If you've ever waited tables, you know that it can be one of the best and worst jobs in the world, often simultaneously. It can be backbreaking and infuriating and completely disgusting; it can also be a lot of fun.
It's this dichotomy that Mimi Pond captures so brilliantly in her fictionalized graphic memoir, Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly). The book is based on Pond's experiences working at a diner in Oakland in the late 1970s, just as the punk scene hit the Bay Area. But Over Easy isn't obsessed with chronicling a scene. Instead, it's a very sweet (but very filthy) coming-of-age story of a young artist.
Younger readers probably don't know who Pond even is, which is a shame. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Pond had some of the funniest—and smartest—cartoons around. I grew up reading her monthly page in Seventeen, and it influenced me to the point that I tried to start a (very bad) comic strip in college. (It went nowhere, mainly because I cannot draw, and Pond can.)
Pond began her career cartooning for National Lampoon and the Village Voice, but she became a national name in 1982, at age 26, with the publication of her pitch-perfect spoof The Valley Girls' Guide to Life. It was an illustrated guide to "ValSpeak! Etiquette! Fashion Tips! Cute Dudes! Shopping Malls!" and it was hilarious. Like, totally.
More humorous collections followed: Mimi Pond's Secrets of the Powder Room, Shoes Never Lie, A Groom of One's Own, and Other Bridal Accessories, and Splitting Hairs: The Bald Truth About Bad Hair Days. In between, Pond wrote episodes of Pee Wee's Playhouse (along with her husband, Wayne White), Designing Women, and the first-ever episode of The Simpsons. She also continued cartooning, with regular columns in The Los Angeles Times and occasional cartoons elsewhere.
But if you don't live in L.A., it's been a while since you heard from Pond—that last book came out in 1998. Of course, she was busy raising her two children with White, but she's also spent the past 15 years working on what would become Over Easy. (According to an interview I did with White last fall, her first draft was over 600 pages; Drawn & Quarterly plans to release a second volume of the memoir in a year or two.)
The years of work show. Over Easy is a gorgeously illustrated book, with pen-and-ink drawings covered by a watercolor aquamarine duotone. Every frame shows an exquisite attention to detail, and the way each progresses to the next reflects Pond's experience in Hollywood—many pages read almost like a storyboard, as if the conversation were unfolding shot by shot.
And there is a lot of conversation in Over Easy, much more so than action. The book begins when Margaret, aka Madge, an art student at the California College of Arts and Crafts, walks into the Imperial Cafe in Oakland. (The fictional cafe is based on Mama's Royal Cafe, which is still in operation in the city.) She's sketching at the counter when the manager of the cafe starts talking to her and asks to look at her drawings. She offers to trade one of the diner for a free meal, and when she comes back to redeem her coupon, she decides on the spot to start working there.
From there, Over Easy follows Madge as she works her way up from a dishwasher to waitress and slowly becomes friends with the staff, who fall in and out of love with each other (and a number of customers) and do a lot of drugs—pretty much your standard restaurant employee behavior. Madge is like a fly on the wall for much of these goings-on, naively watching the casual sex and drug use but staying away from the drama.
Still, by the end of the book, Madge has transformed herself. It's a subtle transformation—there's no one climactic occurrence the way there is in most bildungsroman, but then, how often does that happen to us, either, when we come of age? We change and transform and grow up gradually, in increments. And so does Madge.
Over Easy may be more serious than Pond's previous books, but that doesn't mean it's not also very funny. (I read it on a train and laughed so loudly that several people gave me dirty looks.) Even funnier than the ridiculous situations in which her coworkers find themselves are Madge's attempts at dating.
Somewhat early on, Madge starts dating Joe, a bricklayer and artist she meets at the diner. At first she's madly in love. Then, six weeks in, Joe cooks dinner for her at his place. But it's not the dinner of overcooked pasta, sauce from a jar, and Miller High Life that's the deal-breaker. It happens when he puts Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" on the turntable.
"Ugh," Madge thinks to herself over the course of several panels. "How could I have missed noticing that Joe has such sucky taste? If there is one thing that can squelch romance for me, it's finding out that my inamorata passionata likes cheesy music. It's all very clear to me now. It just isn't working. This isn't working. Our little romance is going south fast. I try to put it out of my mind, try to drown it out with sex, but now I just see a dull guy who likes bad music."
That single page, just one out of 271 in the book, perfectly encapsulates the pains of dating in your early 20s when you're an arty music snob. And that's why I loved Over Easy—it took me back to those days when I would leave the dish-room soaking wet and covered in grease and laughing my ass off at some crazy thing my boss had said, when I was so naive I had no idea one of my close friends was addicted to crack, when the entire world seemed full of new friends to make and boys to date.
But even if you never did work in a restaurant in your youth, Pond's book is a fantastic account of being young and slowly starting to gain the confidence to succeed as an adult. And unlike the most recent spate of graphic memoirs, it's full of joy—perfect for summer, or for anyone heading off to college this fall.