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Book Reviews Review: Mélody cements Sylvie Rancourt’s legacy as one of Canada’s first, and most important, graphic memoirists

In 1985, Rancourt began selling her comics as hand-printed zines to the patrons of Club 1560 on rue St-Denis, in between the dance routines she performed for them.

Drawn & Quarterly

Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer
Sylvie Rancourt,translated by Helge Dascher
Drawn & Quarterly

'They can't play a lick," rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote of The Shaggs. "But mainly they got the right attitude." Strumming out of time and playing out of tune, the sisters who made up the infamous girl group were barely into adulthood when their father financed their only LP, Philosophy of the World, in 1969. Their rhythms were untutored, careening out of control in exhilarating ways; their lyrics came unadorned with poetry or high-flown sentiment. They were no Supremes, no Beatles – they were better, as Bangs had it. "Their and my religion is compassion," he wrote, "the open-hearted sharing of whatever you got with all sentient beings." Their record met with indifference and languished unloved for years.

Pop music's paradigm had no place for The Shaggs in 1969; the world of comics was likewise unprepared for Sylvie Rancourt in 1985. Ambitious, prolific, and wholly untrained, the artist launched headlong into Mélody, a comic book series hundreds of pages long, in which she mildly fictionalized her ups and downs as a nude dancer in Montreal dives. Out of print for decades since their original release, Rancourt's intimate, compassionate comics suffered the longtime fate of that Shaggs album: stigmatized by a "charming" but wildly unprofessional style, the work was effectively orphaned, inaccessible to all but the most dedicated collectors, who persisted in citing it as a neglected classic even when they couldn't read its French. One such high-profile admirer was Building Stories cartoonist Chris Ware, who provides the perceptive introduction to Drawn & Quarterly's newly translated Melody collection – at long last, the first full appearance in English of a landmark in cartooning history.

Rancourt actually made history several times over with Melody, though the self-effacing comics compiled here might not betray it. In drawing these unassuming stories from life, the artist quietly staked her place as both one of Canada's first women cartoonists and one of our first graphic memoirists. Her peers in these fields have long since enjoyed the distinction conferred by their pioneering status in comics: Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse is still one of the few marquee comic strips, and Julie Doucet's grotty Dirty Plotte is revered by a generation of feminist followers, while Margaret Atwood has little need to tout her status as the country's first autobio cartoonist. In contrast, Rancourt's work has escaped notice in part because it didn't start off in the respectable worlds of graphic novels or the funny pages, but rather in Montreal strip clubs and porn magazine racks.

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Drawn & Quarterly's handsome and tasteful new edition – appended with contextual essays, billed as "literary" on its back cover, and thick as a volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard – could not be much farther from Melody's origins. In 1985, Rancourt began selling her comics as hand-printed zines to the patrons of Club 1560 on rue St-Denis, in between the dance routines she performed for them – a handbill posted outside the bar was the only fanfare announcing Mélody's debut. Her clients were her first readers (her stories extend unexampled generosity to these men in the crowd, granting them each private, poignant thought balloons). Her comics, at their outset, were another kind of performance.

Fittingly, in the opening pages of Rancourt's opus, a penniless, amateur Melody auditions for her first dancing gig. ("She seems so naïve," her lecherous boss marvels.) The character's postures are maladroit but made somehow graceful by the kindred awkwardness of Rancourt's cartooning: when Melody disrobes for the first time, Rancourt's inexperience as a cartoonist is also laid bare. "There's no way I can do this," Melody thinks. "Everybody's looking at me!" Rancourt calls attention to how keenly aware she is, as both artist and dancer, of an audience's gaze sizing up her performance. She remains resolved, determined to seize back control over her own image: "I need to show them I can dance." It's as lucid and crystalline an allegory as any for the autobiographical process, and for a woman's refusal to cede agency in her own story. Lack of training be damned: over the next several hundred pages, Melody will thrust herself into being a dancer, just as Rancourt will draw herself, by dint of sheer willpower, into being a cartoonist.

That same brand of determination carried over into Rancourt's career as an entrepreneur. Following two installments of her "barzine," Rancourt started her own publishing concern, Éditions Mélody, in order to release professionally printed, magazine-sized comics starring her alter ego on newsstands across Quebec (in comics, self-publishing was at that time construed not as vanity, but as defiance in the face of monopolistic publishers). The writer/artist/publisher quickly produced a half-dozen issues of the new Mélody, before disappointing sales ended the series, and a seventh issue remained unpublished. The current edition collects this entire fertile outpouring of comics – every two months, for a little more than a year, Rancourt blazed through almost the equivalent of a whole Tintin album.

