All images from California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Baigu.
“I could live at MoPOP,” the French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu tells me. She has just returned from Seattle, where she debuted her new biography, California Dreamin’, at the Emerald City Comicon. While there, she took in the Museum of Pop Culture: “My fascination is triggered by all the relationship drama, the rock ’n’ roll anecdotes where everyone takes the stage angry, fighting behind the curtains.” As a child, in Paris, she and her sister drew comics about Freddie Mercury, her “childhood icon,” hand-making dozens of booklets about the members of Queen living in a fantasy communal house.
Mike Dawson got to Mercury first—his graphic memoir, Freddie and Me, was published in 2008—but there’s something of a recent trend of French comic books about dead American musicians, with Nicolas Otero’s broody vision of Cobain, Mezzo and J. M. Dupont’s woodcut rendering of Robert Johnson, Philippe Chanoinat and Fabrice Le Henanff’s ode to Elvis, and now Bagieu’s energetic portrait of Cass Elliot. In California Dreamin’, Cass is imagined in her formative years, as Ellen Cohen, before she became Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas (who really did live in a communal house and were consumed by intergroup romance and betrayal). The book closes before the birth of the daughter or her untimely death. I offer Bagieu my notion of Cass as yet another “tragic figure” of rock fame, but she dismisses it. Her Cass is unapologetic; the book is bursting with her talent, ambition, and drive—and her unrequited loves, which help propel the plot.
The book is also very much a celebration of Cass’s beauty and her music, which often intertwine visually by way of Bagieu’s curlicue lines and handwritten text, as when the familiar lyrics “Allll the leaves are brown … ” swirl together with cigarette smoke. Bagieu’s drawings are superlative: soft pencil lines that convey detail without constraining her figures and that animate the characters’ exuberant facial expressions.
She is popular in France for her comics series “Les Culottées” in the newspaper Le Monde, charming portraits of women throughout history—Mae Jemison, Peggy Guggenheim, Hedy Lamarr, to name a few—whose accomplishments have been obscured. Cass Elliot’s story, Bagieu declares, likewise “needed to be told.”
What drew you to the story of Cass Elliott?
My parents had a “best of” compilation tape they would play over and over in our car, and in between Supertramp—I don’t know if it’s the same here, but in France all parents listen to Supertramp—was the Mamas and the Papas. As a child, I didn’t hear them as a band—it was only one singer, just her. The others were background vocals. I stole that tape and listened to it in my bedroom through my broken stereo, which had only one speaker, so I’d hear the track of her voice without the rest, without even the music. I learned all the songs by heart … except I was a kid and didn’t speak English, so I’d sing in what we call “yogurt”—phonetically.
On the cover of the album, with her bandmates looking mysterious and glamorous, Cass stood laughing hysterically, with her mouth wide open. She was huge! She became a part of my personal folklore. I began to read about her, how she died young and that she’d been a baroness. I was fascinated by the vaudeville of the Mamas and the Papas, with their affairs and breakups and broken marriages. She had an amazing life.
How much did you fictionalize?
The basic elements are factual, but I connect the dots with my interpretation of her as a woman. I thought of how I would react in her place. For example, I knew she was overweight as a teenager, attended a posh high school, and pretended she was in a sorority. The part about her wearing a stolen pin is true—it comes from a friend of hers. That’s all I had, but I can imagine the mean girls, and I drew in the details to make her an actual person. There are several sources for her early life, with interviews of her family and friends. My main source was Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of “Mama” Cass Elliot, by Eddi Fiegel.
But, it wasn’t like I was writing about Janis Joplin. There was room for discovery. There isn’t much written about her, specifically, but she’s a background character in so many of the major biographies of the folk-rock scene, and I took parts from each of their portrayals. They all say, We were at this party, everybody was wasted, and there was Mama Cass. She was everywhere.
How did you research the book?
I shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t do much research, because I feel forced to use what I learn and it paralyzes my ability to create a character. I don’t want to forget storytelling in the attempt to be accurate. I’m not a historian, I’m not a journalist. If facts add something to my story, then I welcome them onto the page, because nothing can be more incredible than the truth. But sometimes you have to let go of whole parts of someone’s life to make a compelling narrative. For example, I simplified all the early changes in bands and band members to write a concise plot.
You mean, you omit?
Without ruining the book’s credibility, if the truth annoys me because it doesn’t serve my story, I just … [whistles]. I don’t change facts, but I forget to tell certain facts.
Before you start a book, you have to ask yourself, What do I want? Do I want an exhaustive record? Certainly not. If I want facts, I’ll go to the Wikipedia entry. What I want is to love a character. What was essential to me was to bring Cass to life, for the reader to ache with her, laugh with her, to want to give her a hug when she’s sad. Did it really happen in 1962 or 1961? I don’t think readers care. Maybe that’s cultural. I was first asked if the book was fiction or nonfiction here in America. In France, no one cares! I always took it for granted that we all agreed on a kind of gray zone. Even the subtitle—Cass Elliott Before the Mamas and the Papas. That’s an American addition, and I think it spoils it. In the French version, you can open the book and imagine her as any little girl who grows up to become a singer, and only later do you realize she really existed and became famous.
The book ends before Cass’s death and before her child is born. Why did you choose this particular arc?
I wanted to end my story before she becomes a public figure. It ends while she’s still Ellen Cohen inside, but as the world is beginning to know her, she knows that from then on she’s going to be Mama Cass. Which is why I chose to open and close on the loop of the teenage fans. When you hear them talk about her, as a celebrity, again at the end of the book, you know that image she’s been building is just a facade.
