Pond's graphic-novel café serves up a vibrant cast of 1970s characters
The Customer Is Always Wrong sounds less like a book title and more like a wisecrack from a coffee-slinging diner waitress who wishes you’d just leave.
Instead, Mimi Pond’s second fictionalized graphic memoir invites us back to the Imperial Café in Oakland, Calif., as her alter-ego Madge continues to balance plates of greasy food with the exploits of her co-workers and her burgeoning artistic pursuits.
The slice-of-life structure of Pond’s first instalment, Over Easy, as well as its washed-out turquoise and grey colour palette, carry over seamlessly into this sequel. For readers unfamiliar with Over Easy, and one need not be to enjoy The Customer Is Always Wrong, Pond drops us back into the daily goings-on at the café, an intersectional hub for all sorts of folks whose paths might otherwise have never crossed.
The diner’s presence provides an insightful look into the politics of race, class, and gender, as the 1970s (and its idealism) draw to a close, with the 1980s looming on the horizon. Looming equally as large on the book’s cover, the Imperial Café is a vital character in the story instead of just providing a setting for Madge and her madcap crew. The restaurant kitchen and bathroom are especially vibrant as Pond depicts a stall door agape as a customer cops drugs inside, or a teetering stack of dishes that threatens to exacerbate an already bad day by crashing to the floor.
Pond’s sprawling narrative moves at a steady clip, often with just a few well-placed lines granting visibility to the demanding food-service work done largely by women and minorities, all of whom also seem to be teetering on the brink of something — whether it’s success, failure, illness, or addiction. At the heart of the book is Over Easy mainstay Lazlo Merengue, eccentric diner owner and dubious dad-figure to Madge and her dysfunctional co-worker-siblings. A tough egg to crack, Lazlo is equally mysterious and approachable, his smooth-talking, narcissistic tendencies often more evident to us than they are to Madge.
After circumstances force him to take a step back from managing the diner, Lazlo remarks that the Imperial will never be dull because he’s "made a grand opera of the place. Complete with a thousand extras, spear carriers, doomed heroes, multiple divas… and oh yeah, the gaping maw of hell as our primary set."
To the reader, though, the Imperial seems less like hell and more a type of purgatory. Pond highlights its temporariness as a product of its time, making Madge’s determination to leave waitressing for a career as a full-time artist all the more compelling.
Pond’s own success with being published in National Lampoon makes its way into the story as Madge sells her first cartoons to the magazine, her big break turning out to be more of a burden as she struggles to produce more art between picking up extra shifts.
Less anthropological than its predecessor, this sequel sees Madge more actively involved in (or engulfed by) the surrounding action, even though much of what happens to her is owing to the questionable choices of her often-desperate friends. Notably, her affirmation of "I’M A CARTOONIST!" fuels her escape from a life-threatening incident, while demonstrating her unwavering resolve to her craft, even in times of peril.
Many good artists begin their careers as good observers, and Pond’s visually complex tome highlights her diner job as the basis for both the characters and the compassion found in her graphic storytelling.
Honest and wry, The Customer Is Always Wrong serves up a frenetic tribute to a time, place, and surrogate family who proved crucial to Pond’s personal and artistic growth.
Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in comics and music.