Graphic novel | Canada

At the paper mill

In his new graphic novel, Guy Delisle illustrates the summer job he once had in a Canadian paper and pulp factory. 

An illustration of a factory building with smoking chimneys. A male figure walks up the steps to the entrance.

Years of apprenticeship


In the 1980s, Canadian illustrator Guy Delisle worked three summers in a paper factory in Quebec and in his new graphic novel, he reflects on his experiences. The new novel, Apprenticeship (in German, Lehrjahre), has been published by Berlin-based company, Reprodukt, which has been putting out Delisle's work in German, since 2005. This includes the books, Impressions from Jerusalem, A Guide for Bad Fathers and Hostage. 

Delisle applied for the paper factory job in his hometown as a teenager. It was to be a summer holiday job for the then-16-year-old. For four nights a week, he would do long 12-hour shifts at the factory. After a safety briefing and an introduction to the work, a young Delisle got to work, toiling amidst huge roller machines in a sprawling, ancient factory hall. He operated the machines, cut paper and threw paper scraps into a dangerous-looking shaft, where they would disappear. It was extremely hot and noisy inside the factory and the staff developed their own language to communicate in the uproar. Later on, Delisle got to know other parts of the factory too, including the wet room where the wood pulp arrives and the packing area. 

“Once upon a time there were 125 mills in Quebec province alone.”

Through his artworks, Delisle details the male-dominated working world inside the mill, founded in 1927 under the name Anglo-Canadian Pulp and Paper Mills; today it's called White Birch Paper. Delisle offers anecdotes from inside the air conditioned break room, equipped with a television, where the old-school staff never mince their words. Delisle's father is also employed at the paper mill as a drafting technician but he works in an open plan office above the factory hall and the two barely meet in the factory. In the graphic novel, Delisle doesn’t just tell the tale of the sunset years of an historical industry in Quebec, he also gives readers an insight into his personal life and, in particular, his somewhat cold relationship with his own father. As always, Delisle's distinctive drawing style focuses on the essentials. Amid his vivid descriptions of everyday life in the factory, he sprinkles interesting background information – about the factory's history and dangerous occupational practices that were eventually banned. Once upon a time there were 125 mills in Quebec province alone. Today many of them have closed down or been converted to other purposes. One, in the town of Trois-Rivières, which was known as the paper capital of the world from the late 1920s to the 1960s, has been turned into a museum. 

Delisle shows his paper mill in Quebec through both large strokes and small details. He carefully considers his use of colour and only utilises one shade, ochre. 

When the teenage Delisle was finished his shifts at the factory, he would hang around at home, meet with friends or stock up on comics at his city library; these would inspire the budding illustrator. After completing his studies at the Toronto School of Art, Delisle decided to turn his passion for drawing into a profession and went to work in an animation studio. For two years from 1986, he worked for an animation studio in Montreal before leaving for Europe, where he did similar work at different studios around the continent. 

Today Delisle is known as a successful author and Lehrjahre is his latest work to be published in German. 

Lehrjahre, by Guy Delisle. Published by Reprodukt, Berlin, 2021.

Translated by Cathrin Schaer