For three summers beginning when he was 16, cartoonist Guy Delisle worked at a pulp and paper factory in Quebec City. Factory Summers chronicles the daily rhythms of life in the mill and Delisle's coming of age.
It’s a poignant, understated book that avoids overexplaining (except bits on machinery and how paper is made), allowing the reader to linger in the gaps across vignettes. Some of these quiet episodes are quite lovely, especially those limned at the edges with mourning ... The break room scenes, in which the young Delisle is silent, often center on sex (in surprising ways; I felt jolted out of a reverie by their frank, explicit content) and are reported with a keen ear. Factory Summers is the key to Delisle’s nonfiction oeuvre: It shows his growing curiosity, in those formative years, both about how things function structurally and about people—and how he learned to listen to them. Its light touch makes a big impact.
But even in this comic, the author appears before us in the guise we now know so well—a baffled outsider trying, and often failing, to navigate a culture that isn’t his own ... But the book isn’t really about social class so much as it is about men and their agonising inability to talk to one another ... It’s this plangent undertow that makes Factory Summers worth your time. We all know about summer jobs. Many of us have experienced the borderline bullying that comes with a certain kind of envy and fear. But the emotionally silent world of men is more difficult territory to reach and it finds its perfect expression here in Delisle’s effortless concision: so much paralysing gaucheness in a beer belly, a pair of bandy legs, a head bent over a homemade sandwich; so much sadness in a single glance.
Delisle remembers the particulars of the work he did, even decades removed, but really shines in depicting the emotional beats of a first job as a teenager, the exaggerated nervousness about making mistakes, the intrigues of having peer relationships with coworkers who, unlike your schoolmates, are not your age nor on a career path of any sort ... His handful of encounters with his father are insightful and moving; early on, his cartoonist eye moves away from his dad’s talking mouth and zeroes in on his footwear—sandals with socks, the universal symbol of filial embarrassment ... Delisle’s drawing style might be described as a classical approach to contemporary cartooning, but he occasionally flourishes us with gorgeous renditions of the factory and its architecture. Most intriguing, though, is his experiment in color, which he’s done in other books ... This book moved me.