Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

Melody - Sylvie Rancourt

THE NUNS NEVER TAUGHT ME HOW TO DANCE ON A STOOL!" Interview with Montreal cartoonist Jacques Boivin & cartoonist/sex worker/creator of Melody comix, Sylvie Rancourt by Mia Dee. (Before, I used to say look but don't touch I say touch but don't look!" excerpt, © 2000, Sylvie Rancourt)

In 1985 Sylvie Rancourt created an alter-ego for herself in the form of comic heroine Melody. Actually, this alter-ego may have been conceived years earlier, as Rancourt had already been working as an exotic dancer for 4 years before she put together the first edition & introduction to her character "Melody à Ses Debuts." It was during a temporary break from the business, due to sentimental reasons, that she decided to create her own autobiographical comic about life as a nude dancer.

"The comic encouraged me to return to work, I needed to work towards publishing & distributing my comic & I was determined to do this one way or another. It was this goal that lifted my morale & enabled me to return to stripping."

The comic was initially a way for Rancourt to "vent" about work as a stripper, to voice experiences that most strippers tend to keep to themselves out of fear of being judged by the common negative assumptions that stigmatize sex workers -assumptions that brand sex workers as criminal, sexually deviant, drug-addicted & so on... In fact, what I find particularly charming about Melody is her failure to overtly comment on or even acknowledge these negative assumptions & myths even though her characters are by no means void of these preconceived notions. For Melody is not a victim, nor is she a dogmatic symbol for the empowerment of the sex worker. She is who she is without apology -a young woman who likes to host sex orgies with her criminally-minded boyfriend & who happened upon a job as a stripper out of lack of any better opportunities. And Rancourt couldn't have chosen a better audience to first "vent" these stories to than the very patrons whom she performed for at the strip clubs. The first few photocopied editions of Rancourt's self-published zines were launched & distributed in the stripclubs where she worked.

"There was not one client who didn't buy a copy & find it interesting. Not one client left it behind. They would even read it from cover to cover in the bar instead of watching the stage shows. And that's when I thought, Damn! It must be good! The clients were the ones who proved to me that the book was good, even before I believed it myself & that's why I published it."

By 1988, with the support & collaboration of Jacques Boivin, a new Melody series was being published by Kitchen Sink Press, a leading American comic book publishing house who've published such underground comic stars as Robert Crumb. As well as translating Rancourt's text from French to English, Boivin also took over the illustration of the series at the recommendation of Kitchen Sink. It was decided that Boivin's realistic drawing style would more appeal to a wider American audience than Rancourt's "dessin naïf" style, although she would continue to direct the scenario. Together, they completed 10 issues of Melody as well as a book collection called "The Orgies of Abitibi." As Boivin recalls,"total book sales from Kitchen Sink Press was 120,000 copies!"

Melody's success is not simply due to the fact that it deals with an exploitable topic, it's Rancourt's shameless honesty & her ambivalence towards any specific audience that makes Melody such a respected & unique autobiographical work. Melody's character embodies an untouchable innocence. In one scene she's partaking in an orgy & in another she's gardening in total serenity. And at other times she seems to be hiding behind a mask of naiveté, which paradoxically, is one of Melody's strongest character traits, for her statements are usually open to more than one interpretation. In the first part of "Melodie Burlesque" (version francais), Melody takes the reader along for her first night at work as a stripper, in effect, answering what may be the most commonly asked question any stripper endures, "What was it like the first time?"

In this episode, Melody clumsily performs her first stage-show & private table-dance. Speaking from personal experience, the first time you take your cloths off for a customer is probably one of the least sexually expressive things you'll ever attempt in your life -all your attention is focused on not falling off the tiny stool you're restricted to dance on, while wearing six inch stilettos, not to mention all the while trying to gracefully choreograph the removal of your clothing.

After Melody's first ever table-dance, the customer requests yet a second dance to her amazement: "WHAT? You want ANOTHER dance? But you've already seen all of me!" Her reaction subtlety sums up how ludicrous it is that such an act as taking off your clothes for money can carry so much social & legal controversy. Seconds later Melody falls off the stool, landing ass-first on the floor, &
without a hint of sarcasm, humorlessly replies, "I'm so sorry! The nuns never taught me how to dance on a stool."

Although Melody has always been restricted to an "adults-only readership," the comic is not without it's own history of controversy. In the early nineties, Melody caused enough sensation that the comic book was denounced by Family Circle magazine as "pornography in the guise of cartoons." Shortly after this statement was published, explains Boivin, 4 employees of a small comic book shop in Toronto were charged with "possession & sales of obscene materials," following a complaint made by a customer's mother who recognized Melody on the wall of the shop. And unfortunately, the owner of this comic store, Planet Earth, was unable to appeal the charges & soon closed up for good.

"A month later, another comic store was raided by Toronto's Morality Squad," says Boivin, "this time they seized 400 magazines, one of which was Melody, even though they were kept in a restricted area & only available to those 18 years & over. Again, the staff was charged & soon after the store decided to no longer carry "adult" publications. Not long after this, the police raided Andromeda Distribution's warehouse & because of charges brought against them, they decided to stop distribution of 66 comics that "may be considered obscene," one of which was Melody."

What is considered obscene or not by Canadian law is not such a "clean-cut affaire." As Boivin explains, "it's more about intimidation. Just the idea that a shop-owner might get busted will cause the shop-owner not to carry the book -even though he probably wouldn't get busted."

"As a result of this "comic scandal" of the early nineties, Andromeda, the largest Canadian distributor at that time, went bankrupt a few years later. Now there's only ONE distributor worldwide -American distributor Diamond because they know that Canada is problematic in terms of "adult" publications, no "adult" comics are now being distributed in Canada. But this now has more to do directly with Canada Customs." Boivin continues, "Now no adult comic books, & we're talking about THOUSANDS OF BOOKS, are being imported into Canada."

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