The Madame Paul Affair

Published on April 1, 2001

The Madame Paul Affair
Julie Doucet

Drawn & Quarterly

The Madame Paul Affair marks a turning point in the career of internationally acclaimed Montreal comic artist Julie Doucet. Her new graphic novel is Doucet’s first book not reprinted from her popular comics series Dirty Plotte, which featured often controversial stories of menstruation, mutilation fantasies, and sex dreams.

Doucet initially self-published Dirty Plotte as cut-and paste-mini-comics before getting her big break in 1990, when she was picked up by Montreal’s own Drawn & Quarterly, a house internationally respected for its commitment to literary comics. Now 36, and one of the few women recognized in the medium, Doucet was one of D & Q’s first signings, and the only native Montrealer.

As a writer and artist Doucet’s coming of age came in the last three issues of Dirty Plotte, in which she serialized the darkly autobiographical My New York Diary.

(D & Q published the graphic novel’s English version, which won the 2000 Firecracker Alternative Book Award.) Diary chronicles Doucet’s move to New York, where she passes her days in a cramped apartment trying to work on her comic (which, in a postmodern twist, we now hold in our hands) but ends up taking too many drugs, resulting in increasingly frequent epileptic seizures. It also documents her rise to “fame” and her possessive boyfriend’s increasing jealousy. Doucet’s characteristic drawing style – marked by darkly inked, densely filled panels – is perfectly suited to the claustrophobic narrative, and the dialogue is written in a realistic French-inflected English.

From New York Doucet moved to Seattle, then Berlin, before returning to Montreal, where Madame Paul is set. “I love Montreal, I have no regrets about coming back,” says the normally press-shy Doucet. “It’s a big city but not too big, it’s easygoing and not expensive, but there’s not too much you can do in the comics community here so you need to send stuff away to get published. People get their act together in Berlin and New York, they’re not just waiting. Another problem here is that it’s all boys. I used to feel comfortable with a boy crowd but not anymore.”

“I’ve finished with Dirty Plotte,” Doucet continues, “because it’s quite a lot of work, and not that much money. I went to a newspaper to propose a comic strip (The Madame Paul Affair was initially serialized in French-language Montreal weekly ici) because I only had to draw a small page and it would be out the next week. For once it was regular pay and good money.”

This new “comic-serial” represents a move from strict autobiography to autobiographical fiction. Doucet uses many tropes of the mystery genre and the narrative seems more consciously structured. “I wrote the whole thing before I started (drawing). It’s more fiction and that’s not something I’m used to but I needed to do something other than autobiography. People complained when it was in the newspaper because there was not enough action. It’s much better as a book.”

Madame Paul begins with Julie moving into a cramped rooming house in Montreal’s notorious East End. The title character is a jovial woman who wants to set Julie up with her nephew, the landlord. Over the next few months Julie becomes involved in disturbing events in the building: the ex-con upstairs throws himself through the window after trashing his apartment, while another neighbour attempts suicide. Meanwhile Madame Paul has disappeared. A series of shady nephews come looking for their aunt and the story gradually unfolds. Julie is forced to move into Madame Paul’s apartment so the new landlord can renovate. When she discovers a Poe-esque trap door leading into a secret basement, parallels to Polanski become acute; imagine Nancy Drew starring in The Tenant. This is classic genre storytelling made fresh through the medium of the graphic novel.

The French versions of Doucet’s books are usually put out by L’Association, one of the top publishers of alternative comics in France. Although they will be releasing Doucet’s book later this year, it was first published in French by L’Oie de Cravan, a local small press which usually publishes poetry. Inspired by the surrealist movement in France, Benoît Chaput formed L’Oie in 1991 to publish the poetry he loved. His definition of poetry, however, is very broad: “My idea is to publish stuff that I feel is poetic, which is not necessarily limited to poetry.” Chaput collected the ici strips into a book and published L’Affaire Madame Paul in a beautiful handprinted edition.

Chaput launched the book at Angoulême, France’s largest festival of mainstream and alternative comics. “I’m fairly new to the world of comics,” he says, “so it allowed me to see that world. Julie was invited by the festival. I think being with Julie opened many doors.” Doucet’s international reputation is substantial; many of her books are published in Europe, where the comics medium is respected as a legitimate art form. (In fact, Madame Paul just came out in German in the Swiss magazine Strapazin.) Says Chaput of his experience at the festival, “I knew Julie was known and respected in the States as a comic artist but it was shocking to see how popular she is in Europe. At the signing she did I immediately had to close the line because there were too many people. They would point and whisper, ‘I think that’s Julie Doucet.’ I think in Montreal she doesn’t have that aura.”

Doucet views the experience in a different light. “For me Angoulême is always crazy. This time I had a new book so everybody was after me. It was very stressful.”

L’Association’s publication of L’Affaire Madame Paul also represents a significant turning point for the acceptance of joual in Quebec comics. “When I translated my first books from English to French L’Association complained it was too Québécois,” Doucet recalls. “But I said I didn’t want to change it, and eventually they said it was okay.”

Chaput agrees. “It’s her most Québécois in a long time. I feel something has been lost in the translation to English. When L’Association saw how popular my Québécois version of this book was at Angoulême, that people liked it that way even if they didn’t always understand, they published it like that, which was quite new for them.”

The unique publishing history of The Madame Paul Affair adds an interesting backdrop to what is essentially a beautifully crafted and entertaining book. Perhaps even more significant, however, is Doucet’s claim that it is the end of an era for her. “I’m out of it,” she says. “I’m not into comics anymore. Madame Paul is my last comic.”

Although this news will greatly disappoint her dedicated fans around the globe, they will be comforted to know that Doucet has started Sophie Punt, a new series of self-published limited edition silk-screened minis filled with non-narrative illustrations. They bring Doucet full circle to the days when the publication of her work was still in her own hands. mRb

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