“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.” Read More