inherent complexities with having a book like Special Exits sit on a library or bookstore shelf next to a collection of Marvel (or DC or Dark Horse, etc) superheros, the odd cognitive dissonance this makes for creators and fans alike. Personally, I embrace the the diversity (and the cognitive dissonance) and happily put work by such creators as Jo Chen and Joyce Farmers side by side on my own book shelves.
Galen Dara is a freelance illustrator who has done artwork for Rigor Amortis, Cthulhurotica, Sunstone magazine, Crossed Genres, as well as the forthcoming Broken Time Blues and Fish anthologies. She writes the Art Nerd column for the Functional Nerds and is the Art Director for Dagan Books. See her portfolio at www.galendara.com, read her solo art blog at miningthenooks.blogspot.com, and you can follow her on twitter as @galendara