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Interview: Pénélope Bagieu on ‘California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas’

California Dreamin Cover cropped

She is probably best known by the name Mama Cass, or perhaps by Cass Elliot, but the little girl who grew up to take on those names was first named Ellen Cohen by her parents. It is Ellen, and her journey to become Cass and one of the Mamas in The Mamas & The Papas that most interested cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu. The Exquisite Corpse author’s latest work is a biography of Cohen/Cass, beginning with her infancy on what would become Pearl Harbor Day and ending just as the group were becoming genuine rock and roll superstars in 1965.

California Dreamin CoverDivided into chapters, each told by a different narrator who played a part in Elliot’s early life, California Dreamin’ is given an immediacy and vibrancy by Bagieu’s loose, casual and highly animated art work, here drawn in such an almost sketch-like way that that individual pencil lines are visible in the swathes of black or in the strands of dark hair, and faint lines meant to guide later, more distinct lines are left on the page for the reader to see.

Though Cass Elliot may not have been a perfect role model–while the book ends before some of her darkest days, there is a lot of drug use in these pages, for example–she is the perfect subject for a long form comics biography, as her over-the-top personality and even more over-the-top persona made her, in many ways, a sort of natural born cartoon character of a human being. And Bagieu’s cartooning is probably as close to perfect as one could hope to find.

California Dreamin’ has the title of a song everyone knows, but it tells a story far fewer people know, not only the story behind that song, but also the stories behind that band and one of the people in that band—and how she got there despite some pretty long odds. We recently spoke to Bagieu about her latest graphic novel, how it came to be, how she found Cass Elliot, and how she found her version of Cass Elliot.

Can you recall the very first time you were exposed to Mama Cass?

Maybe not the very very first one, because I was probably two or three, but I remember very clearly long, boring trips in my parents’ cars, only brightened by their playlist that included a lot of Queen and a lot of The Mamas and Papas.

When and how did decide that Cass Elliot could be the focus of a long-form comic like this?

I noticed that every time I was telling a friend about her, her life, her music, I really made a point of trying to listen to her more carefully, to dig in to her amazing story, and to look further than just “Mama Cass.” And I could go on for hours, which is usually a good sign for me that I should make a book (and stop annoying my friends).

This might seem like a question with an obvious answer, but why did you choose to focus on Cass instead of on the entire band? And why did you choose the particular period of her life that you did, starting with her as a baby and ending the book when so much of her life was still ahead of her?

Precisely because I wasn’t that interested in her singing biography and her career. I’m not even really interested in “Mama Cass.” I love Cass Elliot, and even more so, I love Ellen Cohen. There are tons of places to look for facts about her career, records and live performances, even her dark sides and her death. That is not the story I wanted to tell.

The only part of the band that I was interested in was their twisted relationship, the vaudeville, the obstacles John Philips put on her, her romantic interest in Denny and her friendship with Michelle. I wanted to imagine the little girl, the teenager, the young woman, and leave her at the very moment she becomes a public figure.

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Can you discuss the process that you went through arriving at your particular designs for the characters? Your character designs all tend to be very stylized and fluid in their implied movements, but they simultaneously look quite representative of their subjects. Did it take you very long to develop your particular version of Cass Elliot or her bandmates or David Crosby?

My priority is always to make my characters alive, more than close-to-reality. What will make you turn hundreds of pages, laugh and ache with a character is clearly not the fact that they are similar to the actual person. What I usually do is doodle them until I love them, and am willing to spend a year or two with them (that is, drawing them). They have to be real persons to me, so I can start working on the way they act. And on the other hand, I want them to have features that will definitely remind of the actual people, for instance if you Google them afterwards. Pretty much like you would cast actors, I guess… You wouldn’t prefer a lookalike over a very good actor or actress.

I imagine the celebrities and many of the musicians who appear in the book left behind a great deal of photographic reference which you could look to when coming up with your designs for them, but how did you approach drawing Cass’ family members and the characters in the earliest parts of the book? Was sufficient reference available, or did you have to fill in a lot of blanks?

Again, the accuracy, especially in Cass’s family members, didn’t matter that much. They have the appearance of what they are to her. Her mom looks permanently worried (a little pissed) and exhausted, her dad looks kind and always just about to have a very bad idea, etcetera. That’s the great part with writing comics (compared to, say, photography); it’s not a documentary, I can twist reality anytime I need to for the purpose of my story.

How different was that character design stage on this book than it was with, say, Exquisite Corpse, where you can feel completely free to draw the characters however you like?

Well, the fact that they are real people didn’t hold me back, it was more of a canvas to start from, or a backbone, instead of just starting from scratch. And again, the characters in all my books, even in Exquisite Corpse are not really from scratch; I always think of someone I know as a reference. Same for Cass, who is a mix of two of my friends. I don’t know how to create expressive characters otherwise.

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I was curious about the particular format you chose to tell your story, in which different narrators take turns telling different chapters of the book. Was that inspired by some of the sources you used, like Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas and The Papas, or did that seem like the most efficient way to tell the story of a person’s life?

It was a good way of not revealing everything all at once, and seeing her through the eyes of people who knew her, loved her, hated her. It forced the reader to unravel it by themselves, and solve the puzzle chapter after chapter. If Cass had been the narrator, there would have been no riddle, it would have been a totally different story.

It was very striking reading this book in 2017 and seeing that Cass encountered the same old stuff that women in the public eye are still forced to deal with–concerns about their looks and weight and so on–and her varying degrees of acceptance of those expectations. Sometimes she tried to comply, sometimes she defied them, sometimes she seemed to do both more or less simultaneously. How do you think Cass’ relationship to the expectations thrust upon her in the 1960s resonates today?

I’ve often seen comments under videos of Mama Cass from people nowadays praising those “good old days” when an artist was judged for her talent and her talent only, and people didn’t care about her looks like they would today. And of course the 1960s were just as cruel and oppressive to women with unconventional looks. The entertainment industry didn’t wait for MTV to judge singers from their looks. Even more so for Cass, who was fat in a time when, well, there weren’t that many public figures who looked like her. She was a Beth Ditto before her time, and it already took guts to suffer the body-shaming back then.

When considering whether or not to cover this book on Good Comics For Kids, my editor and I discussed whether it was appropriate for the audience and, since we’re talking to one another now, we obviously decided it was a good comic for older kids, if not for every child. I was curious how you felt about Cass Elliot in terms of being a role model for girls and young women. I suspect the answer is something like “it depends on the page,” given her relationship with drugs and so forth. Overall though, to what degree do you think of Elliot as an aspirational figure for young people today…?

She is definitely the kind of strong woman figure I grew up with, and yet it never entered my mind that drugs were okay! So not okay, actually, that I had to ask friends what it was like to be on an acid trip, to draw it, cause I never knew! It was just part of her life and part of that time, I guess.

But what clearly makes her qualify as a role model is how far she went with the worst initial deal she could possibly land, not the “right” look, the “right” place of birth, the “right” connections, not even the “right” musical taste, and yet she persists and becomes what she always says she would be: a rock star, no matter what. And all that, without letting go of her convictions–for civil rights, for example–or her good nature and her empathy. We need more stories of good, strong women, who do the right thing and keep on without crushing people along their way, even when so many people try to put obstacles on her. And she was hilarious! That’s the best thing you can wish for a young woman growing up: brave, kind and funny. Right?

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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