Michel Rabagliati‘s semi-autobiographical Paul character is one of the delights of modern comics, with each volume seamless in mixing sweet charm with a sadness that is often like a punch in the gut that you should expect, but always forget is coming. You’re too wrapped up in the sweet charm, and in the way Rabagliati, seemingly effortlessly, makes it familiar to you, even personal.
Or perhaps I just feel that way because I’m a guy of roughly the same age as Rabagliati. I can remember the same landscape that he came of age in — though he did so in Quebec, which just makes me jealous — and the social conventions that frame Paul’s emotional reactions to the events around him. But at a time when there’s not a lot of patience for stories about the self-deprecating straight white male who just wants a little sympathy for his woes, Rabagliati manages to add to the genre without the brash entitlement that can sometimes define it. His Paul stories seem to say, it’s just me, here, my little story, if you want to read it, don’t let me bother you, I’m not trying to dominate anything, but I’m here if you want me. And that’s entirely appropriate.
In Paul Up North, Rabagliati takes us to 1976, with the summer Olympics in Montreal inspiring hopefulness and excitement in the province, the exact same feelings that Paul himself is beginning to have in his own life. At the time of this story, Paul is 16, that moment were he is finding himself by exploring his autonomy and, like so many of us, trying to balance out his own cluelessness with a best friend who has the air of being so much more knowing about life.
Marco is that classic, life-changing buddy that takes Paul into all sorts of misadventures, including one doomed hitchhiking trip, that always end up just enough on the right side of okay that they become learning experiences. But as with so many young people getting their first taste of freedom, Paul’s real agenda is to pair off with someone, to not be alone, to entrap himself in an intense emotional relationship that offers him the safety so many teenagers, especially young guys, refuse to admit is necessary to their happiness, even as it neuters the excitement of what the future holds.
This is complicated, subtle stuff to inject into a coming of age tale, and Rabagliati’s depiction of Paul manages to capture the naive ramblings of his character without either condescension or elevation. Opting for compelling honesty, I have a feeling that a lot of guys over 40 who read this will see quite a bit of themselves in it. In this way, it’s a rather important meditation on manhood, and on that part of life where guys stumble through what it all means, try on different skins as they test themselves out, and make the mistake of handing their autonomy to other people largely out of fear.
Suffice it to say, I think Paul books are their own great reward, a satisfying mix of the Rablagiati’s very subtle cartooning prowess and a powerful examination of the human experience in context of the mundane reality. Much like the films of Bill Forsyth or Ken Loach, Paul books do specifically speak to the male experience, but they do so in revealing, depth-filled ways that I think are not only entertaining, but very helpful, and extremely special. Like the mentioned filmmakers, Rablagiati’s work is bereft of the posturing that infects so much work about males, and just gets to the core of it. To me, the Paul books are a gift, and I suspect I’m not the only person who feels that way about them.