Sunday, March 5, 2017

California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas

“Pénélope Bagieu…can turn paper into flesh. And ink becomes lifeblood. Because within several pages of a work like Exquisite Corpse, her characters not only breathe and pulsate with vivid life. They also seem entirely, organically authentic in their own skin.” -Michael Cavna in The Washington Post

Regular readers of my blog know I never start one of my reviews with a pull quote from a book’s dustjacket, but that one seemed so gushing, so over-the-top exultant, that it prejudiced me against this book. Even though I had read and loved Exquisite Corpse, even though I had it on my best of 2015 list, I did not recall it being transcendent. But, holy cow, after reading this book, I feel that every word of that review was deserved and on-target for this graphic novel.

California Dreamin’ is a biography of Mama Cass Elliot, and it is simply fantastic. Excellent. And exquisite. It tells the story of young Ellen Cohen, a girl born in 1941 in Baltimore, MD, to a Jewish family who ran a deli. She was always into music and performing, and she grew up to sing some of the most memorable folk/rock songs ever with group The Mamas and the Papas. There is much drama in this book, from family dynamics to trying to fit in in high school, to trying to navigate various music scenes in the 1960s. Also, she has to deal with her weight as well as several different complicated relationships (both romantically and musically). And this is not to mention her various brushes with contemporary figures of the day, like Bob Dylan and David Crosby.
But what makes this books exceptional is not all the story beats it hits, it is the artistry of the illustrations and storytelling. Even with so much going on, what impressed and stayed with me was Bagieu’s vibrant and lifelike characters. I felt the joys of teenage dreams, the pain of failed relationships, the jealousy between lovers, and the thrills of performance. Bagieu’s lines are extraordinary, and I put her in a pantheon of a few others (like Kate Beaton and Jules Feiffer) whose artwork is almost magical in how it conveys life, emotion, and feeling. And here, unlike Exquisite Corpse, the artwork is in black and white, showing pencil lines without the embellishment of color, and it clearly highlights her masterful craft. I highly recommend reading this book.

This is the second graphic novel published in the US by Pénélope Bagieu, an accomplished artist and graphic novelist from France. She was awarded the high honor Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for her contribution to the world of art and literature, and she has drawn many different comics works, the most famous being Joséphine. She is something of a Renaissance woman, active as a musician drumming in a band and also blogging about her many works and travels here (in French). She speaks extensively about her work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been universally positive. Shea Hennum wrote that "The story moves with an ease and grace." Henry Chamberlain summed up that "it is highly recommended and will prove an engaging read on many levels: coming-of-age, rock history, and just a plain fun read." Erika W. Smith called it "an entertaining, often funny read."

California Dreamin' was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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