In the month since its release, the Internet has erupted with praise for Mimi Pond's Over Easy, a thinly veiled graphic memoir of waiting tables in a 1970s California diner. The North American arts world, especially its pop-culture aficionados, has been waiting for Pond's latest book with great anticipation.
Pond is the cartoonist you don't know you know: she wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons in 1989, as well as episodes of other groundbreaking shows such as Designing Women and Pee Wee's Playhouse. From the 1980s on, she has worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for National Lampoon, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Seventeen magazine, among others.
She lives in Los Angeles and is married to painter and sculptor Wayne White, the subject of the joyous documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing. In that film, we see how creativity and art-making is a way of life for this long-standing couple and their kids.
Although this is Pond's first major graphic novel, she's no stranger to publishing. Her five previous books chronicle 1980s and '90s popular culture from a female point of view in such funny cult classics as Splitting Hairs: The Truth About Bad Hair Days, Shoes Never Lie, and The Valley Girls' Guide to Life.
A professional cartoonist and illustrator for much of her adult life, Pond returns to her first "real" job for the coming-of-age story of Over Easy. The setting is Oakland in 1978; the protagonist is art-school dropout Margaret, who takes on the new persona of Madge when she starts working at the Imperial Café.
From the outside, the Imperial looks like an abandoned Chinese restaurant. On the inside, however, it offers strong coffee and delicious food, along with a cast of quirky characters. Margaret shows the owner, the "comic, druggy" Lazlo Meringue, her drawings in exchange for a free meal; so begins the intersection of the place with her growth as an artist and person.
Eventually Madge works her way onto the staff. She starts off washing dishes -- a hot, exhausting, never-ending task Pond refuses to romanticize. Likewise, once she is promoted to server, Pond shows Madge learning the ropes of her demanding job while having to deal with cranky kitchen staff, oddball customers and her co-workers' insatiable desire for gossip about everyone in the diner.
The new world of the Imperial leads Madge into friendships and sexual relationships that teach her about herself as well as others -- classic elements of the coming-of-age story.
Part of Over Easy's charm and originality is its depiction of the lost world of late-1970s California, where the mellow, drug-taking culture of the hippies starts to be challenged by the raw, edgy skepticism of the early punks. Through the array of customers who frequent the Imperial, Pond shows the impact of larger social movements on Madge's growing self-awareness about her gender, sexual, racial and class identities.
Her name-change near the outset marks Madge's transformation from privileged art student to working-class server and from girl to woman. This is no class tourism or slumming, though; Madge embraces her work and learns to navigate the adult complexities presented by her newfound relationships at the Imperial with friends and boyfriends.
Ultimately, this is the story of the birth of an artist. Madge integrates her drawing with her work life, finding fertile crossover and somewhat-surprising support from her co-workers.
Pond is masterful at pacing the story, using all the tools of panel layout, point of view and caricature in order to create the frenetic pace of the weekday breakfast rush or the languid stillness of an early Sunday morning street. Her delicate line work draws the characters in fine detail, while the grey-green palette conveys a sense of distance from the 1970s and casts an eerie glow over the hothouse world of the diner.
The Internet is often wrong, but not in its outpouring of affection for Over Easy. This candid, amusing, visually sophisticated story recreates a specific time and place to tell a more universal story that is hard to put down.
Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department at the University of Winnipeg.