For three summers in the late 1980s, during his high school and early college years, Guy Delisle worked in a pulp and paper mill outside of Montreal, before he abandoned his studies for a career in animation. The son of a white-collar industrial artist, Delisle is decidedly a class interloper, one of the few employees to work at the mill seasonally. His graphic memoir of that time, Factory Summers (Chroniques de jeunesse), reads like a bildungsroman of the bumbling teenager playing at a factory job. The book opens with a nod to Balzac’s ladder-climber Rastignac (the opening page of the French edition bears the inscription “A nous deux!,” a line that is removed from the English version) and a recounting of Delisle’s coming-of-age as a graphic artist. The volume closes with two archetypal autobiographical scenes: when Delisle accepts his first job in animation, and when he cleans out the apartment of his deceased father—who, himself, had worked at the factory where Delisle worked seasonally.
French Canadian cartoonist Delisle wears a number of hats—graphic novelist, travel writer, quasi-journalist, househusband—in a number of locales: Pyongyang, North Korea; Shenzhen, China; Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (known officially as Myanmar); and Jerusalem. Delisle’s travelogues have the odd effect of being persistently timely. Following his wife, Nadège, an administrator for Doctors Without Borders, all over the world, Delisle chronicles living as an expat in authoritarian states or war-torn countries that are perpetually in crisis, like Burma and Israel-Palestine. He is not a journalist, however, and, arguably, it is his status of being an anodyne househusband—the primary parent of two small children—that gives him access to some surprising venues. (He befriends a Catholic priest in Jerusalem, for instance, who lets him use a back room in a cathedral as a temporary office.)
Delisle is also far from the typical Anglophone-American tourist. His texts are often structured around disidentification—with both locals and other foreigners.1 More often than not, he recounts the isolation of expat life and its many banalities: his difficulties in finding childcare or managing public transport, and his love of foreign supermarkets. His volumes consistently highlight the dissonance between conservative states and persistent globalization: hotels are the same everywhere, and even ultra-Orthodox Jews carry cell phones.
Now, in Factory Summers, Delisle maintains his monochromatic, mostly gray-scale, ligne claire aesthetic but adds a pop of color absent from his previous volumes (other than Jerusalem). A bright orange-yellow often (but not exclusively) colors the T-shirt of his youthful self, signaling his status as an outsider. In wordless vignettes, yellow also depicts the ever-present billowing smoke of the factory, a visual snapshot of industrialization that recalls the rapidly modernizing city of Shenzhen (fig. 1).
There are a few striking points of continuity between Delisle’s travels abroad and those at home. As a visual artist, Delisle is particularly attuned to different forms of nonverbal communication. If he details the exact way he orders his thrice-weekly dinner without speaking any Chinese, he also decodes the hand signals used by factory workers to communicate over industrial noise (fig. 2). His meticulous descriptions of machinery read almost like user manuals, but they also recall his fascination with old-fashioned machinery (like Chinese popcorn makers or Burmese knife sharpeners). Delisle’s own self-portraits sit squarely within the realm of minimalist caricature, but his drawings of fellow laborers, like those of people he encounters in his travels, are often more expressive. These figures have lines of weariness and exhaustion, as well as arm hair, glasses, and eyebrows—distinguishing characteristics that he himself lacks. (Although the young Delisle does have considerably more hair than his older avatar.)
Both his fellow laborers and foreign acquaintances bear physical traces of their working-class turmoil: missing teeth and beer bellies. But often, even beyond the cultural barrier of when and how to smile (Delisle falls in the French Canadian camp that is resistant to the grin), Delisle’s characters are marked by melancholy: a general, if not always verbally expressed, disappointment with life’s lot.
As an animator, Delisle has written two full-length novels about working in outsourced animation studios, in a now-defunct Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen, not far from Hong Kong, in 1997 and in Pyongyang, under Kim Jong-il. Delisle’s graphic travel writing dabbles in comics journalism, although he never studied journalism and his travel writing is self-consciously subjective, more New Journalist than the work of contemporaries Joe Sacco or Emmanuel Guibert.
Chronicling his life as an expat, Delisle is remarkably candid about his own experiences of culture shock. He sometimes straddles the line between prepackaged cultural stereotypes (like eating dog in Shenzhen or grasshoppers in Burma) and political critique of authoritarianism (like representations of Burmese magazine censorship or the cult of personality around North Korean dictators).
As a traveler, Delisle can be characterized as a gentle rule-breaker. He gets a glimpse at the house of Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi (the site of her longtime political confinement) while pushing his son, Louis, in a stroller. Delisle’s prize-winning volume on his experience of living in an Arab quarter in East Jerusalem, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (2012), recounts a number of such minor infractions: lazy attempts to gain access to restricted religious sites or sitting jauntily on the Israel West Bank barrier. His travelogues have been criticized for reproducing Western myths of Asian otherness, a legitimate critique, especially with an earlier volume like Shenzhen, which projects an insular, anticapitalist, anti-Western vision of China that is no longer fully accurate.2 Clearly, Delisle’s youthful self bears the marks of this flippant deviancy—the young Delisle often reads and occasionally sleeps on the job—but he lacks the political and historical sophistication of his future self. While his travelogues are assisted by copious notes, the occasional sketch, and historical research, as well as hand-drawn maps of shifting territories, his travels into his own early memories have no such material support for their creation.3
The factory through the eyes of the Gen-Xer is a somber sight, a reminder of the barriers institutions and states impose on everyday lives and of the narrow contours of joy for so many.
