Rachel Davis met up with Pénélope Bagieu at NYCC, she talks California Dreamin’, Brazen, and so much more! Pénélope Bagieu is a French illustrator and comic designer, she is known for her blog “BD My Quite Fascinating Life” has created the comics: Joséphine, California Dreamin’, and Les Culottées.

Rachel Davis: Welcome to New York Comic-Con 2017. My name is Rachel Davis. With me is Pénélope Bagieu, creator of California Dreamin’, and you are listening to ComicsVerse. Hi, Pénélope. How’s your con going so far?

Pénélope Bagieu: Hi. It’s going pretty well. Just got here. As usual, I’m amazed by all the costumes. I’m like a kid here.

Rachel Davis: Oh my goodness. The cosplays are incredible.

Pénélope Bagieu: It’s my third Comic-Con in New York, so I’m still in the honeymoon phase. I still don’t really see the downsides of it. To me, it’s still amazing.

Pénélope Bagieu

Rachel Davis: A veteran, and yet still amazed after all these years.

Pénélope Bagieu: Really.

Rachel Davis: Love it. We’re here to talk about your latest book by First Second, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & The Papas, which you’ve called a fantasized biography on Cass Elliot. It must be so hard adapting a real person’s life. Like, just reading a biography textually, but you’re also adding artwork as well as text, so you have these dual narratives going on. What were the challenges and the rewards of doing a biographical comic?

Pénélope Bagieu: It has a backbone of a biography, which means that all the facts are true and accurate, and I checked everything, but then your job as a writer is to make a good story, and not just make a sum of facts, because otherwise you just want to go to a Wikipedia entry and that’s it. So what you really want is your reader to turn the pages and to enjoy the story. My aim was really that at the end of the book you really love Cass, and you really just want to be her best friend, and you want to listen to her music.

That’s the tricky part, I think, is that you want this to be a biography, but you mostly want it to be entertaining, I think. So it has some rewards in the sense that the story is already here. All you have to do is try to put yourself in her own shoes and try to imagine how she reacted to things, how it felt like when she was enthusiastic, or hurt, or frustrated, and try to act and make her a character and not just facts and dates. That’s the kind of work I really enjoy doing, actually.

Rachel Davis: Yes, and it was a very entertaining and factual book. I genuinely enjoyed it.

Pénélope Bagieu: Thank you.

Rachel Davis: And I’ve enjoyed your previous work as well, Exquisite Corpse, also by First Second that came out in 2015. Yeah, California Dreamin’ has a very different art style. You used pencil this time. I believe you’ve spoken about not erasing any mistakes that you happen to make. Can you talk about why you chose to go with a different art style and what that process was like?

Pénélope Bagieu: Actually, between Exquisite Corpse and California Dreamin’ there’s been a lot of time going on because Exquisite Corpse came out in France … I was about to say 10 years ago, but almost 10 years ago. Although it was my first book published in the US, it’s actually a pretty old book. So between Exquisite Corpse and California Dreamin’ there have been several books. It’s not that abrupt. It’s been a progression.

The thing about California Dreamin’ was that first I was traveling a lot while doing it because I was going back and forth between Paris and New York, so I had to be lightweight, so I couldn’t really carry around my huge computer and my Wacom everywhere, so the pencil seemed a good option. And also, the story of California Dreamin’ goes from the 40s to the 60s, so that’s a lot of changes of settings, backgrounds, cars, hairstyles. So to make it more [inaudible 00:03:42] and to have this sort of … Yeah, to make it more logical.

Penelope Bagieu

 

Pénélope Bagieu: I thought I needed to find a graphical process that unified the whole thing, and I thought black and white would be a good thing. Since it was going to be a long book I knew that I would spend a lot of time on it. I thought I would add a little challenge first, and actually a little fun, because, actually, drawing with a pencil is amazing because if you draw you know that there is usually a very…

There’s a little loss between the stage where you have your sketches, they’re usually very vivid, and vibrant, and you think they’re beautiful, and then you ink and suddenly everything is static and kind of cold and you really lose something in the way. So keeping, I think, a story with a little-improved version of sketches. Which is, that it still looks like a sketchbook to me, but a good sketchbook.

This is also why I didn’t want to erase my… Because I’m kind of gross when I work, so there were all these fingerprints everywhere, and I thought, “You know what? This is part of it, so let’s just leave it.” When the publisher was reviewing the files they asked me, “Would you want us to clean everything?” And I said, “You know what? I think I like that kind of rough general aspect to it. I think it makes Cass more alive somehow, so-”

Rachel Davis: And I agree. She really does come off the page. But this isn’t just a story of Cass. At your Wednesday panel for the French Comics Association DIY to a Career in Comics, you mentioned how this was the story of Ellen Cohen, which is the real-life name like Cass Elliot is the stage name of Mama Cass. So why did you put the focus so much on Ellen Cohen and not necessarily Cass Elliot or Mama Cass?

Pénélope Bagieu: I liked the idea of someone inventing herself. I liked that she was born as far as you can imagine from being a rockstar. She had everything against her. And yet she decided that she would be this person that … this little chubby kid growing up in a family running delis in Baltimore with absolutely no connection to the entertaining world whatsoever decided when she was maybe five or six that, “This is what I’m going to be. I’m going to be a rockstar.” All of the odds were against her, but she said, “No, no. This is what I’m going to do, and screw whoever is in the way and tries to stop me.”

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So she decided that she would have this new identity, this new name. The part of her life that really interested me was how do you make yourself like she did. So this is why my story ends on the day that the song California Dreamin’ is released on the radio and it’s an immediate success, and if she becomes a rock star when she’s 25. Like that. Just overnight she becomes a superstar. I wanted to know what was the way towards that. And I’m more interested in teenager stories anyway than rockstar stories.

