Sylvie Rancourt's comics about her life as a stripper in 1980s Montreal are no less groundbreaking today than when she first started selling them 30 years ago in the strip clubs where she worked.
Although the format of autobiographical comics has since gone mainstream, Rancourt's frank, engaging and surprisingly sunny depiction of life as a nude dancer continues to break new ground by refusing to outright condemn or celebrate what happens in the once-ubiquitous downtown Montreal strip clubs.
Rancourt was born in Abitibi, Que., where she now lives with her husband and five children and spends much of her time painting. In the early 1980s, she moved to Montreal with her boyfriend, who encouraged her to take up nude dancing. She started drawing comic strips based on an avatar, Melody, photocopying and selling them to clients in the clubs.
The convoluted publishing history of Melody is explained in an introduction by the acclaimed Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware. Despite selling more than 200,000 copies of an English-language compilation in the U.S. market and receiving recognition in France, until now Melody has remained an underground cult comic in English Canada. The combination of its simple style and explicit content has contributed to the sad neglect of this pioneering female Canadian cartoonist this edition hopes to correct.
Rancourt gives her readers a coming-of-age story about a naive yet uninhibited young woman who teaches herself how to dance onstage, negotiate dressing-room tensions, evade lecherous clients, support a sketchy boyfriend and explore her sexual preferences, all the while staying connected to her aunt and beloved little niece.
Over the seven chapters collected here, Rancourt's simple cartooning style offers a rich portrait of how Melody both chooses and is pushed into situations that sometimes get out of control, but never with any apparent lasting damage.
There are hints this is a seedy underworld where exploitation exists. During a police raid, one of the women mentions some of the dancers are underage. In the chapter titled Melody Hits Bottom, we see her resort to dancing in a club where the women are expected to offer sex for money. Melody's boyfriend is variously a drug dealer, gambler and con artist.
Yet none of the relationships are straightforward, and Melody always asserts herself and her desires. As she declares in the final chapter, "I like having fun... but I don't like being some kind of sex object."
As with other coming-of-age graphic memoirs by women, notably Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, it would be easy to dismiss the simple black-and-white visual style as childish and unsophisticated.
Despite the graphic nudity and erotic poses, her characters are more reminiscent of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking than the dense drawings and grotesque caricatures of 1980s underground comix.
This contradiction between style and content is precisely what makes Melody such a complex book. Using a charming visual style to represent graphic content, Rancourt challenges conventional divides between the innocent and the erotic, not to mention the pornographic. As much as this book offers a snapshot of the Montreal underworld of the 1980s, it is also a very contemporary commentary on female sexuality, desire, exploitation and empowerment.
Melody is also a welcome reminder that Canadian memoir is no longer limited to the lives of the "great and the good."
This landmark of Canadian graphic memoir is one of many interesting life experiences outside the norms of respectability and the halls of power that are being told, and drawn, by those who lived them first-hand.