Factory Summers, like all Delisle’s work, was originally published in French. While paneling is unchanged in translation, the English-language hardcover has additional white pages that change the arrangement of two-page spreads, making full-page chapter breaks detailing the architecture of the factory all the more striking. One almost wishes that Delisle had opted for more full-page panels, especially in sequences that demonstrate the exaggerated scale of paper rolls, complete with original French-language sound effects (“Plaf!”) (fig. 3). Delisle also cannot help but provide history lessons reminiscent of earlier books. He highlights the changing international ownership and Art Deco architecture of the factory, as well as the omnipresence of British colonialism (seen here in 1920s machinery) and the bygone Canadian industry of logging on the Saint-Maurice.
Within the French-language literary tradition, the story of Factory Summers echoes the Maoist practice of l’établissement or “establishing” oneself in the factory. In 1970s France, Maoist students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure put theory into practice by infiltrating local factory or dock jobs, creating false identities, and shedding their bourgeois and academic capital. Delisle does not have the equivalent cultural capital of these Maoist writers—most famously Robert Linhart, who wrote L’établi (The Assembly Line) (1978)—nor does he have the naïve political ambition of indoctrinating the working class and fomenting a revolution. But, like Maoists, he comes as a class outsider to the factory, marveling at the complexity of its machinery and the dexterity and dangers of manual labor.
Throughout the volume, Delisle humorously bears witness to working-class factory culture, detailing insider tips, such as tried-and-true methods for sleeping during a nightshift (fig. 4). Like Linhart, he sheds light on the workers’ pervasive sexism, overhearing tips for having anal sex with one’s very pregnant wife, although translators Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall often attenuate the workers’ vulgarity in their translation. (“Anus” is translated quaintly as “honey-hole,” and a bunch of colorful puns about anal sex are eliminated in the English translation.) Delisle’s overall approach, however, is relatively depoliticized. If Linhart critiques Citroën’s racialized hierarchy in France, Delisle’s punk-clad teenage self comprehends the structural divide between shopworkers and engineers but has only a vague awareness of the workers’ hierarchy (distributed among fourth, fifth, and sixth hands).
The young Delisle is more aware of local language politics, recalling the first Anglophone he met in his life, another worker at the factory who died tragically, and French text on British machines, which was obligatory after French became the official language of Quebec.4 If there is a political undertone to Factory Summers, it is one of genuine melancholy about the limitations of factory life. Delisle’s father, a divorcé who worked at the factory for most of his adulthood and retired nearby, features prominently as a case study of a life underlived.
In the landscape of graphic fiction, memoirs and travelogues are not uncommon (and comics journalism is a genre unto itself), but narratives about industrial factories are relatively few. Offhand, an obvious example is Kristina Gehrmann’s recent comic adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (2019). In the era of comic-adaptation fever, it is not hard to imagine Maoists represented in bandes dessinées. (Indeed, Linhart’s sister, Danièle Linhart, a sociologist of the modern workplace, has already seen her study of “le burn out” in office culture adapted to a graphic novel.) Delisle’s memoir about his teenage experiences is, unlike his travelogues, almost devoid of retrospective self-critique, and as close as one may come to a neutral, naïve vision of factory life.
The factory through the eyes of the Gen-Xer, like the war-torn countries of the Dad traveler, is a somber sight, a reminder of the barriers institutions and states impose on everyday lives and of the narrow contours of joy for so many—even Delisle himself. But Delisle’s melancholy is his politics, and while it may leave little room for a utopian future, it does poignantly paint the dour mundanities that mark modern life.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.
- On disidentification in Delisle, see Candida Rifkind, “A Stranger in a Strange Land? Guy Delisle Redraws the Travelogue,” International Journal of Comics Art, no. 2/3 (Fall 2010), p. 273. ↩
- Shenzhen is no longer a Special Economic Zone and has become a Westernized economic and urban center, more like Hong Kong than it was in 1997. See Joon Ho Hwang, “Cosmopolitan Practice, Asian Otherness, and a Localized Cosmopolitanism in Guy Delisle’s Asian Travelogues,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 50, no. 5 (2017), pp. 1087–88. ↩
- Delisle elaborated on his artistic practice during his Instagram takeover of Drawn & Quarterly’s account on June 15, 2021. ↩
- The translators explain a few French Canadian references, like Quebec’s technical school system, but eliminate others, translating May Day to Labor Day, presumably for an American audience. ↩