Cartoonist Mimi Pond’s history with the Voice goes back to the early ’80s, when she drew a page regularly for Mary Peacock’s fashion section. Pond soon became a best-selling humorist with her book The Valley Girl’s Guide to Life. In the meantime, she wrote for television, writing for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.”
Her first graphic novel, Over Easy, is a clever, warm-hearted look back at her time as an art-school dropout-turned-waitress in an idiosyncratic Oakland diner, as California hippieism was giving way to disco and punk.
You did cartoons for the Voice in the ’80s. Was that one of your first jobs?
It was. I started selling comics to National Lampoon when I was still a waitress in Oakland, and then its cartoon editor, Shary Flenniken, invited me to come to New York and dip my toe in the water. I think before I even moved there someone sent me to see Mary Peacock at the Voice, and she gave me a page. I learned a lot from her about writing, and she also gave me the freedom to pretty much do what I wanted 99 percent of the time. And the freedom of having an entire page to play with was just, in today’s terms, an unheard-of luxury. You could really spread out and go crazy.
You also wrote for a number of TV shows, including the first Simpsons episode. What were the challenges in bringing those characters into a long-form story for the first time?
Matt Groening was asking his cartoonist friends if they wanted to write episodes, and I was one of the few people that said yes. They explained the characters to me and asked if I wanted to do a Christmas episode, and I said yes because I hated Christmas, so that sounded like fun. And it was getting to be toward Christmastime, so they decided to run that one first.
But you never did any more Simpsons work.
I was a friend of Matt’s, but it really was a boy’s club. It was never explained to me why I wasn’t invited to be on staff. I had to put it together for myself from what I heard through the grapevine. So it was not a great experience for me.
With Over Easy, what was it about those experiences that made it so urgent to write right now?
The main character, Lazlo, is someone who is very important in my life, and someone who validated my observations about life. He made everyone who worked with him feel as though they weren’t just people working in a restaurant; that we were meant to gather this information, and take notes and make art about it. He hired people like he was casting his own weird punk-anarchic opera.
Also the ’70s were just a very strange time, looking back on them now. There was just so much people were getting away with then that people can’t get away with anymore, and I mean that it both positive and negative ways. Between rampant drug use and casual sex, there were a lot of moral gray areas.
What benefits did you get from giving this memoir the veneer of fiction, and what changes did that require?
Real life is never quite as dramatic as fiction can be, and I wanted to be able to express the spirit of the time and place and the people without getting really literal. I felt that by fictionalizing it, I could get to the core of that easier than if I tried to tell it in a factual way.
Also, it’s easier not to get sued.
You’ve had a lot of success with humor books that combine cartooning with prose. Why do a complete graphic novel?
I thought about writing it as a screenplay, but I lived in Los Angeles long enough to realize that it could be taken away from me at any time and completely ruined.
I eventually had to break down and admit that it really just wanted to be a graphic novel. It was such a daunting amount of drawing to think about. But then I remembered that I actually do like to draw. I spoke to Art Spiegelman about it, and he said, “You should just do it.” He could hear that I was passionate about it. And I thought, “If Art Spiegelman tells you have to do it, you have to do it.”
Are there any techniques you developed to tell this story?
Visual storytelling to me is a very instinctive thing. I try not to get too gimmicky. I think there are a lot of graphic novels that get really flashy with the way they lay out stories; it almost takes away from the story itself, because it becomes more about the technique and less about the storytelling itself.
One thing I noticed was your use of silhouettes, especially outside. It centers attention on the environment rather than the characters in those moments.
I think both the restaurant and the city of Oakland are almost as important characters as the people themselves, and I wanted to get that across, because I really love Oakland. It’s a really great, underestimated, under-appreciated town. It’s such a big part of my memories of those experiences.
Now that you’ve done Over Easy, what do you have on your plate next?
Part Two. It’s not over yet — this is just the first half.
Mimi Pond will be signing Over Easy and talking with fellow humorist Lisa Birnbach at 7 tonight at McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince St., 212-274-1160, mcnallyjackson.com.