Memoirs in the form of graphic narratives have long moved from the realm of novelty to that of genuinely intriguing exploration. The medium has, over the past decade alone, been used to explore everything from struggles for democracy to immigration, parenthood, and racism. If one believes that the personal is political, it’s easy to see why more writers are pushing comic art in ways that make straightforward narratives seem almost restrictive by comparison.
It was in keeping with this premise that I read the story of Valérie Plante, otherwise known as the first woman elected Mayor of Montréal. It doesn’t seem that unusual a choice when one takes into account the love for bande dessinée that has been an essential part of European tradition. Montréal, a city where 65.8% of the population speak French at home, has always been an enthusiastic supporter of comics so, for mayor Plante, this route must have simply seemed natural.
Okay, Universe: Chronicles of a Woman in Politics isn’t a straightforward memoir, given that Plante chooses to channel her tale through an alter ego called Simone Simoneau. It doesn’t focus on her alone either, describing itself as ‘one woman’s story about political organizing and the power of community.’ The book opens with a life-changing phone call, lifting Simone from her world of social activism into the rough and tumble arena of politics. She is asked to consider running for city council, a decision that plunges her into a relentless path of campaigning, fundraising, and inspiring an army of volunteers to come along for the ride.
This could easily have turned into a series of cumbersome topics for discussion if it weren’t for the lightness of touch that Delphie Côté-Lacroix brings to every panel. Using a limited palette of colours and muted tones, she breathes life to her portraits of volunteers and snapshots of the city, placing Simone’s struggle against a system rooted in patriarchy firmly at the centre.
It’s the little things that stand out here: the way Simone navigates her way not just through an unsurprisingly bureaucratic process, but through the issues that resonate most with her constituency as she works towards building her platform. She knows what she is up against early on. Sitting down before people trying to evaluate her worthiness as a candidate, she reminds herself that ‘in job interviews, men overestimate their qualifications by 30 percent and women underestimate theirs by 30 percent.’ That forms a backdrop to what she says to the committee: “I’m a fighter! If I’m in, I’m in to win!”
One of the interesting things about Plante’s story is how she makes us cognisant of the balancing act that she, like most other women, have to navigate. Simone is more than someone trying to enter politics. She is a woman with a world of other responsibilities, as a professional, a wife, and a mother. It makes for an inspirational story, especially when one takes into account the sexism and misogyny that continues to dog female politicians around the world.
‘Okay, universe,’ says Simone. ‘I’m ready.’ It becomes obvious rather quickly that she is.
Valérie Plante (W), Delphie Côté-Lacroix (A) • Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 CAD/$21.95 USD
Review by Lindsay Pereira