Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer by Sylvie Rancourt

If Stephen Hero were female, Francophone, and made a living by dancing naked, he'd be Melody. She is her creator, transformed onto the printed page but otherwise true to life...as far as we know.

And how far do we ever know what's true about anyone else's life?

Sylvie Rancourt came to Montreal in about 1980, barely out of her teens, with her mildly dirtbag boyfriend Nick. Since Nick couldn't get a job -- or wasn't willing to actually work, which seems more likely -- he encouraged her to try out at a strip club. Sylvie did, and found she was good at dancing naked and enjoyed the life. A few years later, she started to draw comics about her early days, which she printed herself and sold to patrons at the clubs where she still danced.

Melody collects those initial seven comics, each about fifty pages long, which Rancourt wrote, drew, and published entirely on her own. She did get some newsstand distribution as she went on, and then quit when the weight of the accumulated paper caused her floors to make unpleasant groaning noises. The versions here have been translated by Helge Dascher, and this, I think, is the first time the majority of them have been available at all in English.

Slightly later, in the early '90s, Rancourt worked with fellow cartoonist Jacques Boivin on another version of Melody, in the English language, for publication by Kitchen Sink Press. She wrote those comics and Boivin drew them, and I understand the second series of Melody is a prequel to the first one -- if I read them, it was long ago, so I don't know exactly.

Why did it take so long for Melody to be collected? Why are these stories from 1985 through 1989 only now coming to an English-speaking audience? Well, the collapse of Kitchen Sink -- and the accompanying near-collapse of the entire pamphlet-comics industry -- probably put a damper on the project for a while, particularly since the second series of Melody looked to be on a pace to eventually cover the same events as the original comics and maybe even move forward in Rancourt's life from there. So these stories were the "early version," maybe. Or maybe Rancourt's style, which is clear but untutored and naive, was too far out of fashion -- too much "folk art" and not enough High Art, or standard comics art -- was a stumbling block.

Or maybe there are just lots of good comics out there, and so a lot of them get forgotten -- particularly if they broke off in the middle and didn't do all they wanted to do. (Cf. Billy Nguyen or The Eye of Mongombo or Hepcats or Stig's Inferno or Redfox, from roughly the same era.) Melody got rediscovered, and brought back, which is what counts.

Rancourt's style is naive and simple -- some might call it childish, but Chris Ware notes in his introduction that she does some sophisticated visual things, so I think that's incorrect. And that style takes some getting used to, all open faces with simple expressions on top of naked bodies gyrating (and occasionally screwing). But she's telling a true story honestly here, looking at her younger self basically from the outside -- telling it as "Melody" rather than herself for some distance.

We're still on her side: Melody is friendly and positive and open and giving -- maybe too much so, at least for some people. Certainly, she indulges Nick far longer than most readers will have sympathy for, since Rancourt shows him as a leech and an low-level opportunistic criminal.

The important thing to know about Melody is that it's not what it seems. It looks childlike, but the art is deceptively supple -- and about sex and crime and nudity much of the time. It looks like someone else's story -- but it's really Rancourt's. It looks like a light-hearted view of the exploits of a sexy young stripper -- but it's more nuanced and thoughtful than that. Any work of art that sneaky and seductive deserves a closer look.

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