Montreal’s Mile End is known for many things: its coffee shops, stylish inhabitants, anglophone art scene, and the pretention that drips from every balcony and custom bike frame. It’s the first place one would be directed to find the vilified “hipster” in its natural environment.
As a resident of the Mile End for the past two years, I accept our notoriety and my part in it. It’s a valid critiques and you wouldn’t be wrong to call me a hipster (though I don’t even understand what the word means, to be honest). It’s my belief that self-criticism and a great sense of humour are important to living well, and if the Good Life is a business, then business is booming in the Mile End. Thankfully, Michel Hellman is much funnier than I am, and though his 2011 release, named after the neighbourhood it portrays, is by no means a complete reflection of life in our strange little quarter, it does accomplish one thing that, criticisms aside, really does define the neighbourhood: its people.
In the first eight pages of the book, a typical Mile End scenario: two guys sitting on a bench drinking beer, not doing much of anything. One sporting the tresses and two-day beard often spotted on the men of these streets, and the other, a bear’s head. This is Hellman’s chosen avatar, a glimpse of the humour and absurdity with which he tells the stories of his life, and of the neighbourhood. Next he takes us back, effortlessly through an accelerated timeline of the neighbourhood growing from seed, eventually an urban landscape into which our bear-headed protagonist appears. He tears the tag from a “room for rent” poster tacked to one of the many wooden polls that interrupt the concrete.
Though it would be impossible to tell them all, Hellman makes a grand effort at showing some of the many peculiarities that make living here a taste of real-life magic realism. I’d bet money that he didn’t have to make a single thing up. The old-fashioned knife-sharpening truck? Definitely true. Charismatic, dancing garbage men? Wouldn’t surprise me. He even includes a game of stumbling upon notable people, places, and objects that, if you were to spend an afternoon looking for them, you would absolutely find.
Even with his loose, simplified drawing style, it’s all recognizable. From the notable characters to typical apartment interiors, Hellman’s illustrations don’t only look like Mile End – they feel like it.
As much as the book shows us what it’s like to observe life in our corner, his inclusion of personal stories allows a more intimate view of life deeply integrated with the neighbourhood’s heart. Stories of meeting his girlfriend, of letting go of an old companion (his ancient computer), and of spaying his cat all bring us closer to an understanding of life here over time, from the intimate to the ordinary (which is never truly ordinary, but in Hellman’s hands is always hilarious and handled with care).
It’s an easy read, and I mean that in the best way. Distilled and engaging drawings, a range of story formats from personal to historical, a naturally easy pace – all adorned with bizarre moments and subtle jokes in a voice I can relate to. The book is so easy to read, in fact, that I recommend a second or third turn.
On my third pass I discovered this page:
As part of the whole seems like an interesting moment of opposing viewpoints clashing casually, a good illustration of the diversity that lives here. Once I paid a little closer attention, however, I discovered the character second from the left mysteriously turning into a duck in the last panel – and I burst out laughing.
There’s probably more to find, and I will keep returning to this book to be reminded of the wonders I sometimes take for granted. I would imagine that different readers will take note of different details, even further subtlety I couldn’t parse myself. I recommend you pick up a copy of Mile End (at Drawn & Quarterly of course), visit the neighbourhood, and explore.
Georgia Webber is a cartoonist living in Montreal. She currently works for Carte Blanche editing the Graphic Fiction section. In her spare time she is working on a project called DUMB documenting her experience being functionally mute for several months in 2012.