Comics/Graphic Novels

Mama Cass as you have never seen her: An Interview with Pénélope Bagieu

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Staff Writer

Hélène -pronounced “LN”- is sometimes too French for her own good. She currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is attempting to get better at being Canadian. She knows Tintin from Abdallah to Zorino and Spirou from Aurélien de Champignac to Zorglub. Follow her on Twitter @DoctorFrenchie .

Talented, funny, and inspiring, Pénélope Bagieu is one of my favorite cartoonists. The French artist has been living in New York City for a couple of years and I had the pleasure of meeting her at Emerald City Comicon. We discussed her latest graphic novel California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot before the Mamas and The Papas and her process in creating this very unique comic. They say you should never meet your idols, but they are wrong!


Hélène: As an introduction I collected some words that people have used to describe you. Feel free to agree or disagree and comment if you want. Bubbly.

Pénélope Bagieu: Sounds nice. Being bubbly. I didn’t know you could say that in English too (laugh) But yes.

H: Cartoonist by accident.

PB: Oh totally. Totally by accident. I was working in advertising, as an illustrator.  And then a magazine I was working for commissioned me to make a strip on their last page. And it was my comic Joséphine. So it was really by accident and then I made a book out of it, and then another… I didn’t read comics as a kid and that is not something I had planned to do. It is an accident.

H: Chatterbox.

PB: Totally. I am a chatterbox. Well, writing books helps to speak less. But yes I am a chatterbox that is a good way to sum it up.

H: Parisian.

PB: I was born there and I was raised there. I don’t know a lot of people who were actually born there. A lot of people call themselves Parisians because they live there and they love Paris. But even though I left, I am still a true Parisian because I was born there.

H: New Yorker.

PB: No I definitely am not a New Yorker. I thought after a while I would feel like I was part of the city and I wouldn’t have that perpetually amazed eye like a tourist. But I feel like a long term tourist. I am still going “oh wow”. I am still in the honeymoon phase after two years. I love New York.

H: Funny.

PB: I hope so. It is the thing that matters the most when picking my friends. Making sure they are all funny. So I hope I am funny too.

H: Feminist.

PB: Oh yes. Absolutely a feminist. It’s taking some time to not make it sound like a bad word.

H: Some people do think it is a bad word.

PB: And it isn’t and it takes saying it over and over until it is a neutral word which just means what it is. I want equality between men and women. But it is a word that really triggers hatred sometimes. It’s weird but it proves that you still have to be a feminist. Because people are still uncomfortable with the word.

H: Pop culture addict.

PB: Yes. I spent three hours this morning at the Museum of Pop Culture here in Seattle. And I really wanted to ask for citizenship to the museum (laugh). I almost shed a tear because I was so moved because they have the hat of Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. The actual hat was here in a window. I couldn’t believe it. It’s in a separate room and on the door it says “What will you see behind that door?” and I really gasped because I couldn’t believe it was the real one. There was also Dorothy’s dress. But I didn’t care.

H: Rebel.

PB: No I don’t feel like a rebel because I don’t do anything very subversive or brave.

H: And so despite all these qualifiers, some people still call you unclassifiable.

PB: It’s good to be unclassifiable. There is nothing worse than being labelled. Especially when you are a woman in comics. You are usually so easily labelled. So I am glad if it is hard to label me.

H: So for your English speaking readers, we are coming out of Exquisite Corpse which was a fiction story full of very flashy colors and suddenly comes California Dreamin’, which is about someone who really existed, Mama Cass, and in black and white. So how do you get from one to the other?

PB: I spent five years between the two of them. It’s only a year between the two being published in the US, but it was five years between writing them. Between these I had other books that were steps from one to the other. But after California Dreamin I made a fully colored book with 6 page long stories. It’s just to not get bored I try to do new things every time. And also I was really drawn to the character of Mama Cass for a long time. It was about time I finally made that book. I needed to get it out of me. The book spreads from the forties to the sixties and there needed to be something for the unity of the book. These different eras typically call on different colors. You’d think something psychedelic and pop colors for the sixties and very stern, dark colors for the forties. I did not want any of that. I wanted it to feel like a whole story so black and white seemed like a good idea. And I also wanted to work with pencils.

California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Bagieu – First second

H: You made some strong storytelling choices. The first one is that we jump from one character to another. And the book works like a series of snapshots of her life. And we never see the story from her own eyes. Why did you choose that approach?