Everyone always said Cass was so funny and bright. But I’m friends with a lot of comedians, and they are the most depressed people I know.
You’re exploring the myth of her. Is that why we always see her through the eyes of other people?
She’s never the narrator. That would be the end of the story. I wanted the reader to puzzle through her contradictions. We start by hearing from her family first, and then from people who loved her—and people who hated her, which is why I wanted John Phillips to have a chapter. He’s so annoyed by how much space her presence takes up.
It’s interesting that if you watch videos now, online, of her original TV appearances, the viewer comments say things like, That was the good old days when no one cared what you looked like to be a rock star, or, All the doors opened to her because of her voice. The implication is that with MTV, video culture, this wouldn’t happen now. But she didn’t have the right looks then either, in fact. In the sixties, labels offered her contracts if she lost weight, which was humiliating. She didn’t do it—she turned them down. She was brave. I don’t know that I could have done what she did. I might have bent my spirit to follow my dream. To her, it was preposterous. I admire her.
The way you draw Cass’s body is joyous and full, a match for her personality. I did notice some of the clothes appeared anachronistic. They’re more fitted. In the photos I’ve seen of her from the period, she’s wearing muumuus. What kind of reference material did you use for the period?
Drawing Cass is total drawing pleasure. For me, it’s coquetry. Overall, I tried to keep the eras visually accurate—the cars, the furniture, the hairstyles, and the clothes. This way the reader would sense visually when the story moves, say, ten years ahead. But I can’t help the fact that, to put myself in her skin, to make her a believable teenager, I have to imagine Cass through a contemporary lens. Otherwise I’m constrained by the limitations my prejudice about the past puts on my imagination. Instead of thinking about my hollow concept that “girls were not like that in the sixties,” I remember myself at that age. From there, I can make Cass real.
It’s true that in the videos I saw of the Mamas and the Papas dressed up playing onstage, she was wearing tents.
Like choir gowns.
Beth Ditto was an inspiration for the character, and yes, that image looks contemporary. Cass also didn’t put on as much makeup as I give her, and I’m sure she wasn’t as flirty as I draw her. But to me, it added to the empowerment. There’s not a single moment in the book where you think she doubts her looks. Maybe my Cass doesn’t care about the standards for fat women in the sixties. She knows she’s sexy, so I wanted her to dress that way.
I used friends of mine as body references, too, who embody grace and glamour and sexiness. I don’t think I glamorize Cass, but I never hide her body. For instance, there is a scene where Cass is undressing after her dad’s funeral, and it was very important to show her naked body as it is, because it’s beautiful.
What kind of response to those choices have you gotten?
It touched a nerve in France, where we are very focused on weight. A French journalist pissed me off so much. He said to me, I thought it was brave of you to draw Cass this way, because usually these women, you know, they don’t take care of their appearance. At first I thought maybe I didn’t understand. I asked what he meant by “these women.” And he said, Oh, you know, these women. And I knew exactly what he meant. I was furious.
There are a lot of jokes made about Cass. Even in the group’s songs, she was made a clownish figure.
“No one’s getting fat except Mama Cass.” How could they have made her sing that, every night? But it was part of her persona, that she made fun of herself. She appeared on a skit comedy show, The Red Skelton Show, like a Saturday Night Live. The gag was that a guy visited a matchmaking agency, and they switch the “beautiful” girl with Cass. She’s actually quite funny in it, but it’s horrible. She accepted that, for a show-business career, it’s what you did.
The style of California Dreamin’ is a departure from your graphic novel, Exquisite Corpse, which is drawn tight and polished. Here, the lines are looser—it has an improvisational spirit.
Well, that was my first book, and it’s been seven years between creating them, which is not obvious in the U.S. because they were released in translation closer together. But also, a difference is the tool—I drew this whole book in pencil.
It’s not inked at all?
Occasionally, for the cigarette smoke, I mixed a bit of ink and water to make a cloud, otherwise it’s only two different pencil nibs, about forty pencils’ worth to make the whole book. And no eraser or ruler—that was my rule. Never. Too bad if there is a fingerprint or a mistake, which is why none of my lines are straight. When I finished a panel and it was stained or a line didn’t go the way I wanted, I could either start the whole page over again—which I don’t do because I’m lazy—or leave it. People don’t even notice, but I can see all the blemishes.
That variation seems purposeful. It creates a feeling of immediacy, that this life is happening on the page as you read it.
It’s almost like a child drew it. I wondered if I should put an extra layer with Photoshop to make corrections, but then I realized it’s the initial impression that’s made when you open the book, of the story to be told. It’s pencil and it’s dirty, raw, as if published straight from my sketchbook.
Do you have a favorite song from the Mamas and the Papas?
It depends on the day, but the one that will always make me cry is “Midnight Voyage.” Cass sings ad lib in the end, where she has a whole field to make her voice huge and emotional, and she’s amazing. You could claim not to like their music— inconceivable to me—even “Dream a Little Dream,” but no one could be unmoved by “Midnight Voyage.” “On a midnight voyage, / One that has no ending; / And it’s sending me / Right into my mind.”
Meg Lemke is editor of MUTHA Magazine and chairs the comics and graphic-novel programming committee at the Brooklyn Book Festival. She is on the curatorial committee for the PEN World Voices Festival and a guest editor of PEN America’s Illustrated PEN series. You can find her online @meglemke and more about her work and writing at meglemke.tumblr.com.
Last / Next Article