The patiently-paced, straight-to-the-point autobiographical comics from modern cartoonists like Craig Thompson and Jeffrey Brown seem to have, in recent decades, become the most widely read and critically acclaimed of all the genres making up the alternative comic universe. In America Justin Green pioneered the genre in 1972 with Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor (1976-2008) first brought it to the masses.
However, there’s an under recognized female Canadian named Sylvie Rancourt whose ‘Melody’ comics from the early ‘80s act as the first example of the genre to come out of that cold country to the north.
These comics, which chronicle her years working as a stripper in Quebec while living with her deadbeat husband, were first published in March 1985 as a six by eight inch photocopied zine. She made 500 copies of the first issue and sold them at the strip club where she worked. After the second issue proved to sell just as well as the first, Rancourt allowed her ambitions to take her to someone at Quebec’s largest magazine distributor, who said he would only distribute these ‘Melody’ comics if she reprinted them in a more professional manner.
She did just that and returned with 5,000 off-set printed copies that had colored covers drawn by Jacques Boivin. By June 1985 ‘Melody’ could be found on magazine racks across Canada.
The magazine-reading public in Canada, however, didn’t take to these childlike comics depicting the exploits of an erotic dancer. She published six issues before the boxes of unsold return copies, as Rancourt told Zoo magazine in 2013, made the floors of her home “crack with the weight” so that she couldn’t sleep. But instead of calling it quits, she translated them to English (the originals were written in French), printed them in the cost-effective mini-comic format like the ‘Tijuana bibles’ of the ‘20s or the Mission Mini-Comix collective of today, and then she sent them to nearly every American comic publisher.
Although most of the publishers didn’t think Rancourt’s work was polished enough, Aline Crumb championed it in Weirdo, writing that it had a “strong, straightforward story”, and that it was her “kind of book!!”, and Denis Kitchen, of the now defunct Kitchen Sink Press, decided to pick up the story for an additional ten issues, which preceded the original run of seven that are collected and celebrated here in this Drawn & Quarterly book, Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer (2015).
If we want to stretch the term, Rancourt could be called an outsider artist. According to what Bernard Joubert writes in the informative Afterward that provided me with most of the information in the above paragraphs, “her knowledge of comic art was limited to Tin Tin and popular small formats such as Archie comics.”
What first came to my attention when reading this collection of her early comics is the simplicity of both her drawings and dialogue. Her characters are depicted through thick lines and direct speech. It might come off as amateurish to some, but none can deny that the art has a charm and the writing has a flow that’s often lacking from the work put out by the ‘professional’ cartoonists.
The book, in fact, is an incredibly fun and addictive read. Page after page and chapter after chapter, it’s hard to voluntarily leave Melody’s world and I imagine many will read all 344 pages in one sitting for one simple reason: you want to know what happens next. While nothing too earth-shattering happens, since this isn’t an X-Men comic featuring Avalanche, plenty of real-life (or maybe I should say low-life) drama occurs. She gets asked by her boss to put-out, busted for holding someone else’s cocaine, and sexually assaulted by a yuppie couple looking for a threesome.
But the real focus of the comic is on the troubled characters who come in and out of Melody’s life and her interactions with them. These characters include her perverted clientele, her dysfunctional co-workers, her concerned aunt and, most of all, her scumbag of a husband Nick. All these characters bring a great deal of drama into Melody’s life, and although much of this drama is quite serious, Rancourt takes it in stride and never once asks for the pity of her readers. In fact, she retells her story through a light comedic lens that contrasts with its serious reality in a way that suggests that she wasn’t at all wounded by her experiences, but was instead educated by them.
Perhaps more than anything, Rancourt, with her warm welcoming voice, manages to challenge stereotypes about strippers, and the sex industry as a whole, by providing a name (Melody) to one of the faces that is often hidden behind the bouncing titties and shaking asses that men naturally lust after but all too often exploit. This is a must-read for fans of autobiographical comics or those, whether they be workers or patrons, with an interest in strip clubs.
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