Humor from the underground

Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli were Laguna Beach working mothers with a creative bent in the early 1970s when they decided to join forces in an unlikely alliance as underground comic book creators. Farmer was the artist. Chevli, now 78, was a writer and the owner of a celebrated alternative bookstore, Fahrenheit 451, opened by her ex-husband in 1968.

Chevli recalls that in 1972 she had decided to sell the popular but floundering bookstore, located next to the Hotel Laguna, after splitting up with her husband. For four years she had been selling underground comics by legends such as R. Crumb and other Zap comix artists and thought there was a need for a women's version of the ribald, raw and sexually provocative books that were top sellers at the store.

"So I put a sign in the window saying, 'Artist Wanted,'" Chevli said. Farmer, who worked at a bail bonds office next door, responded. The rest is comic book history, as the pair became pioneer women comic book publishers.

"I made her draw for me," Chevli recalled. "She drew well, but then I said, 'do something startling, something dirty'."

Farmer produced a raw graphic that would become their staple and ensure their success in the era of the sexual revolution.

Farmer had a studio in Top of the World, where she still lives, in an expansive home she built in 1994. A trained graphic artist, she and Chevli shared ideas and sparked each other to new heights of provocation.

"We wanted to tell the truth and to be funny," Chevli said.

"It became a sensation," Farmer recalled.

Their creation, a feminist series with an unprintable name that took on the controversial and taboo subjects of menstruation, birth control, and sexual promiscuity, sold more than 100,000 copies and made them stars in the comic book world. But the raw nature of the material also led to the arrest of the subsequent owner of Fahrenheit 451 on obscenity charges and the eventual abandonment of the series, according to Farmer.

The last of the series was published in 1987, Farmer said. "Then I had to make a living and take care of my parents." She decided to go into the bail bonds business herself and put her art career on hold.

Both women are still in Laguna Beach, and Farmer has just released a graphic memoir, "Special Exits," which recounts in excruciating detail the demise of her parents over the last few years of their lives. She will sign the book at 5 p.m. Saturday at Latitude 33 Bookshop, 311 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach.

Farmer's memoir begins with some of the domestic dramas typical of elderly parents who refuse to leave their homes but aren't able to fend for themselves. Then the narrative turns dark as she realizes her parents are increasingly vulnerable. The fact that they lived in South Los Angeles during the 1992 riots over the Rodney King police beating trial highlights the difficulty the couple faced as they grew older, became ever more frail and dependent. They died in 1994, her stepmother, blinded by untreated glaucoma, in a nursing home, and her father — who never left the house he built in 1941 — after an unexpected diagnosis of advanced lung cancer.

Farmer took out her frustrations and anger at their demise the best way she knew how: through cartooning.

"I couldn't get their stories out of my head," Farmer said. "They were mugged by the medical community, treated like old fools, losing their identity and who they were."

Her graphic memoir, released last month by Fantagraphics, has been acclaimed by Crumb and Publisher's Weekly, and with both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reviewing the book, it seems destined to repeat the success of her comic books from a generation earlier.

"The book was hard to do," she said. "My parents were private people and this opened them up to the public. This resulted in depression."

Working steadily for the past six years, Farmer drew the graphics to illustrate some 100 stories culled from her years of taking more and more responsibility for her parents as they aged in their dilapidated and bullet-hole ridden bungalow.

"Making the stories fit together was the most difficult thing," she said. "I finally put them in chronological order. The emotionally hard part was to step on their toes, but I felt it needed to be told. I had to relive it."

Farmer sees a direct line from her earlier feminist comic book creations to "Special Exits." She also acknowledges that being known as the co-creator of a comic book series that sold more than 100,000 copies made it easier for her to land an agent and a book deal.

"[The comic books] were a response to sexism in comics, and society in general," she said. "This is a response to ageism. And what's more interesting than sex and death?"

Farmer was trained in advertising design at the Art Center College of Design at age 18, and then went on to UCI, where she graduated with a degree in classical languages.

Her parents never knew about her life as a comic book provocateur, she said. In one drawer in her studio she keeps clippings from the 1973 arrest of the couple who bought Fahrenheit 451 from Chevli and sold the comics created by her and Farmer.

The obscenity arrests sparked protests in Laguna Beach, with marchers holding signs reading, "Zap the Zap Zappers." Farmer said she begged reporters to keep her name out of the press, which they did.

The reaction of law enforcement was not unexpected, but Farmer says she was disheartened by the response of many in the feminist movement. "We were politically incorrect, trying to bring humor and sexuality to the women's movement," she said.

Both Farmer and Chevli talk wistfully of their "many adventures" and their unlikely friendships with the Zap comix creators.

"We were accepted into this group of people in San Francisco after we went to a convention in the mid-1970s," Chevli recalled. "We were in like Flynn. We met all the cartoonists. They were all-male, down and dirty. We were arch-feminists."

Of Crumb, Chevli laughed. "Of course he was awful, but we still adore him. He was so clever."

Chevli, a sculptor who exhibited at the Festival of Arts for years, credits a move from her native Connecticut to Laguna Beach in 1961 with "opening me up to the world." The Skidmore graduate, who says she was inspired by reading Ghandi's memoir at the age of 12, ended up living in India for a number of years.

Now ensconced in a quiet senior citizens complex overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach, Chevli is trying to get her own novel published, based on her adventures as an underground comic book queen. She is proud of Farmer's accomplishment in her own right.

"I'm so delighted by her success," Chevli said of her co-comic creator. "Joyce did it and did it beautifully."

Chevli herself has achieved a unique status among comic book creators. The Kinsey Institute, which studies human sexuality, recently requested her archives. She was also contacted by the U.S. State Department to meet with an Argentinean humorist who specifically requested an audience with the creators of the feminist comic series.

"We are finally getting our due," Chevli said.

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