I read this one by semi-accident. It had been sitting on my “to-read” shelves for a decade. Ridiculous, really. I had flipped through it a dozen times or more, but never actually “read” it all the way through. Pascal Blanchet is probably the most criminally under-rated Canadian cartoonist working today. Despite having published five books in French (with La Pastèque), having two of those books (including this one) translated into English by Drawn and Quarterly, and having won several awards for the work, I’m not sure that many people are aware that he’s even out there. His Drawn and Quarterly books don’t even seem to be in print at the moment, for example.
Blanchet falls into this strange comics category. He seems to have given himself a number of handicaps on the road to fame and riches. First, he is a superb illustrator working in a form that often (and somewhat bizarrely) disparages superb illustrators. Second, his work is formally inventive, but not in a super-showy that ties him to prevalent conceptions of avant-gardism in comics. His uncanny adoption of antiquated styles seems less ironic than cartoonists like Seth and Chris Ware. Third, a book like this one doesn’t even have any characters. It is actually about the town of Rapide Blanc (its creation and eventual closure), but only one person in the book is even provided a name, and the book can’t be said to be about him in any meaningful sense. Fourth, a work like this is incredibly regional. I’m not sure how many people outside of Quebec are that interested in the history of hydro generation in that province. Note that both of his publishers are based in Montreal…
So, what we have here is an unusual (though superbly crafted) book. What seems of most interest to me is the intersection of energy development and the creation of ghost towns. The remote northern town of Rapide Blanc was created to service its dam, and when the jobs were later automated, the town essentially ceased to exist. That is the story told here, and it could just as easily have been told about Seebe, AB or Bradian, BC (gold mining).
The boom/bust of single-industry towns probably seems more relevant in a Trumpian world even than it did in when this book was first published in 2006. Likewise, it seems to comment obliquely on the artist himself. Blanchet is still out there working (he released a new book at the end of last year), though his production of comics has notably slowed over the course of the past decade. Comics production also has a certain boom/bust logic, and too many young creators move on to more lucrative fields as they find themselves getting older.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: The history of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company. Never needed to know that before.