The Customer is Always Wrong
Mimi Pond (Writer and Artist)
Drawn & Quarterly
August 9th, 2017
Mimi Pond’s The Customer is Always Wrong captures that time of carefree youth, when everything seems to last forever and yet, with a creeping certainty, the consequences of one’s actions are slowly making their first marks. The graphic novel presents a fictionalised version of the author in her early twenties, capturing a brief but decisive period of time, when “Madge” the protagonist, drops out of art school and works in a restaurant-cafe to make ends meet. It is the second and final volume of the restaurant saga, and with each book averaging over 300 beautifully illustrated pages, it is quite the read. Yet, despite the length, the story is incredibly fast-paced, and you find yourself very quickly invested in the eccentric characters, quirky and creepy in equal measure, as they embark on numerous misguided adventures of youth.
The vast scope of the story that Pond wanted to tell is part of the reason why each volume took so long in making–Pond took five years on and off to produce the first volume–but the other reason is also the artwork. While it looks deceptively simple enough, with clean lines and a light blue-green wash, each page was actually painstakingly created on two separate sheets of paper. As is growing increasingly common, Pond had to do the line work on one page and the washes on another, which are then combined digitally, so that each can be manipulated individually. Pond’s style itself is somewhat reminiscent of Roz Chast’s, but despite the seeming looseness of her drawings, her work is incredibly controlled, a quality that is more than evident in the sweeping, architectural backdrops of her panels. Her greatest skill, perhaps, lies in the way she perfectly captures each gesture and disgruntled facial expression, lending a visceral quality to her characters and their emotions.
Like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Customer captures the dirt and the grime, the behind-the-scenes of running a diner, replete with cooking fiascos, surly customers, and a charming manager, all of whom end up sleeping with one another at various points. The story is set in Oakland in the late ’70s, a time when drugs and sex are cheap and easily available. Everybody partakes, and at the end of a long, hard day of work at the cafe, it seems almost impossible not to. It is in the midst of this cool and easy, yet frenetic and urgent environment that Madge, our protagonist finds herself in. Where the first book, Over Easy, captures the initial excitement of working at a diner, making your own money and negotiating adulthood and relationships, Customer depicts the inevitable consequences of some of those choices.
In the end, the unwholesome environment full of unsavoury but lovable characters, slowly begins to exact its toll, not just on Madge, but on the rest of the cast. In this book of atonement, Madge ends up having to visit a den of thieves to locate a runaway teenager, getting beaten up by a local gang in her own home and eventually having to decide whether her current lifestyle is sustainable or not. For Madge, working in the cafe, had always been a day job, and yet, four years later, the dream of being a full-time artist seems to move further and further away. Suddenly, even without having made a conscious choice, the temporary situation threatens to stretch into infinity, and Madge has to confront the fact that without making some drastic changes, she might very well work at Imperial cafe for the rest of her life.
Youth, generally speaking, is full of moments like this, in which the decisions we take (or do not take), influence the course of our life for years to come. The stunning gravity of our choices only becomes apparent in the hindsight of our later years, but in the moment, we lack all awareness of the lasting nature of these decisions. The Customer is Always Wrong perfectly captures this time of life, with all its attendant chaos, naivete and optimism, as we watch Madge, waitress and budding artist-in-making, slowly come of age in a moving finalé.