The adventures of Hergé's boy reporter, as well as Archie and the Riverdale gang, served the same purpose for Melody as bubblegum pop did for The Shaggs: they provided a commercial template for Rancourt to bend and contort until it snapped. Melody's exploits often seem patterned after classic kid's comics – simple but elegant in their drawing, uncomplicated in their morality, with a resourceful but fallible ingénue at their centre – save that Betty and Veronica never danced nude. As Bangs wrote of The Shaggs, though, it's mainly the attitude, even more than the style, that Rancourt cops from such precursors. What makes her comics so charged and unusual is not so much that Melody details Rancourt's career as a dancer, or the moneymaking schemes of her criminal boyfriend, or the frequent, explicit trysts they enjoy in their open relationship – but rather that it does all this without judgment, and without apology.

Tintin, decidedly, Melody was not, but neither was it Hustler, exactly. Rancourt draws her fair share of suggestive subject matter – spread-eagled strippers, daisy-chained paramours – but the no-nonsense way that she stages these tableaux only ever invites readers to look, and never to leer. Her cartooning is scrubbed of all ornament and artifice, untroubled with niceties of anatomy, perspective, and proportion. The artist's approach has been called innocent and childish, a "little jewel of art brut," but to these eyes it reads more like minimalist prose: all nouns and no adjectives, clear and direct, something like Lydia Davis re-writing Fanny Hill. Rancourt's art merely describes, putting sex and crime and drugs on display, but refraining from any interpretive tsking. Reading Melody, we never quite know what to think. Her boyfriend Nick's gambling and dealing certainly seems reprehensible, but it's drawn in the same sunny style as Melody's frolics with her young niece. When our heroine "hits bottom" at Montreal's sleaziest club, it looks little different from when she is plunged in the throes of passion.

Perhaps it was this delicately indeterminate quality – neither moralizing nor scintillating, neither confessional mea culpa nor glitzy porn spectacle – that prevented Rancourt's cartooning from finding an audience and staying in print. Her comics couldn't satisfy readers accustomed to being told what to think, or how to look. The comics began too "abruptly," an American editor decided, when Rancourt contacted English-language critics and publishers hoping to find a home for Melody in translation. Her cartooning, on the other hand, "though charming, would not be well received by most American readers." Thus were Rancourt's original comics assigned to oblivion.

Revising and tailoring her work to suit the comic book market south of the border (shades of The Shaggs returning to the studio to cut covers of Anita Bryant and The Carpenters), Rancourt assigned art duties to Jacques Boivin, a more polished and published cartoonist who had already drawn covers to Mélody magazines. The author also provided her comic book characters with an origin story, explaining how Nick and Melody outgrew their community in northern Quebec and arrived at their Montreal "lifestyles." With these changes in place, Melody became a small-press American comic book series, producing ten issues and one book – The Orgies of Abitibi, in 1991 – which all combined to sell over 120,000 copies, turning Rancourt's stand-in into one of the most popular comic strip characters yet to come from Quebec (this despite the fact that her comics were frequently prevented from import to Canada, the subject of police investigation in Toronto, and the cause for Rancourt's ejection from an Abitibi author's festival).

But when the comic book market imploded in the late '90s, Rancourt and Boivin found themselves without a publisher, their revised version of Melody only one quarter complete. Their prehistory of Melody and Nick's relationship had managed to catch up with Rancourt's self-published debut, but got no further. Even at that point, Rancourt's original, solo storyline was still sui generis, and it remains so today – never repeated, never revisited, never bettered.

With all that said, it's too easy to become distracted by Melody's intricate backstory. Melody is exceptional as art, even more than as curio. I love Sylvie Rancourt's comics like I love The Shaggs' music – or Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, or Emily Dickinson's poetry, or any other such startling artwork, erected haphazardly outside the approved institutions of culture. I love Melody not because it's naïve, or innocent, or childish, or primitive, or any of the other epithets used to condescend to art that doesn't play by fixed rules. I love Melody because, like The Shaggs, it's unpredictable, complex, and rapturous pop, so unconcerned with convention that its bright-eyed self-certainty translates into real moral force.

Rancourt introduces each new chapter with a phrase that bespeaks her overall vision of perfect, contented equanimity, come what may: "This isn't the beginning and it's not the end, but somewhere in the middle with Melody." She could have put it like The Shaggs had it, too, simple and gawkily profound: "There are some things I don't understand. There are some things I do. But one thing I don't understand is why we have to be so blue." Rancourt doesn't understand why we have to be, either: Read Melody, and see what love and life look like, freed from all spite.

Sean Rogers is the Globe's comics reviewer.

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