Mélody

MélodySummary: In 1980, Sylvie Rancourt and her boyfriend moved to Montreal from rural Northern Quebec. With limited formal education or training, they had a hard time finding employment, so Sylvie began dancing in strip clubs. These experiences formed the backbone of the first Canadian autobiographical comic book, Melody, which Rancourt wrote, drew, and distributed, starting in 1985.

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Mélody, by Sylvie Rancourt 7.0

I had never heard of ‘Mélody’ before a friend of mine sent me a link to the library’s copy of this eponymous collection, which brings together Sylvie Rancourt’s first seven books in the cult series, the ones that she wrote and drew herself. Enticed by the notion that it told the story of a young woman becoming a Montreal stripper, I decided to give it a go.

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that it was based on Rancourt’s own experiences back in the early ’80s, when she moved to Montreal from Abitibi. Soon after becoming an exotic dancer, she started making her rudimentary comic strips, photocopying them and distributing them in the bars that she worked in. They became popular enough to garner a small following.

Each of these seven volumes is 45 pages long, and were first published in 1985 and 1986.

1. Mélody à ses débuts: The book begins with Mélody being coaxed by her boyfriend, Nick, into strip dancing to pay the bills – but only while he’s struggling to find work. Of course, his idea of work is selling drugs or gambling and soon Mélody ends up stripping full-time – after a few misadventures on the stage, being a rank amateur. She soon gets the hang of it, though, and becomes a popular attraction at Bar 1140.

2. Mélody et ses poupées: This one’s a bit strange. For some reason, Mélody decides to incorporate hand puppets in her show, and no one thinks it’s funny but her. She does get support from some audience members, though, enough to sustain her confidence. Meanwhile, she gets her aunt to make costumes for her and the other dancers are impressed enough that she gets her aunt to make some for them too. Meanwhile, her relationship with Nick continues to degrade and tensions mount.

3. Mélody et la police: Mélody’s aunt decides to alert the police after her daughter finds hash at Mélody and Nick’s place during a visit – thinking it will cause Nick some problems and maybe get him out of Mélody’s life. Instead, it causes Mélody to be arrested and charged for possession. Twice, because they also wind up shaking down her workplace. Meanwhile, Nick is beaten up by some dealers for selling cocaine mixed with flour. Yeah, he’s a total winner.

4. Mélody et son orgie: Mélody helps out her coworker, Louisette, when she and her boyfriend are having landlord troubles, by letting them stay at her place. Their first morning after, the four of them have sex – which influences Mélody and Louisette to do a duo at the club to catch the eyes of the clientele, now that a buxom blonde has become the star of the show. It’s a fairly naughty volume compared to the other ones, showing us much more sex or discussing sex more explicitly than I’d imagined.

5. Mélody la concierge: This one’s very different from the others in that it’s more text-heavy. Nick finally finds himself a job, as a live-in janitor in a small apartment complex – so they move there. But his work habits are terrible and he gets nothing done. Meanwhile, Mélody gets booted out of the club for being late one too many times (that was to be expected, as she had been warned many times before) and finds herself a new gig in a total dive, thinking that she’ll have the upper hand on the less attractive dancers.

6. Mélody dans un trou: Another text-heavy one, this one finds Mélody working in the new club, Le Trou du Cul, discovering that it’s grittier than she’d ever expected. Meanwhile, Nick begins to sell stolen stereo equipment for some friends of his and makes a bet with a rival that he won’t be able to seduce Mélody – which Alex takes on with gusto. And wins. I’m not sure that any of this moves Mélody’s character arc any, but I imagine that all of this will come to a head in the next and final volume.

7. Mélody en cadeau: A couple decides to find a woman for her to sleep with on her birthday. And so they wind up at Le Trou du Cul, looking for a dancer who’d be willing to come home with them. Um… guess who they pick? Meanwhile, Nick’s drinking is getting more and more out of hand and he gets into trouble with the law for purchasing stolen appliances, leading to a confrontation between him and Mélody. In the end, this is not resolved, but Mélody does leave the club for a new, undefined future.

Frankly, I can’t say that Mélody’s adventures are particularly compelling, as it seems fairly episodic and there’s little true character growth. But there’s a charm to this slice-of-life tale that make them enjoyable. Is it because it’s set in Montreal, a city with a culture that I’m familiar with? I’m not sure. At the very least Mélody’s story feels realistic.

If largely uneventful.

The “Mélody’ books are considered the first autobiographical comics in Canadian history, which is fairly noteworthy, though the stories themselves are merely slice-of-life. Frankly, I can’t say that Mélody’s (mis)adventures are super compelling, but it’s an interesting glimpse into the world of stripping, going backstage with candor, unvarnishing the work.

To say that the art is simplistic is an understatement: Rancourt had no formal training and resorted to childlike black-and-white sketches. It’s rudimentary stuff. Even the paneling is amateurish and sometimes hard to follow (to the extent that she sometimes put arrows to help the reader. Sometimes.). And yet there is a method, as evidenced by its exact page count.

Thankfully, there’s clear growth in her storytelling from one book to the next.

Still, after the first seven issues, she relegated her artistic duties to Jacques Boivin, publishing new books in the ‘Mélody’ saga from 1988 until the late 1990s, when it became known by an English readership. The series is apparently very well known on the comic book scene, is admired by many of Rancourt’s peers, and has been the subject of a few literary studies.

Not bad for a rudimentary, self-published comic, you must admit. I would actually be interested to read Mélody’s further exploits, to see Rancourt’s progression as a storyteller and to see how Boivin’s art affected the oeuvre. Perhaps they’ll be collected somewhere someday. I dearly hope so. I may not be a huge fan, but there’s just something about ‘Mélody’.

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