By Sara Varon
160 pages, color
Published by First Second
Sara Varon’s first graphic novel Sweaterweather shifted her from "she’s a good creator" to "I must read everything she works on." She’s had books since then like the adorable Robot Dreams, or her Cat and Chicken titles for much younger readers, but there’s something about her new book Bake Sale that particularly grabs my attention. Maybe it’s having the lead character running a bakery, or the underlying theme involving friendship, but there was something in it grabbed me in a way that even her previous works hadn’t already done so.
The idea behind Bake Sale is remarkably simple; Cupcake runs a bakery, while also playing in a band with his best friend Eggplant. He’s obsessed with meeting the pastry chef Turkish Delight, and starts trying to find a way to afford to fly to Istanbul and finally do so. Varon’s pacing in Bake Sale is quiet and subtle, but I never found it anything less than engrossing. From the early scenes where Varon brings us through the life of a smaller bakery owner (with everything from checking the daily log book for orders and ideas, to setting out the coffee for customers), I found myself attracted to Cupcake’s quiet but enjoyable life. Meeting up with Eggplant quickly turns into an important part of Cupcake’s life, and be it playing with the band or going to the turkish baths for some spa time, you can tell how inseparable the two are.
I found myself rapidly impressed with how Varon handles Cupcake’s obsession with Turkish Delight, too; it would have been easy to go for a full-on romantic yearning, but once again it’s slightly more subtle than that. You can ultimately read into Cupcake’s feelings what you want. Is it a professional attraction, or something greater? Varon deliberately leaves it unclear, and both fit well within the context of Bake Sale. I suspect part of it has to do with the fact that even Cupcake doesn’t know for certain, save that it exists. Even when we delve into Cupcake’s dream involving both Turkish Delight and Eggplant, it’s the sort of sequence of events where psychiatrists could come up with multiple theories and all of them would be plausible.
There’s also something wonderfully perverse about Bake Sale the further you think about the world they live in. Early on, I remember being startled that Cupcake was making a carrot cake for a customer when just a few pages later, we see a walking, talking carrot in a scene. Of course, then it hit me that this is also a world where a living cupcake is making tiny cupcakes for people to eat! Somehow this strange "alive or just foodstuff" dichotomy actually makes Bake Sale even more attractive, though. Besides, it’s hard to stop and think about this when you turn the page and get to see Cupcake making peppermint brownies to sell on Valentine’s Day, or even little baked doggie treats outside of a dog show.
The art in Bake Sale can best be described as "cheerful." There’s something just uplifting about it from start to finish; the pieces of food walking around with big smiles on their faces, the happy way in which Cupcake goes about his baking. Even some of the little details, like how Varon adds a "press!" sound effect for turning on the coffee maker, or the identification of items (locker key, towel, robe) at the turkish bath is cute. There’s also a funny little suspension of disbelief that goes on through the art. For instance, Cupcake and Eggplant don’t really wear any clothes (nor do the other pieces of food that make up Bake Sale) but upon arriving at the baths they get a robe to wear when walking around to the saunas… at which point they take off the robes and are back in their normal non-attire. It’s funny and clever in a sly sort of way, and it’s that nod to the audience as Varon draws their lives that makes me smile every time I look at the book.
One surprising touch at the end of Bake Sale is that Varon includes all of the recipes for Cupcake’s various creations. It’s a fun little way to round out the book, and I’ll admit that by the time I got to the recipes I had a serious craving for brownies and other baked goods. I haven’t tried Varon’s recipes yet, but if they’re even half as delectable as Bake Sale itself, I’m sure I’ll be quite pleased with the end results.
Last but not least, I have to say I especially appreciate the ending of Bake Sale. There isn’t a big smashing conclusion, or a moment where everything is spelled out for the reader in a dump of exposition. What Varon does give us is a great deal of warmth, as we see a level of contentment achieved by Cupcake. It’s a charming conclusion to an already great book, and the fact that nothing needs to be said in that final moment speaks volumes about the strength of the relationship on display. Bake Sale might be a book about ambulatory food, but it feels remarkably true to life. Highly recommended.