Pink Lemonade

Pink Lemonade

Nick Cagnetti, with François Vigneault & Don Simpson

Oni Press


160 pages

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The truth must be told, against all accusations of bias or partiality: I once drove two hours to buy an issue of this comic. True, it wasn’t the only comic book on my list. But I don’t get down to larger stores very damn often, and when I do, it's a production. Lists are involved; a sure and certain sign I’m getting old. This comic was not to be found at my local store, so I had to drive two hours to find one that had it. I did this solely on the strength of what I had seen on social media, which isn’t much for advertising these days - but it got my attention, and hopefully I’m getting yours now.

Pink Lemonade will be compiled into a trade paperback on July 4. I like this comic book. I am enthusiastic about this comic book. In general I am bullish on Nick Cagnetti, his prospects and his potential.

All story, art & color by Nick Cagnetti; lettered with François Vigneault. Click any image to enlarge.

So what’s this Pink Lemonade about, anyway? Well, Pink Lemonade is a mystery woman. She wakes up one day without a memory, attached to a pink scooter and wearing a pink-and-yellow costume, pockets inexplicably stuffed with cash. She’s dedicated to doing right by the world around her, when she’s not succumbing to the wanderlust in her soul.

There is an element of pastiche in Cagnetti’s style, but it is nevertheless a distinctive and thorough aesthetic in its own right. You can probably guess a few referents based on the sample art included with this review; Cagnetti wears his influences on his sleeve. There are bits and pieces of various eras. It’s not quite redolent of the 1960s, and yet it's redolent of many things that were themselves influenced by that decade. Look back to the '80s and '90s, all those artists who came of age by hijacking certain aesthetic moves from previous generations. Dan Clowes’ early Uggly Family material, and Lloyd Llewelyn to boot, borrowed liberally from the popular imagination of previous generations while nevertheless creating something new and different.

There’s Mike Allred, clearly - central to the aesthetic in some regards. Allred's was a look that seemed very much plucked out of the past when he appeared on the scene around the turn of the '90s. Of course, he wasn’t a throwback or a retro act either, although there was and remains a note of nostalgia strummed throughout his oeuvre. I’ve come around on nostalgia, as an occasional seasoning. When indulged for its own benefit it makes for awful empty calories, but as a recipe note it can add a great deal of piquancy.

Comics is a nostalgic medium by nature - perhaps a consequence of the form. All you need to do to open up a portal in time is to read a comic book that looks like it did when you were little, and you are there. That can be dangerous, especially when you start making things look not the way they were, but how you might wish they would have been. But an honest relationship with the past can also be revealing.

That was ultimately the main question with which I wrestled, as I paced my apartment in the preliminary stages of composing this review: where’s that line, the part where something escapes the gravity of nostalgia? In some respects, Pink Lemonade could be seen as regressive. The problem is ultimately that they don’t make things like they used to. There’s an old saw for you! The question then becomes: is what they make today as good as it used to be? Any honest assessment by the aging specimen must be met with equanimity - it depends. I like all the different and exciting ways talented artists draw comic books here in the future, but I think even our best artists could all be producing better work if they were being paid more.

It’s a constant source of consternation to me that so many of our medium’s great artists literally can’t afford to draw the interiors of comic books even when they express a desire to do so. The best talent of generations consigned to drawing pinups and video game ads for a living, deprived of the opportunity to build greater monument to their skill, just because they feel like eating something besides Top Ramen.

That’s part of the story of Pink Lemonade too. Our plot gets underway with an introduction to OJ-Bot, an orange juice-themed robot superhero, missing for years before the beginning of the story. He had a good long run, decades of adventures, television cartoons and merchandising, before finally succumbing to the endless revamp. He becomes grim and gritty, and from there it's a quick leap to obsolescence. Some characters could make that jump, some couldn’t. OJ-Bot got left behind by the times.

