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Mimi Pond sketches an alter ego's youthful days in 'Over Easy'

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Mimi Pond is the cartoonist that time almost forgot. Her credits should've sealed her in the pantheon of coolness forever: She wrote "The Simpsons'" first episode, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," as well as episodes of the children's TV show-cum-surrealist theater project "Pee-wee's Playhouse." In 1982, her cult-classic book, "The Valley Girls' Guide to Life," taught wannabe Vals how to dress in a, like, totally tubular style.

She wrote and illustrated four other humorous books on fashion, including 1985's "Shoes Never Lie," which tapped the stiletto obsession long before "Sex and the City," as well as comics for many publications, including this newspaper. Yet most people don't know her name the way they know Lynda Barry or Gary Panter, to name a couple of her peers.

Pond's graphic novel "Over Easy" (Drawn & Quarterly: 272 pp., $24.95), out this month from Canada's premier indie-comic publishers, could change her fortunes and land her in the cartoonist's hall of fame.

Heavily based on Pond's life experiences, "Over Easy" starts in 1978 during the death throes of the hippie era. Margaret, Pond's adorkable alter ego, has to drop out of the California College of Arts and Crafts for lack of finances. Next thing she knows, she's indulging her fantasies of being blue collar, working as a dishwasher at Imperial Cafe (a.k.a. Mama's Royal, still open to this day in Oakland). In this grease trap for frustrated artists and nascent punks, Margaret gets a freewheeling education in drugs, sex, punk rock, and slinging hash browns.

"I really came into my own while working there," Pond said, speaking from Pennsylvania where she's on a self-imposed writer's retreat. "Over Easy" was 15 years in the making — first as a memoir that her agent couldn't sell. Then, in 2006, with her old friend Art Spiegelman's encouragement, Pond started drawing it as a graphic novel, hand-applying the book's trademark sea-green wash to each panel.

At Mama's Royal, Pond advanced from dishwasher to waitress and became one of the queen bees she'd always admired, rocking vintage threads and breaking customers' hearts. "The other waitresses were my feminine role models," Pond said. "I didn't know how to be a woman then. My mother was a great person, but she had no sense of glamour." As a dolled-up server, Pond flirted for tips.

"It was your duty and right to shag as much as you could back then," Pond exclaims. "It wasn't because you had low self-esteem; it wasn't childhood trauma. Women felt like we wanted to get our thrills just like everyone else."

Pond got her kicks out of her system. After leaving Mama Royal's for New York, the San Diego native met the artist Wayne White in 1984. They eventually settled in Los Angeles and had two kids. Family ties to her old workplace remain: Her son, Woodrow White, recently worked for a spell at Mama's Royal while he attended California College of the Arts.

In "Over Easy," drama froths over lusty triangles and one-night stands, but drugs are even more prominent. Lazlo Merengue, the cheeky manager of Imperial, is rarely sober. Ditto for the trash-talking line cooks. Pond admits that "it was all fun until it wasn't" and hints that the next book, a follow-up to "Over Easy" that she's already started, will deal with some of that fallout.

In addition to sex and drugs, "Over Easy" doles out plenty of politically incorrect humor from the opening pages on. "I think racial sensitivity is a good thing, feminism is the greatest thing, and I consider myself" a feminist, Pond said. "But I don't think we should forget how it was. It shouldn't be whitewashed."

She had to argue sometimes with her editor, Tom Devlin, Drawn & Quarterly's creative director, to keep in the occasional loaded term. For Devlin, weighing authenticity against current sensibilities presented a challenge. "You have to approach it case by case," he said. "In one case she had a character calling another one retarded, which made sense for the era ... but in other cases, a reader's reactions to the thing being said would've hurt the story that needed to get across."

Despite the occasional debate, the resulting book, Devlin says, is "pure Mimi. It's young Mimi, slightly more neurotic and unsure, like you can be at that age. There's her humor and brazenness. The cultural critic and social critic is in there too. She's always sizing people up."

Devlin speculates that Pond isn't as well known as she should be because her former works — illustrated books on style, and cartoons for magazines — didn't play into the collector mentality. "She may have been read by a wider audience but then it gets thrown away or the book goes out of print. She wasn't getting into comic shops, and she was outside of any of the collected movements."

Pond's tastes and her droll manner of proclaiming them have nevertheless won her many fans, including the designer and art collector Todd Oldham. They met six years ago when Oldham wrote "Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve," an elaborate monograph covering the life and career of Pond's husband.

"Mimi is a force of nature and blindingly bright. There's a truth to Mimi's work; nothing is false about what she does," Oldham said. His accolades also extend sartorially: "Mimi looks fresh and smart in anything she puts on."

Always outfitted in fetching retro eyeglasses, Pond keeps up appearances these days but with certain rules. "I see some women my age try to keep up with the 20-year-olds and I think that's a bad idea. You can't wear a leather jacket when it's the same texture as your skin."

Wappler is a writer in Los Angeles.


Festival of Books

What: Illustrating the Point: The Art of the Graphic Novel panel with Vanessa Davis, Ben Katchor, Anders Nilsen and Mimi Pond
When: Noon April 12
More info: latimes.com/festivalofbooks


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