IF A GRAPHIC NOVEL can be thought of like a three-minute pop song, then French author Penelope Bagieu wisely holds a beautiful epiphany well past the two-minute mark. The timing is sublime.
In her new work “California Dreamin’,” a graphic biography of Mama Cass Elliot, the pivotal scene that shows this revelation takes place in the ’60s Baltimore basement of Cass’s watchful mom Bess, a trained nurse. (Her father, Philip Cohen, had recently died, in 1962.) As dramatically constructed by Bagieu, Cass’s friends John and Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty have come down from New York to hang out, and Cass (born Ellen Cohen) offers that it’s “soooo strange to be back in Baltimore.”
At that prompt, Michelle says offhandedly: “The East Coast … the brown leaves, the grey sky … I’d be warm, at least, in L.A.”
And just like that, as husband John scampers for a pen to put that sentiment to paper, the reader enjoys the satisfying crystal-ball perspective: We know just what a smash hit “California Dreamin’ ” will become for the Mamas and the Papas, and how those words, eventually set to catchy and overlapping call-and-response, will soon be elevated to pop rock history as part of the mid-’60s rise of “the California Sound.”
That moment aptly captures, too, the degree to which the dulcet-throated Cass Elliot, this warm and ebullient presence, seemed to be in the middle of everything in that decade — from New York’s folk scene to Laurel Canyon’s rockin’ vibe to London during the height of the Beatles. (She was with them 50 years ago on that morning the lads opened the windows and blared their just-recorded “Sgt. Pepper’s” into the neighborhood.)
Yet much of the graphic novel’s “first minute” is set in the Maryland (with nods to Alexandria, Va.) of Cass’s youth, where Dad tries to make a go of it with a mobile deli. We see Cass at Baltimore’s Forest Park High, brimming with high creativity and volume as she finds her tribe of musical-theater kids. Even as a teen, Cass positively leaps off the page, befitting her real-life presence.
“California Dreamin’ ” finds its strongest narrative resonance when capturing Cass’s special blend of confident, undeniable talent with vulnerability always just beneath the surface, especially in matters of the heart. Another constant is how she deflects and wrestles with discrimination over her size.
With this well-researched biography, Bagieu does two things especially well. First, nearly every chapter is named for a different person in Cass’s life, and so the novel becomes a mosaic composed beautifully from these shards of shifting perspective.
Second, Bagieu — best known for “Exquisite Corpse” — works in a loose, mainly black-and-white style (with gray pencil shading) that matches the flowing, boundless energy of Cass’s rambling life.
The creative result is less about the Mamas and the Papas and more about how one irrepressible, winning young woman rises from her Baltimore roots by reaching for wherever her dreaming points her. Bagieu captures her incandescence well before Ellen “Cass Elliot” Cohen died in 1974, at age 32.
Penelope Bagieu will appear Saturday at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Gaithersburg, Md.