June 10, 2021

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Gaining On the Job Experience with Guy Delisle's Factory Summers

Factory Summers
Written and Drawn by Guy Delisle
Translated by Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

For over a year I worked as an administrative assistant for a company that manufactures giant pumps for chemical and nuclear power plants. I worked on the second floor with the normal office-type setups, but I would often have to deliver mail to employees on the manufacturing floor. The concrete floor had lines painted on it that visitors needed to stay behind at all times. I was always very, very aware of where my feet were in relation to those painted lines. Even though I never used anything more dangerous than a hole punch or staple remover in my duties, I needed to sit through safety training that covered topics like the hazards of hydrostatic testing. This was because, as is the case at any company that employs large, dangerous machinery, previous employees had been maimed and killed by failing to follow safety procedures. It was this job experience that drew me to Factory Summers by Guy Delisle.

This is an autobiographical graphic nonfiction that takes place in Quebec City in the 1980s. Guy gets a summer job working at the massive pulp and paper factory where his father is an engineer. He wants to become an artist and spends all his spare time drawing or reading comics. Seeing the floor of a pulp and paper factory, I was instantly brought back to the manufacturing floor of the pump manufacturer. Delisle captures not just the massive scale of the machines, but also their inherent danger and age. Though the factory has changed hands several times in the past decades, many of the machines are original to when the plant was built in 1927. The machines seem like massive, temperamental, constantly hungry beasts that are always demanding more paper, more pulp. On some panels, the machines appear more animate, more “alive” than the workers themselves. The exterior of the factory looks more like a gothic castle than an industrial building. Delisle captures how the factory dominates the landscape with its numerous outbuildings, silos, shipping containers, massive piles of wood, and ever-present exhaust.


Throughout the book, the only color aside from black, white, and gray is a bright hunter’s orange that is used to color Guy’s T-shirt, random cars, a water cooler, etc. But the most common use of the orange coloring is fumes escaping from the factory or as puffs of steam belched by the machines. Delisle’s people are drawn in a simplified manner. Often, Guy is shown with a large triangle for a nose and no mouth. Despite this, each of the characters is unique. Unlike the people, the architecture and machinery are depicted in a detailed manner. These details are important because they allow Delisle to truly capture the monotony of a long workday in a noisy, hot environment.

 


So much of Guy’s workplace experiences are familiar to me. Hasn’t everyone in the workplace been forced to deal with the overly friendly, overly touchy man who just “means well”? Or had that coworker who was angry at everything and everyone? The slow passage of time, especially right before your shift ends, is also something that everyone who’s received a paycheck is likely familiar with. There are stretches of panels that have no dialogue at all that evoke a sense of loneliness and boredom on the hot, smoky factory floor, the sense that no matter how much work you do, there are more scraps of paper to be swept, more machines to be monitored, more hours to get through. The machinery is so loud, and most of the workers (the younger ones at least) are wearing ear protection, so conversations have to either be shouted or mimed out.


Guy’s relationship with his dad is strained. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mom. Despite working at the same factory as his dad for three summers, he hardly ever sees him, and that seems to be partly by design on both of their sides. When Guy visits his dad’s apartment, the unease between father and son was palpable and reminded me so much of some of my own personal relationships.

Delisle, along with his translators Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall, do a great job of representing how different generations of workers talk, dress, and act. We see the young workers like Guy in shorts and T-shirts with ear protection while older workers wear pants and sometimes forgo the earplugs. The engineers who occasionally visit the floor are immediately recognizable by long-sleeved button-down shirts and the hard hats that only they wear. Some of the older workers are more close-minded and prejudiced and see teasing and hazing new employees as one of the perks of the job. Be aware that some derogatory terms are used by those characters.

I’ve always been interested in slice-of-life stories like Yotsuba&!, My Brother’s Husband, and Giant Days, and have recently gotten very big into explainer manga like Cells at Work, Heaven’s Design Team, Oishinbo, What’s the Font?, and others. Factory Summers combines these two genres, teaching readers a fair bit about how paper is manufactured while spending three summers with Guy as he works at the factory, sketches, and learns more about comics. I started reading Factory Summers before bed, intending to read for a half-hour or so. But I was so drawn into the world of the book that I stayed up to read the whole thing. It’s hard to find a book that draws you in as completely as Factory Summers drew me in.