PB: First because of the material I used for the story. She never wrote an autobiography. There is not much written about her. She is not Janis Joplin. So I only found interviews of people who knew her. Sometimes the book was not about her, it was the biography of somebody else and as a background character you could always see her. She was at all the parties. She was everywhere. The way I wrote her in my head was by taking other people’s interviews mentioning her and hearing their voice. So yes, I think it is because that is the way I built her in my head and also because I thought it was an interesting way of keeping the mystery on who she was. She was said to be hilarious and always joyful, funny, loud… But when you hear her story there is no doubt that there was something broken inside. So I thought that if she was the one who spoke from page 1 you would know what was just a facade and what was going on inside. So what if we just stayed outside and saw her through other people’s eyes. So you can solve the puzzle by yourself. First you have her parents, the people who knew her from high school, people who loved her, people who hated her. I wanted that after 200 some pages, you would start having your own idea of who she was. But she still remains a mystery. You turn around and you only see bits of her.

H: Because of that and because of how much we jump in time. Is it actually fair to call the book biographic?

PB: To me it is not a biography. It’s a fantasized biography. I chose a very specific part of her story because the book stops the moment that she becomes famous. It is Ellen Cohen becoming Mama Cass and we leave her the moment she becomes Mama Cass. It is not the actual Mama Cass of course. I couldn’t have made that book if she was still alive. Because thinking that she might read it would have been too intimidating. I needed space to create my own Mama Cass. I am not interested in a sum of boring dates and facts and historical accuracy. I am not a journalist. But you have to decide if your book is fiction or nonfiction and I’d say it’s a fictionalized nonfiction.

California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Bagieu – First second

H: Another strong story telling choice that we already mentioned is that the book is only drawn in pencil. What did that bring to your work and what created the desire to just go back to simple paper and pencil?

PB: Well it wasn’t going back for me. To me it was a step forward. It wasn’t going back to simple because I had never used a pencil before, I had always worked on a computer. So it was a risk, really. It was bold of me to do that. The first reason is that I did not want to be bored and draw 300 pages with my usual process. I needed a challenge that would get me through the two years -a little over two years- that it took me to write the book. I also needed something that I could carry around. I was working between Paris and New York. And working with a pencil and just a stack of papers allowed me to work in cafes. It was very romantic. It was the way people usually picture my job. I actually did it for the first time. I was in Greenwich village drawing the houses. And I kind of liked the spontaneous errors. You can always correct to a perfect image when it’s in photoshop. But this time there are some dirty fingerprints, there are some lines that are not the lines I wanted, but I didn’t erase anything. It has this very rough aspect to it. Almost like a sketch book. So it was a totally different way of drawing.

H: No corrections at all?

PB: No it felt like real freedom. It was a bit scary at first, but then I would start a page and if I made a mistake I had two options: starting the whole page all over again, or moving on. And so that’s what I did. I don’t even know if people see the actual stains. The other good part is that I have originals. I had an exhibition of my work for the first time because I usually do not have anything on paper.

California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Bagieu – First second

H: So what attracted you to Mama Cass?

PB: I think the association of her unusual voice that you notice immediately in the Mamas and the Papas’ songs. Most of their songs especially “California Dreamin'” wouldn’t have lasted 50 or 60 years if it wasn’t for her voice. Her second voice that is echoing is what makes the song particular. Otherwise it is just a folk ballad from the sixties that we had a thousand of. What makes it one of the most heard songs today is clearly her voice. And then when you look at them. Her looks are also what made them stand out of the pack. You could not not notice her. It was impossible. She is intriguing. You think that before MTV, before music video people did not focus on appearance, only focused on voices.

She had a hard time because of her looks. Producers wanted her to lose weight. And the labels they preferred the thin and fragile looking girls. Even before music videos, her looks were more important than her voice. I liked everything about her.

H: Her energy and determination come very strongly through your pages.

PB: Thank you

H: Comics are very versatile as a medium, but by definition there is no sound. Is it a challenge to write about music?

PB: For this book, it is only half a challenge because I am talking about a song that everybody knows. So even if I write two words of the song, you have it in your mind immediately. It’s not like it’s an unknown song. It is true that there is a limit to just drawing musical notes all the time to express that somebody is singing loud or well, or poorly, or being interrupted. It’s not like letters with an alphabet. If you want to express emotions in the way somebody is singing, you have to find other ways to express that. I was faced with another challenge. The song itself is a connector in the book. They are writing it step by step. From the very first time Michele has the idea of the lyrics till the end when they sing it in front of their producer and it gets on the radio and everybody knows it. The rights for the song were denied for the book. I couldn’t use the lyrics. I was allowed one sentence: “All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey.” I was really displeased with that. Instead there are mostly musical notes when they are singing instead of words. But my editor convinced me that everybody knows the song so I did not need to write the words.

