French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu has established herself as a creator to watch for in her native country — her series “Josephine” was adapted into two popular French movies, she’s collaborated with French cartooning legend Joann Sfar, and in 2013, she was honored as Chevalier of Arts and Letters at Angoulême. Her first work to be translated into English, “Exquisite Corpse” in 2015, garnered strong reviews, and she returned to U.S. shelves earlier this month with “California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas and The Papas.”
At nearly 300 pages, “California Dreamin’” chronicles, as the subtitle suggests, Elliott’s adolescent family life and pre-fame struggles for recognition and respect among her music peers. In fact, it ends with Elliott finally hearing her song on the radio, commercial success on the horizon. Following its September 2015 French publication by Gallimard, “California Dreamin’”s English translation and distribution will again by handled by First Second Books, who previously published Bagieu’s English-language debut.
While on a signing tour of the States, Bagieu spoke with CBR, discussing the early appeal of Mama Cass’s voice and presence, reinventing her illustration style, and why this book is more about getting her audience to feel something about Cass rather than know her factual biography.
CBR: Pénélope, what got you started on a comic book biography of Mama Cass?
Pénélope Bagieu: I remember discovering their best-of album (a cassette!) in my parents’ car and quickly stealing it away because I loved every song. I listened to it about a million times. Back then, the stereo of my room had a broken speaker, so I had only half the sound, and in particular, it isolated one of the voices. It was Cass Elliot’s, who made the song, most of the time. And then her image fascinated me too, on the cover: she was twice the size of the others, and she laughed with her mouth wide open, while the others looked mysterious. My fascination with Cass goes way back!
Then I started investigating about her… She grew up in a modest family in Baltimore, but she tackled everything at 19 [by setting out] for New York, all by herself. She was destined to take over the kosher deli from her parents, but she wanted to be a rock star. She was overweight but pictured herself on a Broadway stage. The whole world swore by Joan Baez, but she hated folk music. All men friendzoned her but she fell in love every ten minutes. The members of the Mamas and Papas did not want her in the band, but she sang so well that they were forced to take her (and to make a career largely thanks to her presence). I can’t believe she doesn’t have ten
biopics by now.
Each chapter is from a different supporting player’s perspective, which allows different perspectives on her life. Why did you decide on that approach? And how much work went into getting details about how each of these narrators saw Cass?
I wanted Cass’s character to be revealed bit by bit, from different perspectives: people who knew her, loved her, hated her, but never through her own eyes, so that she would remain a mystery that the reader alone would have to solve. Like I read interviews of her family, band members, artists, while trying to figure out the Cass puzzle myself first. Her own interviews are very opaque, because she always put on that act of the joyous fun persona, while I think she was broken inside.
You give a lot of time to her adolescence and home life, which is often given short shrift or completely skipped in favor of the lascivious details of the Mamas and the Papas. Why did you opt for that approach?
This is exactly why this work was never a biography to me: I chose to end my story exactly when the song “California Dreamin'” hits the radios. When Ellen Cohen becomes Mama Cass. When she becomes that public figure, with that famous band, with the career that we know, the sordid details of John Phillips and the myth of the choking-on-a-sandwich. That part didn’t interest me much. But the little girl, the teenager, the young woman, the path to becoming that rockstar that we all know, that’s the kind of stories I love to read (and therefore, write). I don’t like to read biographies; I like to read captivating portraits, that I can relate to.
You do an excellent job balancing her larger-than-life, outgoing nature against some of her insecurities, particularly regarding her feelings for Denny. Was it a challenge to find the proper balance of those aspects of her personality?
That’s exactly what I have in mind when I say I’m not interested in biographies: I like to put myself in a character’s shoes and imagine how I would feel. All the interviews I’ve read from people who knew her, they all praised her cheerfulness, her jokes, her Like-I-care attitude towards people who judged her. But labels wouldn’t sign contracts to her unless she lost weight, and told her to her face, without any care. The man she loved the most ran away with her best friend. She went through so much. Of course she must have kept so much inside. The challenge of never giving her the speech in my story, and letting the reader understand all these inner-wounds for himself, forced me to a lot of empathy.
As we might expect, the book is peppered with celebrity cameos. Was there anybody who showed up in her life that surprised you? Anybody you wanted to fit into the book, but didn’t quite work for this story?
In so many stories of that time, she will appear in the background, of the blue! “We were at a party at Cass Elliot’s”, “Along comes Mama Cass with tons of free drugs for everybody,” etc. In most of the photographs I’ve found, she’s lying on a sofa backstage, giggling with Jimi Hendrix or having a beer with Mick Jagger. The parties at her mansion (in the hammock !) in Laurel Canyon were the place to be, apparently. But yes, there is one story I had to let go and would have demanded that I kept telling the story ten years farther [than I did]: Cass was a huge fan of John Lennon. More than a fan, she had a real crush on him. The Mamas and the Papas covered “I Call Your Name,” that Cass wanted to sing because of her love for the Beatles. During the break of the song, she whispers “John…”. Years after that, the Ms&Ps played in London and went to party afterwards. But Cass was sick and in bed. And when they returned, they told her “You’re gonna be mad when you learn who we met and spent the night drinking with!” (the Beatles, that is). And apparently, John Lennon asked which of the two girls whispered his name in the song, and when he heard that it was Cass, he said, “Too bad.” (nice.)
Don’t get me started on rock n’ roll anecdotes, I will never stop.
How long did you research her life?
Not too long. Colossal amount of dates and facts tend A) to paralyse me B) bore me. I’m not a journalist, nor a historian. The only thing I want to make extra sure of is that nothing I say is not true. The whole thing would collapse if I made up reality. But when I have this backbone of checked facts, actual dates and events, then I can start doing my real job, which is connecting the dots, giving personality to people and tell a story. I really think you shouldn’t read this kind of story to learn something, but only to feel something strong, and discover someone, and want to know more.
“California Dreamin’” was published last fall by Gallimard in France. Do the Mamas and the Papas have a strong French following?
Depends on the generation! But usually, even younger people will immediately light up when they hear the first notes of the song. This song is so timeless and universal that, of course, if you turn on a radio station in France right now you will hear “California Dreamin’” sooner or later before the end of day. Not that you need to know (nor like) the song to read the book.
Your previous book in English, “Exquisite Corpse,” was full of bright blocks of colors. How does working black & white change your approach to your artwork?
It was a very long piece and I knew I would need a challenge to keep myself entertained in the process. Also I wanted to create a unity between all these chapters that go from the 40s to the 60s, with all these different outfits, cars, hairstyles. But mostly, I wanted to free my drawing, and a simple cheap pencil, compared to my usual big Photoshop+Wacom industry, [allowed that] – without any going-back or correcting (I never used an eraser in this book), [showing] possible stains, fingerprints, coffee drippings once in a while [when] working from coffee shops. [Drawing] without a safety net, I really loved it, and it changed my way of drawing. It felt like a giant sketchbook, where all my characters (especially Cass) were moving, living, in a very vibrant way. And I also loved the feeling of having dirty hands like a kindergartener at the end of the day!
What’s next for you?
The next book that I will publish with First Second is called “Brazen.” It’s an anthology of extraordinarily cool women (again) who changed History but never made it to History books. They are mermaids, rockstars, spies, astronauts, shamans, actresses, bandits, empresses, rappers, criminologists, all of them practically unknown and yet so amazing. It came out in France a few months ago, and will be out in English (along with 8 other languages) next year, so I can’t wait!
“California Dreamin'” is currently available from First Second Books.