Rachel Davis: Absolutely. At ComicsVerse we love seeing diverse representation and one of the diversity that I think needs to be seen more and that you brought to the table is body diversity in comics. We normally see in the media, especially American comics of our superhero comics, that, like, [inaudible 00:07:18] female figure. Yet, you don’t Photoshop Mama Cass for this. Did you receive any commentary or backlash on her portrayal?

Pénélope Bagieu: Well, like you know, I come from France where this is an even bigger problem because there is a cult of fitness and of being slim as a woman. So I must say I’ve had some remarks from journalists, mostly male journalists who were really focusing on that part like it was a thing. Like, “Oh, so why did you choose to portray her like this.” To me, it was never the subject of the book.

She was fat. She knew it. People were trying to change her. Some music labels even offered contracts in exchange for a diet, which she always refused, and she was rejected because of that a lot. Which is interesting, because you might think that back in the 60s before MTV things were easier, but they really were not. And it was terrible for her too, and she’s heard terrible comments and remarks all her life. But there is not a part of the book where it’s about that.

She’s extremely glamorous, and flirty, and charming, and also very beautiful, because that’s also what was very important to me, is that she was very, very, beautiful I think, and I wanted this to show. It was really a pleasure to draw her. Yeah, really, I wanted people to love her. It’s not even the subject. But it is true that I have had remarks.

One of the, I think, most stupid remarks I’ve had was from a journalist who asked me … Who said he thought it was very brave to do this. I thought, “Do I let this go or do I … ” And really I was … I asked him. I said, “What do you mean? How is that brave? How is it brave?” He said, “Well, you know, she’s fat but still she’s very [inaudible 00:09:19], and she’s very much … she’s caring about her appearance a lot, which is unusual for people like this.”

Rachel Davis: No!

Pénélope Bagieu: I did the same face you’re doing right now. And I thought, “We still have a long way to go on the path of diversity until it’s not a thing, until it’s neutral, until … ” It’s not the subject of the book. It’s not a book about a fat woman. It’s a book about an amazing rockstar who happened to be fat. Yeah, it might take a few years more.

Rachel Davis: Right, but you’re on the way to changing that by showing that portrayal and showing a person. She is a person that just happens to be fat. That’s not the focus at all of California Dreamin’, and yet that’s what people are seeing, and you’re going to be part of that change, and thank you for being part of that change.

Pénélope Bagieu: One of the things I loved about California Dreamin’ was your choice of narrative. Each chapter is told by another person who knew Cass Elliot. It’s from their perspective. We never really get any chapters told from Cass’s perspective, and yet we’re so invested in her journey, especially the triangle with Michelle and Denny, which happened in real life, or the diner scene with her friend and she wanted to show the photo … I’m sorry. I’m just getting out again. That had me just wanting to … That was too early to bawl. That was very relatable.

Rachel Davis: So I was curious, again, you chose this different mode of narrative. Was this something that you had planned from the beginning, or did this come along? How do you create these different voices for these different narrators?

The reason why it came up like this was because as I was reading about her … She never wrote an autobiography, of course, and there has never been an actual biography about her, but I’d found testimonies and quotes from people, so even I had to solve the puzzle of who she was from everybody else’s perspective. So I read Michelle, I had read John, I read … And she was the cool girl, so she was a friend of everyone’s. So even when you read Bob Dylan’s memoirs, she is in it. She’s everywhere.

People were always going to parties at her place in the Laurel Canyon. It was like the cool girl everybody was hanging around with. I got to know her through all these perspectives as I was getting more and more into it. I guess this is how I constructed this in my mind initially. Then I thought it was a very interesting way of portraying her without ever giving her the opportunity to speak her mind because I think she really had a façade, and I thought it was interesting to see her always portrayed by people as the really joyful, lighthearted person, and that you…

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At some point, you understand that this is not her at all. So it kind of preserved the mystery. And also, I thought it was interesting to have people’s opinions; people who didn’t necessarily like her; to see that she was probably also a person who was kind of hard to live around. So yeah, it was like all of the pieces to a final puzzle that you kind of need to solve by yourself. So I like that idea.

Rachel Davis: Yes. Can you tell us about any future upcoming projects such as Brazen, which will be coming out in 2018?

Pénélope Bagieu: Yes. Brazen is a book that came out in France last year. It’s a collection of portraits of amazing women, like, really amazing women, and none of them are known, or really little known, mostly because they’re women and they never made it to biopics or history books, and really they should. So they’re all sorts of women. They’re astronauts, and queens, and mermaids, and witches, and all sorts of great women from every part of the world, and throughout history, like, centuries ago to today.

Some of them are 18 years old today. It’s how these women are dealing with their hand, which is sometimes really not a very easy on, manage to invent their destiny somehow and not care about what people thought of them. I love them all very much like they’re my daughters. There are 30 of them, and I’m very excited. It’s coming out on International Women’s Day next year in March.

Rachel Davis: Oh, I can’t wait to pick that up.

Pénélope Bagieu: And the cover for the US version is gorgeous! I’ve just seen it, and it’s golden and so cool, and I’m really glad, because I put myself a lot of pressure for the American version, and it’s going to be great.

Rachel Davis: Oh, I’m already pre-ordering this. Like, you have no idea. Well, thank you so much for your time, Pénélope.

Pénélope Bagieu: Oh, thank you.

Rachel Davis: Yes. For more interviews as well as reviews, analyses, check out ComicsVerse.com. My name is Rachel, and I’ll see you next time.

For more Pénélope, check out her Twitter!
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