H: You offer a playlist at the end of the book. Is it actually what you were listening to when drawing?

PB: No it felt like extra homework. Even now sometimes when I hear California Dreaming, it sounds like work. But after I was done with the book, I could enjoy it again. I have listened to their songs so much since I was a kid. I know the moments when there is a little “couac” (quack- onomatopoeia for a wrong note in French) in the recording I know every little noise, every moment when they gasp because they missed a line…

H: This is the work of over two years of your life where you did everything: writing and drawing. Do you isolate yourself when you work on something like this? Is it 100% of the time all you do or do you juggle other projects?

PB: I used to have to. But not anymore, I am able to just focus on the book. Usually when I write, which is very short, maybe three weeks, I need to be not only in a total silence, but alone. This one I took a trip on my own for three weeks, and I went to a library every day just to write and to deliver it physically. And then after three weeks, I had everything in a little copy book. I had my story, it was the most precious thing in the world. Then I can start working with people talking around me, listen to music. It’s just drawing, I don’t need any concentration.

H: You have also collaborated with other artists like Joann Sfar or Boulet. How is it different to work with someone else?

PB: It is different to work with someone else, but it is also different to work with someone different every time. Right now I am working with a friend who’s writing the story and it is a whole different thing again from the two you cited. It’s half frustrating, half a liberation. Liberation because you do not have to worry if the story is good enough. It’s not your problem. You are not in charge of the story. You are just the hands of someone. And that’s very enjoyable and you can focus on things you do not usually have the energy to focus on. You really want to make the most of drawing. But on the other hand it’s kind of frustrating because it’s not your story and sometimes you just mentally go “I would have changed that”. So you have to accept that you are not in control of everything which to a control freak like me is very hard. Once in awhile it is a very good way of working, but I definitely couldn’t do just this. I really need to write too. A good balance for me is writing two books, drawing one, writing two books, drawing one.

H: Recently you were involved in a collaboration of a completely different order. You were part of a concert. What does a person who draws do on stage during a concert?

PB: It’s a tradition in Angoulême at the festival. It’s called a concert dessiné (drawn concert), They match a band with an artist who is supposed to draw live with a camera filming your hands. And you draw what the music inspires you, It was a jazz band. And the woman who was singing, China Moses, was only singing about very famous women from blues music. Very dark stories, men, alcohol, fights in bars. And I was drawing at the same time, that was probably the most stressful thing I have ever done. I had tummy aches before getting on stage, I didn’t want to get out of my dressing room. I felt like I was going to die on stage. One of the reasons you chose to do this job is precisely never to be on stage. People will look at your drawings instead of looking at you. It was a nightmare to me. THe guys in the band and China were so used to the stage that to them it was funny to make fun of me because of that. So they kept calling to go to the front of the stage and take a bow and wave to people at the end of every song. At every song they asked a round of applause for me, so people were looking at me even more. But like any time you do something like this, you feel so bad before going on stage, and once you are on stage it feels like it last 10 minutes. “Oh already, it’s over?” And then we went partying and it was like a whole new level of partying. Musicians, they really do party in a hard way. It was interesting.

H: You come from webcomics and you are also very active on twitter. How do you manage your internet presence? Your relationship with social media?

PB: I think in a very innocent way. I don’t have facebook. I am not on Instagram. Or snapchat that I am way too old for. I don’t have a professional account. I can’t manage a fan page or anything.

H: Are there subjects that you are like “no I don’t want to talk about this online”? Barriers you set?

PB: No it’s the contrary, every time I am mad at something and I annoyed because of something in the news… It is the very point of me being on Twitter I think.  It’s to yell and answer people who do not agree with me and trying to change their minds. It’s a very good way to let off steam.

Ms Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona. Cover by Pénélope Bagieu – Panini comics

H: You recently did a cover for Ms. Marvel in France. Do you read US comics regularly?

PB: I read this one! It may be a stupid thing to say, but it is really the comic we need right now. Everything about it is so important right now. So I’m really glad it has the success that it has. And I was so honored to be asked to do the cover. Even though you know, there were ten comics, ten artists, and they gave me the one about a girl because I am a girl.

Well, otherwise, I read Bitch Planet. Paper Girls was very awesome. The Wicked and the Divine.

H: Of course it takes time for your books to be translated. So you already know the future. What do we get next?

PB: It’s about women who changed History. Should be famous, but are not famous in a lot of different fields: actresses, astronauts, scientists, retired ladies, rappers… A lot of women who did very small acts, something that did not sound like a big deal when they did it, but ended up changing the world. Trying to change their lives, they changed the world. It will come out in March 2018.

H:Thank you very much.

PB: Thank you.