So far, so familiar: we’ve all seen critiques of Dark Knight and the Image generation, all the touchstones for the supposed coarsening of the medium and the culture. That’s not the point Cagnetti wants to make, however. Pink Lemonade meets a guy named Ron Radical, himself an ex-superhero in the '90s mold, complete with a mullet and rippling muscles to hold his absurdly-sized firearm. He signed a bad contract, however, and all he does anymore is pretend to be a hero in front of a camera. Ron used to be fun, even if it looked different in practice than OJ-Bot or Pink Lemonade. But whatever juice Ron had, it also got squeezed by the passage of time and money. It isn’t rekindled until he learns to draw himself and starts showing his paintings.

And there’s the hook: it’s not change in itself, it’s not the difference of age, it’s the rationale. There’s nothing looking backwards here. The characters in Pink Lemonade are avatars of obsolete aesthetics, yet they are in the same place we are, hurtling towards an unknowable future. They’re stuck asking why the world we have now is so much less than the world we could have had. Change is inevitable. The question is, did we make the right kind of change?

Cagnetti's thesis is that no, we definitely missed a left turn near Albuquerque. Everything is different because the wrong people won all the arguments. Because, in the fullness of time, the people with more money often win the arguments. At least in the short and medium terms. Long term is another question. In the long term, skeletons have a way of dislodging themselves.

The problem is not style but substance. There’s no hope for the future in a landscape where the only possibilities are circumscribed by financial constraints. The villain of the piece, or at least a villain, is Zavi Xarad. Not the subtlest of digs, no, but there are worse picks for Patient Zero of our current dead-eyed era than one of the first tycoons to really take an interest in the medium as virgin ground for strip mining. Avi Arad and Isaac Perlmutter won the battle for Marvel in the mid '90s, although you can’t say things would have gone terribly different for us if Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman had won the tug-of-war. Both parties in the suit essentially had the same goals, it was merely a matter of who got to taste the pie.

Xarad here stands in not just for the unaccountability of corporate control, but the specific injuries of creation. Xarad’s contribution to the creation of OJ-Bot was a doodle passed off to a more capable creator, Smithee McClarence, who lacked the recourse to be in a better position vis-à-vis contract negotiation. Zavi Xarad is a stand-in for every hollow suit who signed his name to another person’s work. Bet you can name a few! At the beginning of their acquaintance, Xarad offers Pink Lemonade a signed sketch of OJ-Bot, and she comments to herself just how crude it looks. Bob Kane could barely trace a drawing, and his signature nonetheless went out on a lot of comic books.

It’s the details that come back to bite you. Reducing the creative impulse to mercenary incentives ultimately creates substandard work. There are good creators now - there are always good creators. The world of comic books is never short of talent. What we are short of is the material conditions necessary to reward that talent commensurate with its abilities. Certainly not opposite financial operators whose only concerns are of maintaining control of a brand at all costs. When your only concern is a tight grip on the levers of power, your creative decisions will be sharply conservative in nature. Pink Lemonade triumphs against the corporate machine trying to devour her whole and spit out a regurgitated Hollywood product simply by refusing to forget the principles of hope and kindness. Does that sound cornball? It is, of course. But it’s also the best defense against the worst cynicism, holding to one’s principles and refusing to waver.

And there we also find the source of hope, a wellspring for our future both on the page and in our lives: free expression against the tide of every conceivable negative incentive. Because some things—many things—are worth a great deal more than money. A person with a pencil and a stack of paper can sit down and create a comic book one hundred times greater than any Hollywood blockbuster, I truly believe. Nick Cagnetti believes so too, one must presume.

Don Simpson draws and letters an interstitial sequence.

