"What's a girl got to do to get some respect around here? Stick a needle in her arm?"
I discovered Mimi Pond's comix in National Lampoon, back in the early 1980s. The magazine was hopelessly past its glory days by then; Pond was one of the reasons to keep reading. I lost track of her work after the 80s, though I was aware she wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons1.
I stumbled over her stuff again recently. Published at the end of summer, 2017, The Customer is Always Wrong is the second in a series of semi-autobiographical memoirs. It's far-removed from the stereotypical fare now associated with American comics. Mind you, Madge's self-medicated supporting cast probably sees aliens and monsters all the time. A few of them likely believe they can fly.
In short: a young woman tries to establish herself as a cartoonist and artist while waiting tables at a slightly seedy Oakland restaurant in the late 1970s and early 80s. She hangs with far too many people who have addiction issues and criminal associations. Despite the prevalence of drug abuse and general seediness, The Customer... doesn't glamorize these things. Regular drug use has realistic consequences, and Madge's relationship with exotic-seeming lowlifes gets her badly beaten up at one point.
Pond's ability to depict times and places remains the strong point of her art. Her characters are credible comic creations, but I didn't find most especially memorable.
Lazlo, Madge's manager, proves an exception, a man vacillating among the lives he lives. He runs a restaurant. He's a family man. He tries to keep his addict friends straight and clean. People find him charismatic and wise. And yet he partakes of drugs occasionally himself (this graphic novel will do little to dispel the popular notion that everyone in the era was on cocaine) and he finds himself in more than a few personal crises. Madge attempts to help, and ultimately discovers the need to leave her old life behind if she wants to find success in the funny pages.
Like so many of the better slice of life graphic works and semi-autobiographical indie films, The Customer... isn't so much original as it is well-done. The twin events that bring the novel to a conclusion might be clichés, but they're clichés because they happen so often in real life.
I didn't live in Oakland, I'm neither female nor a cartoonist, and, in my youth, only briefly waited tables. Yet, despite its dark turns, few things I've read lately have made me so entirely miss the chaos and promise of being twentysomething as this graphic novel.
1. She never received an invitation to become a regular contributor to the series, however.
The Simpsons, as most of you likely know, started on The Tracey Ullman Show, and had several installments before it premiered with a full-length episode of its own.