You may know Guy Delisle from his world travels (and travelogue comics) and his parenting adventures (and parenting adventures comics), but he also was once a school-age young man with a summer job and here’s a thick comic about it. Surprisingly, this most mundane of topics might have produced his best graphic novel yet.
Factory Summers recounts Delisle’s multiple-summer-stint working in the Quebec City pulp and paper mill. He’s a fine arts student who likes to draw, and as much as he’d like to hole up in his basement and copy Moebius panels, his job in the paper mill exhausts him physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Deslise's art is simple and refined. In his previous travelogue comics, part of the overt purpose of the imagery was to act as a visual memoir of his time spent in a foreign place, capturing the architecture and customs of a different world. In Factory Summers, his linework seems more diagrammatical and economical, but still elegant in its narrative unfolding. He provides details of the machinery within the paper mill, and he deftly conveys body language of its inhabitants, but there's not a page or a panel that you would likely see pulled out of context as a work of beauty. Within the larger framework of the graphic novel, his panels and pages are exactly what's needed.
Delisle portrays the day-to-day work at the mill in a matter-of-fact way, but there’s a not insubstantial horror element to every task. I’ve worked with heavy machinery before in my jobs during those long-ago college summers, and much like Delisle in this memoir, I both enjoyed learning how to develop a mastery of the physical motions needed to get the cranky old machines to work and was constantly terrified that I would crush someone’s skull or tear off my own arm.
Delisle captures that fear and exhilaration and oppressive torment of the job, in his panic as he realizes he has made a greater mess of things while trying to follow the proper protocol, in the humiliation of watching someone more experienced slice off a massive blanket of paper and easily dispose of it while such a task seems impossible for the young narrator, and in the strange signals and social cues that develop as a peculiar language inside the microcosm of the enormous mill.
The new languages and social interactions that emerge are the most interesting parts of the comic, besides the unrelenting horror of possible death-by-machine. Inside the mill there’s a bizarre oasis of metal. A small room inside a soundproof cube where workers can cool down and watch television with all the comfort of an auto shop waiting room inside a trash compactor. The social dynamics of the mill play out here in “the shack,” but only in fragments. Delisle, who has made a career out of fish-out-of-water stories of his real-life interactions with foreign cultures, is merely a traveler here as well. Characters come and go in Factory Summers, sexually harassing the narrator in passing, mocking his life choices with little context, or lamenting about their own relationships. It all feels transitory, like young Delisle is a voyeur in the lives of others but one who rarely asks any questions or gets to know his co-workers particularly well.
Delisle presents all of this dispassionately, but artfully so. It feels like we are present in these brief social interactions, experiencing their fleeting nature, knowing that each moment is dotted with passersby in story that doesn’t really concern anyone outside the author. This is not a diary comic with a series of episodic events. It’s a memoir of a youth engaged with work and the sights and sounds of the reality of that work. There’s a truth to it in the way Deslisle underplays his younger self’s engagement with the world – he does the best he can at the summer job, but he isn’t invested in it, and he doesn’t care about the other characters all that much. They aren’t part of his real life, even though almost all of his waking hours during every summer of his college days is spent inside the mill, living a life that he knows isn’t really his.
More than other memoir comics, what it reminded me of the most was Jean-Luc Godard’s 1972 political film Tout va bien. I watched this film earlier in the summer, and as I read Factory Summers I thought of how Delisle was more successful at portraying factory work and the life within its dehumanizing world than Godard. In Godard’s film, Jane Fonda plays a reporter investigating working conditions in a sausage factory, and its not-so-subtle message is that capitalism is a destructive force. Godard relies on metafictional techniques of pulling back the camera and revealing the artifice of the soundstage while the characters pantomime on multiple layers, representing the multiple factions in conflict in the capitalistic society. Delisle doesn’t offer such heavy-handed commentary, either visually or in his narration. Instead, he immerses us in the world of the paper mill, from the perspective of a perpetual outside who is nevertheless responsible for some of the work going on very much inside. Delisle’s clear-eyed portrayal of people actually working is refreshing in its honesty but it also shows the humanity that is lost within the capitalist machine without underlining how tragic it all is.
In the end, Delisle connects his “factory summers” to a tragedy in his own life and frames the story in a way that’s more personal than the bulk of the narrative would lead you to believe. He’s telling the story of a time and a place, one that is clearly meaningful to him as more than just a strange world of dehumanizing work. He’s led us to a satisfying ending with grace and charm, but there’s more to this book than just his personal journey. In his subtle, matter-of-fact way, Delisle has shown us that art and story can be an escape, for him and for us, not just as a temporary means of withdrawal from reality but as a means of survival.