Surplus Humanity

The cover of Sylvie Rancourt’s Melody

As part of guest editor Laura Kenins’ month on comics, here Jason delves into Sylvie Rancourt’s graphic novel, Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015). 

Abitibi is one of those parts of the world that people are always leaving. It’s the kind of place people come from whose fathers were miners and whose grandmothers were farmers. It’s also one of the traditional regions of Quebec and the home of Sylvie Rancourt, the author of Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer. She left to move to Montréal where she became both a nude dancer and a celebrated comics artist.

Abitibi’s primary economic interest is mining—meaning it’s always either booming or busting. One day there’s not enough people to work; the other, there are just too many people for the number of jobs left. That surplus population is where the world gets its adventurers: the past’s colonialists, today’s fortune-seekers, and the urban migrants who show up broke in the big city and more or less stay that way.

When François Laterrière’s father asks him what he is going to be in life, François, the protagonist in Jacques Ferron’s story “The Dead Cow in the Canyon,”  answers, “a habitant, like you.” This will never happen in Quebec, because François is the youngest son of a habitant in the rang of Trompe-Souris, Saint-Justin de Maskinongé, in the region of Mauricie. If that seems like an incredibly finite description of François’ home, it’s because Jacques Ferron’s Tales from the Uncertain Country (first published in English in 1972) begin in the tightest-knit rural communities of Quebec, and end in a modern country that has no use for them anymore.

That modern country was, in a major way, created by the exiled children of the habitants who dominated 19th century Quebec. François, determined to set himself up as the kind of middle-class-farmer that the habitant truly was, travels to the Farouest, Alberta, to recreate his father’s farm and the life of a parish in Quebec. Instead, François winds up living in a brothel and working as a bull-wrangler in the Calgary Stampede. When the time finally comes to leave, he winds his way back to Quebec, where he makes a fortune operating his own brothel in Montreal.

The Saint Lawrence River Valley was, under the habitant-system, essentially full by the mid-1800s, with first sons inheriting farms and the rest sent off to make their fortunes in the Church, the city, New England, Ontario, or the Canadian West. They were the “surplus humanity” Ferron wrote so much about, who are not handed a place in the world but must go out and find it:

[François] … belonged to that surplus humanity that the Quebec parishes have continually to reject, in order to preserve their traditional face, the one they put on for the benefit of foreigners.

Quebec’s clerico-elite maintained its power in the rural society based in the parish. Urbanization, especially the move to industrial Montreal, was one of the greatest challenges facing the church’s power in Quebec. Betty Bednarski writes in a footnote to her translation of Ferron’s story “Back to Val-d’Or”:

Senneterre, Malarctic, Val-d’Or.  Places names from the northerly Abitibi region, where many Québécois were encouraged to move in the late 19th and early 20th century after land in the fertile Saint Lawrence River valley became scarce. Most eked out a miserable existence there, on the land or in the mines, by the 1950s and 1960s poverty had driven huge numbers back to the south, to urban centres like Montreal.

Enter Sylvie Rancourt. Drawn & Quarterly recently published a collection of the first seven Melody comics, translated by Helge Dascher. They were initially self-published by Rancourt herself, who sold them table to table at strip clubs and later on newsstands. American press Kitchen Sink then published English-language versions of a prequel series. The memoir-comics series follows Melody, a young woman from Abitibi who moves to Montreal in the 1980s with her deadbeat husband and works as a nude dancer.

The declining mining and agricultural industries in Abitibi continued to produce a “surplus humanity,” youth without a future in a declining region. By the time Melody arrived in the big city, though, Montreal was beginning its pre-millennial stagnation and becoming a source of outbound migrants itself.

Rancourt typically chooses to leave out the iconic in her depictions of the city. She shows the bar where she works, Bar 1140, some park-side walk-ups, and the Church of St. John the Evangelist. The first three books of Melody open on the same shot of the city, the way a sitcom might, showing half-a-dozen two-to-four storey brick buildings in front of two smoke stacks. The smoke stacks are active, but we quickly find Melody and her husband, Nick, looking through the classifieds at a restaurant. Eyes peering over the paper, Nick suggests, “Uh … What if you did some exotic dancing? It’s easy money … Just ’til I find some work of course!” Of course, Nick never does find work, except as a superintendent, which he leaves mostly to Melody while he continues to sell rip-off cocaine and appliances from hijacked trucks.

Melody is not a well-worn story about coming to the city and being devoured by its heartlessness as an innocent girl from the country descends into its underbelly. Chris Ware writes in his introduction to the anthology:

Though the situations in the book are frequently tawdry, horrible, and even cruel, the effect over-all is one of detached innocence, embodied first by Melody’s almost Krazy Kat-esque approach to life and then, beyond that, to the man-children who surround her in a co-dependency that is aesthetically dismantled cleanly and clearly.

The 1980s are perhaps better known as the heyday of the stock market and the financial industry, not to mention the decade of cocaine. Melody reflects a segment of society affected more by mechanization and free trade, sidelined by the boom in wealth management in a city that no longer had much to do with either banking or stock trading. Whereas in the early 21st century, Nelly Arcan, another author writing about sex work, wrote of Westmount businessmen, American tourists, and McGill professors hiring high-class escorts, 1980s Melody exists in a world largely ignored by wealth.

Surplus Humanity

A page from Melody

Melody is never ashamed of her job. Her parents and her aunt know how she makes a living. But through the many everyday work scenes presented, it’s not hard to tell that Melody would rather be doing something else, like drawing comics, in the same way that just about anybody with a job would rather be doing something else.

Melody is a child of those who stayed, those who still had a place, in the Abitibi of the 1950s. In the 1980s, there was no longer a place in northwestern Quebec for her, nor was there really one in Montreal—at least not right away.

Melody struggles in ever-sleazier situations after losing her first job dancing, and her husband gets involved in increasingly serious crimes. The anthology ends with Melody leaving a strip club where most of the girls are also sex workers, waving goodbye as the panels shrink, but with no indication that she will find a job out of the industry or that her fortunes will change for the better. Rancourt herself, on the other hand, found relatively successful distribution and US publication for her comics, even as she continued to dance. There may not have been a place in Montreal for a young exotic dancer from Abitibi who didn’t want to become a sex worker, but there was one for a bédéiste to write about that girl.

Rancourt never writes about making comics. The making of art and the life of an artist are deliberately excluded. Melody is a dancer and sometimes a superintendent, not a self-publishing comics creator who will go on to be recognized for writing “the first Canadian autobiographical comic,” in the words of BD critic Patrick Gaumer. Melody is not a story about moving to the city to make art. It is the story of surplus humanity: a girl who walks out of a bar called Le Trou du Cul because she has to, not because there is anything better waiting for her outside of those doors.

Leave a Reply