Because Pink Lemonade? This comic looks good. Not a hair out of place. There’s enough meat squared away in this book to leave you poring for days. It’s not just the note-perfect replication of period ads, although that’s a nice touch for us '90s kids in the audience who like to recognize things. Issue #5 gives us a complete anthropology of OJ-Bot’s cartoon history; from the weird early CGI vehicle that the fans rejected to the mid '70s cheapie with the reused background animation, Cagnetti’s style is visible throughout while also proving a supple vehicle for more specific pastiche. The Hanna-Barbera section places the characters in the foreground of the shot against static backgrounds of blue and purple. There’s one panel of a 3-D Pink Lemonade, along with sculpted models and 8-bit pixel art. So much of the story is communicated through these kinds of details.

There isn’t a single panel of the book that betrays anything less than the utmost of effort. The colors! My goodness, these colors. Mostly flat, but Cagnetti is not above the occasional gradient. Most importantly is the variety - the multifarious candy-colored pastels that recur throughout should be distracting, but they’re just striking. Perfectly balanced. Never boring. He knows better than to ever give us a blue sky. There’s blue in the sky alongside pink and yellow and purple, dynamic color communicating not tension or anxiety but splendor at every step. This is a rich world, handcrafted down to the last detail.

Issue #3 takes place largely in an art gallery, at the behest of mysterious gallery owner and mystic Cyan Magenta. This sequences show off Cagnetti’s ability to its utmost, offering page after page of ambitious, dexterous cartooning that brings to mind the world of J.H. Williams III. There’s a fight on an elevated Möbius strip, an elaborate double page spread with Pink Lemonade chasing her doppelgänger, the actress Starla Swanson, that will punch the breath right out of your body.

Interestingly, that same spread also features an unexpected cameo from another 1990s totem - why, there’s Daria Morgendorffer and her pal Jane Lane. An interesting inclusion here. Daria is a beloved staple of '90s television that was nonetheless became popular against the wishes of the character’s creator. From what I understand, the people making the show weren’t even aware Mike Judge had been cut out of the loop for his own spin-off, after reportedly giving his initial blessing. Supposedly there are disputed accounts.

What’s the takeaway? Nothing is clean. Nothing is ever as clean as we desperately wish it was. We just have to do our best to maintain integrity. All the more important in an era where survival often depends on the extent and degree to which you are able to sell out.

Well, OK, one thing is clean: Nick Cagnetti’s art here. Absolutely pristine. I mean, if we’re being frank, we all know a comic starring a cute girl on a scooter was going to have to work pretty hard for me not to like it. It’s a premise that sells itself: wholesome healthy gal drives around righting wrongs. The most prominent kinship I was left with was the resemblance to a more recent strip, Ryan North’s & Erica Henderson’s Squirrel Girl. Another book taking direct aim at the superciliousness of commercial impulses. All about common ground and alternative modes of conflict resolution. Very difficult things to commodify, given the degree to which capitalist impulses push us all into necessary conflict. Squirrel Girl didn’t set out to be one of the most influential superhero titles of its era, and yet it became just that.

I dearly hope there’s lots more Pink Lemonade in our future, but I also know from his social media that Cagnetti’s been wanting to do Spider-Man for a while. It’s not like Marvel never publishes good comics. For instance, they seem to have good working relationships with the likes of Tradd Moore and Peach Momoko, currently. Clearly they just have to be convinced it's in their best interest to hire good creators. Well, I say it’s in their best interest to let Nick Cagnetti draw Spider-Man. And maybe if he gets that out of his system he can come back and draw some more of this for us.

Just last week I picked up another Oni book, a sci-fi anthology called Xino. New work from the likes of Phil Hester, Shaky Kane and Daniel Irizarri. Sci-fi with a serious dose of horror. Cagnetti’s story, “The Chip”, is written by Chris Condon, and even given my esteem for Cagnetti’s work I was quite taken aback by how visceral it was, how gory. (It has a similar plot to 1994’s forgotten sci-fi slasher Brainscan, but I’m probably the only person who noticed so it’s not a pressing detail.) Would I have guessed Cagnetti could draw blood and guts with the best of them? Probably not, but that’s down to my shortcomings as a critic.

The man can do whatever he wants to do, so from here on out I say we let him do just that. That sound good to you?