Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stories That Need To Be Written: Over Easy

Reading Mimi Pond's book Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly), one gets the sense that this is a book that had to be written. As a professional writer and cartoonist for over thirty years (The Simpsons, Pee Wee's Playhouse and Designing Women are among her credits), Pond has an understanding of story structure as well as narrative and character arcs. The story of her time as a waitress in the kind of colorful diner with the sort of memorable people in an era that turned out to be more interesting than one originally supposed practically writes itself. Indeed, even among her other coworkers, there was an artistic urge, a yen to record and explore this experience. Pond captured it at the time through her sketchbooks but didn't actually get to structure it as a whole story until nearly thirty years had passed. That life where so many of her coworkers had ambitions to be famous writers or poets but either didn't have the talent or drive still proved to be fuel for Pond. The distance of time made it much easier for her to be both kind and cruel to her stand-in character, Madge. Kind in the sense of forgiving her youthful over-eagerness but cruel in how she depicts how Madge is simply not as cool as everyone else, not as desirable as everyone else--not as much a "character" as everyone else. Telling the story from her point of view makes all the more sense, as Over Easy isn't just about a working-class experience in one's youth, but also about the transition in youth culture from hippies to punks. As a nation, it was a time of being betwixt and between, about underachieving, about having no future.

The first thing one notices about Over Easy is how beautiful it is. Pond's a scribbly artist who's great at capturing the essential elements of each character and is just as hard on her own caricature as she is on everyone else's. The glorious green of this book that provides its single-hued wash is that green of diner tabs, of diner counters, of seventies furniture. It's comforting and slightly sickly at the same time, and it's telling that every character, no matter how they imagine themselves, is all in that same green wash that represents an era. I should note that Pond is never so pretentious as to say "It was the end of an era..." in this comic. Instead, she lays on detail: a tedious fellow art student goes from hippie to punk seemingly overnight, cuts his hair and buys a leather jacket, for example. The fabulousness of the waitresses at the diner came from their thrift-store dresses and in one case, the punk rock haircut and attitude ("a punk Lauren Bacall thing that drives men wild"). Pond's caricatures are all just slightly on the exaggerated side, but not so much as to render them grotesques. Still, the slyness of moves like making the hippie dishwasher girl "Daisy Deadhead" have flowers for eyes is a hilarious sight gag. The composition of each page is relatively simple though never in a grid that's static from page to page. Pond will go from a page with five panels to a page with two panels that highlight a particular character's features to a single-page splash and then back to a page with as many as six panels. It's a way of deliberately keeping the book out of a rhythm or a rut, breaking up a story that essentially has no real spine of a plot.

Indeed, the book is defined by variations on a theme--that theme being the actual hard work of a diner. The days are broken up by moments spent ogling cute boys in the diner, of moments of interpersonal drama, of jokes shared, bad feelings vented and drugs inhaled. Pond's stand-in, in a theatrical sense, has a walk-on role to all this drama, coming into the story halfway through after years of romantic entanglements, betrayals, bad feelings and other general myth-making. This episodic, character-based approach is carefully attached to the greater generational story that Pond is telling at the same time. She's cautious not to overplay her hand in this regard, but the cultural signifiers of the era play a part in each person's story, not the least of which is her own. Pond's Madge is an art school drop-out whose belief in art itself was greatly shaken by school and many of the people she met there. The "real-life" experience she craved in the diner proved to be grueling but also enriching in ways that wouldn't become clear until much later.

The fact that thirty years passed before she took on the task of processing the experience and spinning it into a story shows that this was almost a necessary incubation period. Pond the artist wasn't quite ready to do this book until she had had time to both process the experience and develop her skills. The results are remarkable. Pond is a good enough writer that she could have simply written a novel or screenplay based on her experiences, as her turns of phrase are bright and memorable without dragging into "tell, not show" territory (In fact, according to an interview with Tom Spurgeon, she tried to sell Over Easy as a novel but didn't get any bites.) Instead, her narrative captions and descriptions enhance her simple, lively drawings. Consider the panel where she meets perhaps the true hero of the story, her future boss "Lazlo Merengue" (an assumed, hippieish nickname that she immediately addresses in all its silliness). She refers to his "welcoming laugh" as "a bubbling fountain of entre nous" while creating a rich and detailed caricature of a man who should have been easy to ignore or write off, but instead had levels of rich depth and warmth. Lazlo and Madge are platonic soulmates in this book, as their senses of humor and points of view are very much in alignment, even as Lazlo has an uncanny charisma and knack for getting along with all kinds. Over Easy is a love letter to him as much as it is to the diner itself, because characters like Lazlo tend to become a nexus point for weirdness, intrigue and excitement. All things and scenes must pass, so I'm eager to read the second part of the book to see how the story of Madge, Lazlo and the others changes as identities start to become a little less fluid and a little more hardened. Until then, this seems an early and easy candidate for one of the best books of the year.

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