Whenever we look back on our formative teenage years, we can probably see a glimmer of the person we’ll become in the future. That’s the vibe you get when reading Guy Delisle’s newest autobiographical graphic novel, Factory Summers. You may know Delisle from his other well-known graphic novels and travelogue memoirs such as Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Shenzhen, and The Handbook to Lazy Parenting. There are others, too, but this time he takes us down memory lane with the help of his trusty translators Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall.
It’s 1982, Delisle is 16 and looking for a summer job. Thankfully, his dad, who has worked as an industrial designer at a pulp and paper mill for the past 30 years, is able to finagle him an interview. The only thing is he has to do all the dangerous and grueling grunt work in the machine room. Once hired, Delisle bears the brunt of all the learnings any new employee goes through — safety protocols, training videos, overly friendly people who like to touch you, and where you sit in the hierarchy of the workplace.
The mill has been in place since 1927, where it sits at the mouth of the Saint-Charles river, facing the old town in Quebec City. The pulp and paper mill spews high stacks of smoke into the sky, accompanied by the strong hint of sulphur. The machine room is filled with giant machines that operate 24/7 to churn out newsprint for customers like the New York Times. The noise from the machines require people to yell at one another to be heard, and the heat is equivalent to a sauna, evident by the majority of lifers who leave their shirts unbuttoned to the waist.
There are pros and cons to every job when you’re a teenager — the pros generally come with getting paid, gaining independence, and learning new skills that may or may not be useful in the future. Unfortunately, the cons may outweigh the pros where the work seems endless, being on call for graveyard shifts which separates him even further from his friends, dealing with classism, and being surrounded by a sea of paper whenever the machine breaks. As a result, Delisle has to sweep mountains of wasted paper into a beater located under the machine with a wooden push broom.
As always, Delisle does an excellent job artistically capturing the general vibe of the pulp and paper mill during the 80s: the hypocrisy, machismo, rampant sexism that’s common in many all-male workplaces, and classism in the ranks. White-collar office workers wear safety hats in the machine room, while lower-class lifers go hat-less displays the hierarchy between the two clearly. Delisle, a summer worker, endures the disdain from other lifers who sneer at his dreams of becoming an artist, and complaints that he’s getting paid the same as others who have worked there much longer.
Also pronounced is the relationship Delisle has with his dad. His parents are divorced, and his dad never remarried so his life revolves around his work. Though Delisle is able to occasionally catch a few glimpses of him in the machine room, it takes him a long time before he’s able to locate his dad’s office in the labyrinthine building. It’s another layer of distance that adds to the divide between them.
While I don’t have any favorite moments from the graphic novel, it was nice to see how Delisle’s summer job at the mill helped shape him as the hardworking cartoonist he is today. With the mill on one end, Delisle fills the rest of his time admiring and studying Franco-Belgian artists who would expand his artistic style and, eventually, set him upon a successful, if slightly different, career path than he originally planned.
Factory Summers is a hard look at Delisle’s transition from his teenage years into adulthood working at the local pulp and paper mill, and how the experience helped to hone his critical eye and ability to navigate difficult and strained situations. While not the lengthy epic they’re used to, Delisle’s fans should appreciate seeing the roots of his career as a cartoonist (literally) illustrated here, and the discipline that helped shape it. Despite having a dad high up in the mill’s hierarchy, he starts at the bottom, something I personally feel is missing in today’s society.