The world of comics and graphic novels may hold stigma as a male-centric genre, but these four new books explore the pains of growing up, moving on and embracing the messy parts of life—all from the female point of view.
Cartoonist and writer Mimi Pond is best known for writing the very first episode of “The Simpsons,” but her foray into the world of graphic novels may quickly overshadow her career’s early years—perhaps deservedly so. In her fictionalized memoir, Over Easy, Pond reflects on the oft-misunderstood 1970s and her waitressing years at Mama’s Royal Café (referred to here as the Imperial Café), which served as a beacon for burgeoning punks and the last wave of bohemians in Oakland, California. Pond’s alter ego is Margaret, an art school dropout itching to supplement her education with some honest, blue-collar life experience. Cue -Lazlo, the messianic manager of the café, who offers her a spot among his mouthy, ragtag staff. The job is grueling, but she toughs it out and taps into a well of self-reliance, eventually making waitress and earning the nickname “Madge.” With casual prose and dreamy aqua watercolor, Pond gets to the heart of the restaurant’s curious allure: hilarious banter between staff and customers, cheap and hearty food, recreational drug use in the back office, the steady stream of staff hookups and hastily organized poetry nights. If the ’70s usually conjures up thoughts of disco, gold chains and general excess, then Pond offers a refreshingly different side of the story.
From a different perspective on the coming-of-age tale, we move to the story of a 30-something’s struggle for identity. Anya Ulinich follows up her debut novel, Petropolis, with a text-heavy graphic work, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel. After her marriage, “a 15-year-long war,” finally reaches its end, Lena Finkle finds herself attempting to make sense of sex and dating as a 37-year-old single mom in New York. What constitutes a flirty text message? Is it wrong to wear the same dress on every date? Can she have a one-night stand? These and other questions swirl in her head as she struggles to stay afloat in the world of online dating. Her trial by fire comes in her relationship with “the Orphan”—a seemingly modest craftsman with a secret inheritance he is loath to rely on. His easy detachment soon clashes with Lena’s desire for dependability and love. She finds herself nursing a year-long heartbreak, during which Ulinich, with equal parts poignant and comic effect, portrays Lena as a tiny, helpless duckling. With a Shteyngart-esque eye for humorously conveying the Russian immigrant experience, especially in her interspersed snapshot comics—“The Glorious People’s Sex Education” and “The USSR ’80s”—Ulinich captures a woman’s earnest search for self between two cultures.
Similarly understated and a bit bleak is Michael Cho’s debut, Shoplifter (Pantheon, $19.95, 96 pages, ISBN 9780307911735). After getting a degree in English, Corrina Park moves to the big city with stars in her eyes, convinced she’s on track to chase her dream of writing highbrow literature. Instead, she lands a job at a soul-sucking ad agency where she’s been grinding out copy for the past five years. She still doesn’t have any friends outside of work, and it’s all fumbles on her nights out, so she mainly keeps company with her grumpy rescue cat. Her main thrill comes from the occasional bout of shoplifting at her nearest corner store—which is increasingly depressing in the context of Corrina’s self-conscious, kind-hearted demeanor. She’s toeing the line of resigning to this life, until she snaps. During a brainstorming meeting for a perfume aimed at preteens, she realizes the reliable paycheck isn’t worth it anymore, and this whole treading water routine—waiting for her big moment to wander by—isn’t going to work. With lovely two-tone illustrations throughout, this debut nails the feeling of millennial uncertainly and the quest for answers to those questions that arise on sleepless nights.
Illustration from Seconds, © 2014 by Bryan Lee O'Malley
A ROCK STAR’S RETURN
Bryan Lee O’Malley has been an absolute rock star in the comic world since his Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, stuffed to the gills with wit, whimsy and pop culture references, garnered cultish reverence after they debuted in 2004. Now, five years after the series conclusion and a big-budget film adaptation, O’Malley treads similar, yet more grounded territory with Seconds (Ballantine, $25, ISBN 9780345529374). Weighing in at 300-plus pages and with some of the most gorgeous color work in recent memory, Seconds is a titan standalone in the graphic world. Katie, a 29-year-old, scrappy, self-made chef and restaurateur, is preparing to open her very own restaurant. Her talent and charisma have earned her top marks in the city’s dining scene, and she’s the envy of her younger protégé, but her drive often serves as a distraction from her regrets and lost love. When exactly, did she take these wrong turns, and how did she end up having to face this version of reality? After a particularly terrible day unfolds, Katie discovers a single red mushroom that can alter the course of time, and, of course, all hell breaks loose. Katie’s type-A personality can’t handle the power, and she begins an obsessive pursuit of perfection. But the consequences start to creep in, and the restaurant soon becomes the home of a dark and threatening spirit. O’Malley fans won’t be disappointed with this existential fable; he successfully tackles the quarter-life crisis with just enough blunt honesty and self-deprecating wit, and there’s even a “Buffy” reference or two to keep things from getting too heavy.