by Derek Royal
Reading Mimi Pond’s new book, Over Easy, it would be understandable to assume that it is just one of several graphic novels that the author has published. It’s an accomplished narrative that reads as a memoir without falling into any traps of mere chronicling or self-indulgence. The characters are all full-fledged, colorful, and believable. And the self-reflexive nature of the story, an artist who uses her day job as a means of creative development, makes this more than a simple coming-of-age tale. Yet this is indeed Pond’s first and only graphic novel, a book that, according its press release, has been fifteen years in the making. While you may already be unknowingly familiar with Mimi Pond’s creative output — her cartoons have appeared in The Village Voice and Seventeen, she’s scripted for both Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Designing Women, and she wrote the very first full-length episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” — it is this new graphic memoir that fully reveals her strengths as a comics storyteller.
I call this a “graphic memoir” primarily because the author references her history on the acknowledgements page (and the book’s publicity material describes it as such). But if you didn’t know this was based on Pond’s own experiences as a young artist, you might be hard pressed to see this as a straightforward example of life writing. The signifiers of memoir are there: the story strikes a reflective tone, dates and times are occasionally revealed, and there is the presence of a voice-over-like narrator (or what Thierry Groensteen calls a reciter) throughout. But Over Easy reads more like a novel than otherwise. The protagonist develops, supportive and minor characters are given depth, and there is a narrative trajectory that clearly leads to a tangible, albeit equivocal, end point. And perhaps most revealingly, the tense used by the book’s narrator, or reciter, is the historical present, placing the reader in the current narrative moment and masking overt autobiographical intent.
This is the story of Margaret (Mimi) after her scholarship money runs out and she can no longer afford art school in Oakland, CA. After learning about her financial dilemma she makes her way to a diner called the Imperial Cafe, an old Chinese restaurant that she had assumed was abandoned, and discovers that it’s much different from her regular dining haunt. She’s immediately taken by the joint, especially the colorful characters that make up the wait and cook staff, and soon she begins working there as a dishwasher. Madge — as she is renamed by the Bohemian manager, Lazlo — eventually makes her way up to waitressing, where she becomes part of the offbeat, flirty crew that serves the constant parade of customers…who are themselves offbeat and flirty, it being Oakland in the late 1970s, where hippie culture is dying and punk screams out to take its place. There is a lot of sex and a lot of drugs that define this memoir, but for Madge (and Mimi), it all comes down to the spirit of the cafe, its employees, and its patrons. As she describes early in the book, “There’s a feeling, sitting at this counter, that if you’re here, you know something. Everything’s vibrating at a higher frequency, in a solid, symphonic groove of rattling, clinking, steaming, frying, and nonstop chatter, the wonderful mingling perfume of bacon and high-octane coffee” (37). This isn’t just a life story being told. It’s comics poetry.
In fact, you could call Over Easy a memoir as coming-of-age story, but you could just as easily describe it as a bildungsroman. It certainly has that “portrait of the artist as a young (wo)man” feel. Pond begins by referencing herself (or her narrative avatar) as an aspiring artist — she likes to make sketches at the diners she frequents — and her creative talents are mentioned throughout. But drawing isn’t the only art that defines Madge. In fact, her talents at self-creation by far outstrip the attention she gives to her sketchbook. From the beginning she crafts herself as a member of the Imperial Cafe gang, spending time in thrift stores and in front of the mirror so as as to bring out the sexy, provocative side that will make her into a desirable object. At the same time, she sculpts herself into an artist figure, so that “passion” defines her both professionally as well as personally.
The cafe is filled with such performers, from punk-rock waitresses, to deadhead dishwashers, to cross-dressing hostesses. But Madge/Margaret/Mimi turns out to be the true artist of the bunch. She is the creative force (along with the free-spirited Lazlo) behind many things that go on at the Imperial. Indeed, the last segment of the book, one of its longest, is devoted to her and Lazlo’s expressive tour de force, a Halloween night poetry reading billed as “Mindless Vigilence” (sic). She even dresses as an artist figure for the evening — beatnik striped shirt and a beret — and narrates what is arguably the tonal highlight of the work. Late in the evening and after their successful poetry reading, as she and Lazlo are cleaning up, Madge looks out across the street to a neighboring drugstore. All of the action at this point is temporarily suspended, frozen in the narrator/reciter’s observation: “I love this view. Anchoring the corner of 40th Streeet is the beacon in the night: Mullen’s Drugs. The lighted windows hold the usual display…apothecary jars and a mortar and pestle big enough for a giant. Above this, in the apartment windows, behind curtains, is a shadow play of lives. At the other end is Arts Cocktails, promising a different oblivion.” Then the mimetic, or character, Madge/Mimi says to Lazlo, “I don’t know when I like it better…sometimes, on my way to work, about 7:00 AM the way the sun hits [the drugstore]…it looks exactly like that Hopper painting. Do you know the one? ‘Early Sunday Morning’?” (268-70).
Such references to art and artists, down to the very name of the bar down the street, not only underscore Madge’s creative nature, but it also brings us back to the fact that Over Easy is a portrait of its artist, Mimi Pond. We can see, in moments such as Madge’s Hopperesque reflection, the various moments and experiences that impressed upon the author and made her into the creator she has become. This book might have been a long time in coming, but it is certainly well worth the wait. Let’s hope that Mimi Pond soon has other such stories to tell, autobiographic or otherwise.
Check out Over Easy as well as other recent books from Drawn and Quarterly: