In the early to mid 1980s, Sylvie Rancourt self-published Melody, a French-language comic in which she recounted her experiences performing as a young nude dancer in Montreal clubs. Initially selling the comic to the clubs’ patrons (she ultimately published six issues), she continued all the while to strip. Now collected in a single volume in English translation, the type of story Melody tells, as well as the somewhat unusual circumstances of its creation, seem ripe for a contemporary reappraisal: a reading that would try to gain from this artifact of the recent past some purchase on the always-vexed relationship between women, money, power and sex. A stripper who uses her body to entice her paying clients while simultaneously using her pen to depict those clients seems like a figure fit to fill any number of ideologically legible, though almost certainly contradictory, roles: a victim-of-circumstance sex worker whose only hope for release lies is her intellectual labor; an incisive self-objectifier with her eye cannily on the money, a kind of witchy pour-it-up-style vixen; a self-deluding collaborator who, in her decision to continue stripping, proves a disappointment to the emancipatory possibilities of liberal feminism; and so on and so forth.
In Melody, though, Rancourt frustrates any definitive ideological reading as the comic’s narrative vacillates according to the bumpy rhythms of everyday life and a changeable, sometimes-buoyant, sometimes-despondent subjectivity. Unlike Chester Brown’s Paying for It, another memoir published by D+Q, which was, despite its subdued depiction of real-life situations, largely a self-certain libertarian-leaning argument in comic form for sex work as an inalienable human right, Melody is so interesting because it doesn’t pretend to a teleological arc or promises one single ethical or political takeaway. What stands out are not meaningful moments of decision making, of definitive descent or ascent, but the pauses in between, life’s indeterminate crevices and nooks. There are a lot of events in Melody, to be sure, but, to quote the words with which each of the six issues begins, “this isn’t the beginning and it’s not the end, but somewhere in the middle with Melody…” — the ellipsis as if waiting to enfold the textured events that follow. (It’s a more malleable version of one of my favorite beginnings, Georg Lukacs’s energetic pronouncement at the opening of “Narrate or Describe” — “Let’s start in medias res!”) Rancourt doesn’t harness even the most dramatic happenings to the predictable, easily satisfying laws of storytelling or ideological sense-making, the conventional benchmarks of which often determine how narratives begin — and where they tend to end up.
We don’t know where Melody comes from, exactly. We know that she’s moved to Montreal recently; that she has a father and stepmother with whom she keeps in touch only tenuously, and an aunt and niece with whom she has a somewhat closer relationship. What we mostly know is that she has a bad husband: Nick sells drugs, unsuccessfully at that; he gets involved in increasingly shady dealings; he is a lazy bum, a low-grade suitcase pimp who mooches off Melody. But though his badness is seen as unfortunate—the reader is meant to understand that he’s a loser, a negative influence—it isn’t figured as high tragedy, or as the maker of a zero-sum situation. He’s mostly a disappointment, but every once in a while he’s sweet, and that’s the way it is. Melody may leave him or she may not. In any case, the intense motivation and the swift decision making that is often urged in other dramatic “bad boyfriend” stories isn’t present here.
The same goes for the stripping. Early on in her nude dancing career, Melody asks a coworker, who tells her that she doesn’t like the job, “Why don’t you do something else?” only to have the other girl reply, “I guess for the same reasons as you.” “Right… of course…” Melody muses, with Rancourt’s primitive line rendering her noseless, wide-eyed, slightly open-mouthed face even flatter than usual. (It is the type of face that might be penned by a tween with a penchant for drawing her sexy Barbie dolls over and over again, the stroke of the pencil accompanied by a certain newly pleasurable consciousness between the legs.) What would those reasons be? They could be guessed at (a lack of education and no family support likely play a part) but there is no desperate incentive here, or at least not one that is depicted as such. Melody is young and has what is considered a “good body.” She also needs money to live, and stripping is an available option. Certainly, it can be gross work—a lot of the men are creeps, with their busy hands and semen-stained pants—but it’s also not that terrible. Sometimes it’s pretty easy, even fun.
It’s not that Melody isn’t introspective, exactly, or that her feelings and opinions aren’t strong; it’s that they are often in flux, and reversible. In his introduction to the book, Chris Ware suggests that Melody’s protagonist is childlike, but I’d argue, rather, that her sensibility is much more that of a very young woman—mostly powerless, occasionally powerful, with the work of stripping not necessarily situated at one definitive end of that spectrum. The sensations of the body before, after, and during its ritualistic unveiling consistently fluctuate, with Rancourt’s bare-bones drawings surprisingly capacious in their ability to convey those sensations. Melody writhing on stage, her face screwed up in enjoyment or disgust at her less agreeable clients (“Come back! We’re not done smelling your wonderful scent!”); with her mouth twisted into a grimace (“I’m yelling because I’ve had enough! I don't like this bullshit and I want to go home right now, got it?”); or sighing in delight as Nick sucks on her nipple (“Oh sweetie”).
Melody’s malleability reminded me of that of Ulli Lust’s protagonist in the comics memoir “Today is the Last Day of the Rest of your Life,” a book also set in the early 1980s, and telling, as well, the tale of a girl on the margins of polite society. Though Melody is much more static and not professedly political like Ulli—who over the course of the book hitchhikes around Europe as a self-described “anarchist”—both heroines-turned-cartoonists are stars in a bildungsroman where the bildung is still ongoing, might go on for many more years. In both narratives, violence and exploitation often devolve into enjoyment and back again, a dégradé fabric where boredom and trauma and pleasure and rage endlessly bleed into each other, and none lasts so long as to be the ultimate moral of the story.