Books

Mama Cass Finds Her Voice in a Comics Portrait of Her Teen Years

French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu has taken a unique opportunity to correct public misperceptions about the musical icon’s life.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’ (all images courtesy of First Second)

As a six-year-old in my parents’ New Jersey living room, an evening’s viewing of Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon was often interrupted by advertisements for music compilations with titles like “Country Christmas and “Sounds of the Seventies.” On one particular night, one of the ads was for the “Sounds of the Sixties.” Amid the sea of classic-rock clips, the screen filled with black-and-white footage (probably this) of four hippies — two young men with Beatles mops and two long-haired young women — lamenting cold climates and remembering warmer days on the West Coast. As the brief selection from The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” came to an end, my mother pointed to the larger of the two women, informed me that her name was Mama Cass, and matter-of-factly told me, “She choked to death on a chicken bone!”

Despite the truth, which is that the singer born Ellen Naomi Cohen had in reality died from “heart failure due to fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity” (and that the more common rumor about her death actually involved a ham sandwich), a deeper, more accessible look at Mama Cass Elliot’s life could go a long way in moving public awareness of her away from rumor and innuendo. Luckily, French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu’s recent graphic novel California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas and the Papas has taken a unique opportunity to correct public misperceptions about the musical icon’s life.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’

The graphic novel traces Elliot’s progress from childhood to the cusp of being an integral part of one of history’s greatest rock bands. As a youth, fellow high school students shun the young Ellen due to her size, but her humor and voice carve a niche for her. She bounces between bands and musical acts in the New York folk scene, resisting chances at the big time that are often contingent on her losing weight. Leader John Phillips initially refuses to let her join The Mamas & the Papas because of her appearance. Even when he finally relents, he seeks to keep the spotlight on his young, traditionally attractive wife Michelle, but Elliot’s talent cannot be denied and make her a crucial member of the band. All of this leads to a validation of the band’s hard work in a fateful meeting with legendary record producer Lou Adler. The book’s final chapter gives the reader a (thankfully brief) peek into the conflict and jealousy that the band’s success would soon yield; rather than focusing on this negativity, Bagieu is most interested in showing Elliot on the rise.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of a key figure in Elliot’s life —  a family member, friend, or collaborator. Sometimes they narrate in caption boxes, at other times their narration is delivered via word balloons, and every now and then, the namesake of the chapter does not comment on its happenings at all. The one notably absent narrator is Elliot herself. By letting everyone but the star of the story tell it, Bagieu creates a feeling of subjectivity that gives her artistic leeway in her compositions.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’

In this way, the cartoonist’s line, freed from adhering to a strictly defined reality, renders a world fantastic enough to house a character like Elliot. Bagieu draws pencil shades of black and gray along the white negative space of the page to duplicate the black-and-white footage that acted as many fans’ first introduction to the musicians in the early days of The Mamas and the Papas. The French cartoonist’s big eyes and lanky limbs share DNA with a style popular in mainstream U.S. superhero comics in recent years, particularly Babs Tarr’s 2014–16 run on Batgirl.

Elliot’s own portrayal in the graphic novels stands out against the other Bagieu figures. From the beginning, the singer is illustrated in a way that lovingly draws attention to her body. When we first meet the high school–aged Elliot, she is curvy against the straight doorway and perpendicular tiles that surround her. During her first meeting with a voice coach, in which she begins her trajectory to stardom, we see the teenager surrounded by curved objects like a victrola, fans, and plush chairs. It is no coincidence that she is in visual harmony with her surroundings the moment she takes her first steps toward her destiny.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’

Bagieu’s pencil is at its most compelling when it portrays the night sky. A process that would be a fairly straightforward field of black in a traditional pen-and-ink comic book drawing is given nuance and texture with pencils. Aside from some snow falling or light pouring out of buildings’ windows, the entire page in one of these scenes can be covered with diverse strains of gray accented with black. The book does not have many outdoor nighttime scenes, but the few we see are the true treats of technique in this work.

The book follows Elliot until the point when “California Dreamin’” sets John and Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Mama Cass herself on the path to fame. The writing of the song is portrayed in drugged haze. Elliot, pupils dilated to her eyes’ limits, composes with the other members of the band in her childhood basement in Baltimore. As her mother harangues them from the confines of bordered comic panels, the journey of Elliot & Co. spills across pages with free flows of text, dancing bodies, and striking headshots. As Bagieu’s version of the scene in a musical biopic where the band writes its hit, it works.

Pénélope Bagieu, California Dreamin’

Although Bagieu brings well-deserved renewed attention to Elliot’s story, she misses an opportunity to dispel the rumors about the singer’s passing that remain a plague on her memory. The fact that the book focuses on the lead-up to the cusp of her fame makes it sensible not to portray her death, which could be ghoulish if improperly handled. However, the metatextual nature of California Dreamin’, in which characters comment on stories as they progress, sometimes from beyond the grave, would have allowed a mechanism for addressing the entirety of Elliot’s life. Avoiding the most-known event in a biography just encourages the audience to think about if that much more. If Bagieu had used the comics medium to more actively dispel these misconceptions, it would have been a favor to future generations of music historians.

Bagieu will appear March 11 at 3 pm at the Astoria Bookshop (31-29 31st St, Queens) for a reading, a conversation, and a Q&A.

California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas and the Papas is now available from online booksellers and First Second.

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