Image: First Second

Cass Elliot, best known to the world as Mama Cass of the pop rock group The Mamas And The Papas, was an anomaly in the pop music world of the ’60s and ’70s. She had a smooth, powerful voice and loads of charisma, but her plus-sized appearance set her apart from the rest of the pop starlets of the time, which was both a blessing and a curse. French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu delves into the life of Cass Elliot in her new First Second graphic novel California Dreamin’, a beautifully illustrated biography that explores the ’60s New York City folk scene and the burgeoning feminist movement through Elliot’s experience.

Image: First Second

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“My fascination for Cass goes way back!” says Pénélope Bagieu. “I remember discovering The Mamas & The Papas’ Best Of album (a cassette!) in my parents’ car, and quickly stealing it away because I loved every song,” says Bagieu. “I listened to it about a million times. Then the stereo of my room had a broken speaker and so I was only hearing half the sound, and in particular, it isolated one of the voices. It was Cass Elliot’s voice. And it was the voice who made the song, most of the time. When I learned what she looked like, her image fascinated me too. On the album cover she was twice the size of the others, and she laughed with her mouth wide open, while the others looked mysterious.”

As she learned more about Elliot, Bagieu became increasingly impressed by her determination and resilience as a young entertainer trying to make it on her own in New York City. “She grew up in a modest family in Baltimore but she tackled everything in her life at age 19, including relocating to New York, all by herself,” says Bagieu. “She was destined to take over the kosher deli from her parents, but she wanted to be a rock star. She was overweight, but pictured herself on a Broadway stage. The whole world swore by Joan Baez, but Cass hated folk music. All men in her life ‘friend-zoned’ her, but she fell in love every ten minutes. The members of The Mamas & The Papas did not want her in the band at first, but she sang so well that they were forced to take her (and made a career largely thanks to her presence).”

Author photo by George Baier IV

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When asked about her favorite Cass Elliot song, Bagieu picked one of the singer’s most well known recordings. “At the end of the book, I put a playlist of suggestions to go further than the song ‘California Dreamin’’ so that readers can really discover the kaleidoscope of Cass’s voice. And I had a hard time limiting myself to a dozen! But perhaps the one that will make you want to listen to Cass for hours is ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me.’”

Drawn completely in pencil, California Dreamin’ is a striking showcase for Bagieu’s highly expressive cartooning. These exclusive preview pages are overflowing with feeling as Cass and her band mates jam together to form the foundation of the song that will eventually become “California Dreamin’”, and Bagieu captures the exhilaration, joy, and ecstasy of creating art with others in her graceful artwork. The layouts and letters swirl across the page as Cass and her friends get lost in the act of making music, and the book is filled with these kinds of evocative artistic choices.

“For me, facts, history, biography are only a canvas to develop the story that interests me,” says Bagieu. “The reality has to be used as a backbone, but if you just spit out dates and quotes, the reader is bored (at least, I’m bored). One must never forget that the book tells a story, that you want the reader to turn the page. I want the reader to want to hear the end, and love the main character until the end.” Readers can learn more about Cass Elliot when California Dreamin’ goes on sale on March 8, and they can celebrate International Women’s Day by picking up this graphic biography of a woman that challenged social norms to become a star on her own terms.

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Image: First Second
Image: First Second
Image: First Second

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Image: First Second
Image: First Second
Image: First Second

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Image: First Second
Image: First Second