Sunday, May 22

Sylvie Rancourt is ‘Melody’, from stripper to pioneer of autobiographical comics

In the mid-1980s, and out of a need for personal relief, Canadian stripper Sylvie Rancourt sat down to draw her professional memoir in comic book form. When she had three episodes ready she started selling them from table to table among the patrons of the club where she worked, and legend has it that the first 500 copies of it were taken from her hands.

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Success led her to contact a national distributor that declined to take responsibility for that handful of photocopies that did not meet all quality standards, but Rancourt then prepared a full-color cover, had 5,000 copies printed in offset, and in June 1985 all the newsstands in Quebec had available Mélody à ses debutsa future little great classic of comics underground.

Sex and other truths

On the cover of that first issue of Melody’s tribulations, signed by the cartoonist Jacques Boivin to spruce up Rancourt’s amateur product, the protagonist appears naked on stage among an audience of men represented as angry pigs. Boivin’s illustration added lure and morbidity to the product, but his estimation differed from the nature of a clean, unjudgmental comic.

Melody. diary of a stripperIt passes like a translucent chain of everyday passages. Couple issues, companionship and rivalries between dancers or the treatment and portrait of bosses and clients. All situations that Rancourt exposes with the same level of involvement, whether it is an orgy or a crime, a trap or a sigh of love, in a story devoid of drama and alien to the moralisms, victimhoods and sentimental excesses that weigh down so much contemporary graphic novel.

Rancourt’s talent lies in moving a handful of human beings through the swamp of repetition, which is the defining characteristic of two areas of life that in his case went hand in hand, sex and work. He achieved it more visibly, slipping intuitions on the springs and emotional contradictions that activate and shake men and women, an elementary wisdom that contrasts and amplifies in the premature and somewhat angelic aspect of the work.

life as it comes

Without being so —such is its legibility— Melody It presents the qualities of a silent comic, although, from orthodoxy, not one of the almost 400 pages that compose it would be giving rise to ball, at least technically speaking.

The trace, when it exists, is random. Perspective and composition are extraterrestrial concepts and the drawing, in short, does not transcend the zero degree of execution, although it suddenly rises in flashes of beauty that can make us think of a Dick Calkins who has fallen into a puddle. The dramatic fabric is also a precarious childish weave, but it is precisely those primitive endowments, on the other hand so difficult to falsify, that end up signifying the work and operate to the benefit of its crude theme, something that also gives an unexpected impact to the occasional pornographic passages.

When Rancourt delivered these pages to the world, there was still no comic book reader educated in the immodest reading of other people’s lives. As the specialist Bernard Joubert points out in the epilogue to the volume, the autobiographical comic was then in its infancy. Justin Green had pioneered the genre in 1972 with Binky Brown meets the Virgin Mary and Art Spiegelman was already delivering his Maus serialized in the pages of the magazine raw, but Rancourt, whose knowledge of the medium was limited to Tintin and the erotic Italian newsstand comics such as Lucifera or Jacula, was unaware of the existence of those alternative currents. That unconscious audacity became a handicap, and the dissemination of his comics was also limited by the French in which they were originally written. Thus, after six issues that in the returns were becoming an endless number of boxes piling up dangerously in his apartment, Rancourt decided to abort the publication of the seventh installment and abandoned the adventure. Shortly after, Boivin promoted a minimal edition in English that would be highly celebrated by artists such as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and that led Denis Kitchen, a history of independent publishers, to promote the continuity of the character under more professional premises.

Almost forty years later, Autsaider Comics presents in a very successful translation those first original minifanzines of a distractedly melancholic comic about power and freedom, which deals with both issues on the fly, without pedagogies and with a disarming, almost naive frankness, and with no more architecture than the linear chronicle and reiterated of the professional days of its protagonist.

Melodywho begins to work as a stripper at the suggestion of her boyfriend’s suit, whom Rancourt, however, neither dispenses nor reprimands, is a work for adults who work as such, who in their readings do not require apologies or justifications but rather frank and authentic.