It’s a minor miracle that Mimi Pond ever made it out of Oakland — or maybe that it took her so long to leave.
The cartoonist and illustrator’s prolific career has included work in the National Lampoon, the New York Times and more, along with television credits with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and “Designing Women.” She even wrote the pilot episode of “The Simpsons.”
But first, Pond was a starving artist in Oakland. More specifically, according to her new graphic novel, “The Customer Is Always Wrong” — a fictionalized but based-on-true-events memoir — she was an aspiring cartoonist on the hustle, waitressing at Oakland’s Mama’s Royal Cafe (Imperial Cafe in the book) and trying to make it through the ’70s and early ’80s fully intact.
The novel is a follow-up to her 2014 graphic novel “Over Easy,” picking up with Madge (Pond’s alter ego) and the cast of characters at the Imperial, ones who are never formally reintroduced, but whom we come to know through drunken revelations, hungover work shifts and drug deals gone bad.
Pond has said that the two novels were originally conceived and written as one, but simply broken down into two volumes for practical reasons. But while “Over Easy” introduces Madge’s world of drugs, sex, punk and hippiedom (and antihippiedom) with a sense of charm and homage, “The Customer Is Always Wrong” is the sobering wake-up call to naive nostalgia.
Druggy episodes become desperate addictions, and early mornings are characterized by sad realizations of dreams fading away. Characters and the relationships they fall in and out of are abusive and self-destructive. The best of Pond’s illustrations are the ones presented silently, snapshots of the quiet hopelessness often coursing through the panels.
Of course, the Imperial is still seen as a home, if one filled with seedy characters Madge is trying to both escape and in some way cling to.
Pond’s sardonic humor does poke through the engrossing moment-to-moment crises. But “The Customer Is Always Wrong” might be most appreciated for what it is — a look at the end of a wild ride, punctuated by deeply profound moments in a time that could swallow you whole.
Brandon Yu is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com
The Customer Is Always Wrong
By Mimi Pond
(Drawn & Quarterly; 448 pages; $32.95)