Over the decades, Montreal native Michel Rabagliaiti has been captivating audiences with the semi-autobiographical doings of his grumpy alter-ego, Paul. His series of French language graphic novels have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made him a fixture in the literary and artistic world north of the border, leading to a film adaptation (2015’s Paul à Québec) and a recent solo exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
The latest installment in the Paul series, Paul at Home, published today in English by Drawn & Quarterly, may broaden Rabagliati’s appeal across the continent and beyond. The 160+ page work is a rumination on loneliness, isolation, and the remorseless march of time, leavened by Rabagliati’s keen observation, dry wit and remarkable cartooning. It also perfectly captures the quiet desperation of daily life in the pandemic year, despite being conceived and created long before COVID-19 was a twinkle in an epidemiologist’s eye.
The book finds Paul in his early 50s, divorced and recently empty-nested in his quiet residential neighborhood, helping out his aging mother and feuding with his neighbor. Whatever success and notoriety Paul has achieved in the literary world is drowned out by his inability to connect with his fellow humans on a personal level. The city of Montreal, itself an important character in the book, stands in the background of nearly every scene, observing Paul’s struggles with cold indifference while life goes on around him. Through the lens of his alienation, Paul’s daily routines take on a mythic resonance, and a genuine tragedy in his life hits especially hard.
Rabagliati excels at depicting simple activities like going to the store or dropping his daughter at the airport with warmth, verve, and self-aware humor. His artwork captures character and setting with deceptive simplicity. Nothing feels labored but everything works. The English translation by Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall reads well; if this comports with what French-speaking readers get from Rabagliati’s work, it explains his popularity in Quebec.
His closest analog in the world of English-language comics is probably Eddie Campbell (Alec: How to Be an Artist; The Fate of the Artist), whose life’s work follows a similar trajectory, but Rabagliati’s Gallic wit is drier and Paul lacks the flamboyant self-dramatization of Campbell’s alter-ego Alec. Both creators demonstrate how the visual language of comics in the hands of a master practitioner can infuse the literary genre of (semi-) autobiography with a new dimension and a broader palette of emotional depth. If you are a fan of Campbell or similar creators, this is one to check out.
In normal times, Paul at Home would feel like a dusty jewel, modest and perfect but undemanding of attention. In 2020, though, it seems to capture that sense of frustration that comes with being separated from the world we thought we knew. Our identities as workers, neighbors, parents, children and social creatures of all kinds have been scrambled. All of our cities feel like lonely wastelands. We all struggle to connect through a gauze of media, never quite sure that we are truly commanding the attention people seem to be paying us.
Paul at Home universalizes and captures that experience without ever feeling like a downer, and it ends on a note of hope that is fully earned through its Ulysses-like story arc. It is also executed to a much higher standard than most mainstream or genre-based graphic novels, which is uplifting in and of itself.
After 2020 is finally consigned to the dustbin of history, Paul at Home may serve to remind us of the resilience of people to transcend loneliness, alienation and uncertainty, and emerge – as the book does – with a sense of renewal and connection.