Talking to Pénélope Bagieu

Before Cass Elliot became a world-renowned name as one of four band members on The Mamas & The Papas, she was a young kid growing up in Baltimore with her two siblings, Joseph and Leah. Her mother Bess was a singer in a swing jazz group at a younger age. Elliot’s father Philip always had dreams of becoming a singer himself, and would take her daughter to watch La bohème, an opera composed by Giacomo Puccini and tell her bedtime stories about Florence Foster Jenkins. These vignettes serve as the opening scenes to Pénélope Bagieu's California Dreamin’, a unique biographical take on Elliot’s career, which was released by First Second Books last month, two years after the graphic novel made its debut in Europe.

California Dreamin’ is not a rags-to-riches story, but an unapologetic look at Elliot’s foray into music, and the roadblocks she had to deal with along the way. Elliot was blessed with a wonderful voice and vibrant personality, but people in the industry often chose to focus on her large-sized frame, which made her the butt of people’s jokes and made other musicians -- including some of her own band members -- skeptical about whether she would be the right fit. When her father passed away at the age of 42, Elliot decided to pursue her musical dreams in New York, and later formed a folk music group called The Big Three with Jim Hendricks and Tim Rose.

If the music was satisfying Elliot on a personal level, very little else was. The graphic novel -- illustrated in black-and-white with short chapters told in different narrative voices, including Elliot’s dad, her high school mate, fellow band members, and others -- slowly unravels the frustrations that lingered beneath the surface throughout Elliot’s career. Bagieu wanted to to create a juxtaposition between Elliot’s constant zest for life and a sense of brokenness. “It was like the everyday joke that she was fat,” Bagieu says. “She had to fight her way to get to where she was without losing who she was. She never thought, “Okay, I’ll be the fat girl.” That’s what I like about her.”

Bagieu grew up listening to tapes of The Mamas & the Papas at her parent’s place, and was immediately fascinated by Elliot and her larger-than-life personality and smile. “I remember always loving these songs and always noticing this pretty voice,” Bagieu says. “I was totally fascinated by her. Ellen and I, we go way back. I always wondered what kind of life she would have had. I thought she had an amazing life. I started to look for anything about her.” The research process for the graphic novel only heightened Bagieu’s fascination. “She had this specific idea of what she wanted to be,” Bagieu says. “She never lost weight. She never changed the way she sang. She was a role model no one really cared about.”

The neglect and disrespect Elliot dealt with throughout her career is something that Bagieu can tangentially relate to. Bagieu, who was born in Paris and now resides in Brooklyn, New York, remembers a decade ago when she, along with a fellow writer, pitched a female superhero story idea to a major publisher. Bagieu remembers the male publisher suggesting that their superheroes could have superpowers that would allow them to get the cheapest clothing at sale time, and to always have the perfect shoe even if there was one size left. “I really wanted to slap him in the face,” Bagieu says. “I was so humiliated.”

The comic book industry has presented its own sets of challenges for Bagieu. “For female cartoonists, you have to be quiet,” Bagieu says. “You have to either do girl stuff. In France, we call it the The Smurfette Syndrome. You’re a token. It’s not neutral, we don’t make up half of the cartoonists. You’re just the girl. You have science fiction comic book writers, action comic book writers, and, oh, here’s the girl.”

When California Dreamin’ was first released in France, Bagieu was perplexed by some of the reaction and feedback about the book. “I had a lot of questions from journalists saying it was very bold to have a fat female character, and it really made me angry,” Bagieu says. “There’s not a moment in the book where she mentions [her weight]. The rest of the world wanted her to be slim. And she basically says fuck it. It’s not even a topic for her. She was only there for the music. She didn’t want to be the example. She was so self confident.”

The graphic novel was released last month on International Women’s Day, which was no coincidence for Bagieu. “In these times, everything for women becomes political,” Bagieu says. “Everything becomes a strong statement. You have to scream all the time, and to speak louder. I think it’s a good opportunity [for people to read] a book about a woman who kept doing what she wanted to do, who never listened to people telling her that she should do this or do that. She was so iconic. I’m really proud it’s coming out that day.”

Elliot passed away at the age of 32 from a heart failure. The Mamas & the Papas released five albums and sold over 40 million records worldwide, and Elliot had a brief solo career after the group broke up. The second half of the graphic novel hones on the often times disruptive dynamic between the band members in the group, and closes with the "California Dreamin’" tune that is synonymous with the band.

When asked whether she would have wanted Elliot to read her graphic novel, Bagieu said no, claiming this was her version of Elliot, and she’d be too nervous if Elliot was alive to read it. “It would be like having a secret crush and one day he finds out,” Bagieu says. “I would be so embarrassed.”

“To me it’s a love letter,” Bagieu explains. “I want to explain to people it’s not that she was the best singer, it’s just that I love her so much and I just want people to listen to her and love her too.”