On a Monday afternoon earlier this fall, a man named Mathieu took a stroll through Montreal’s Plateau. He paused behind the Mont-Royal Metro station, looked up, and took in a giant cartoon affixed to a brick wall. The panel depicted, in bold strokes, the Gibeau Orange Julep drive-in, on Decarie Boulevard, surrounded by vintage tail-finned cars. A greaser with a familiar-looking face sat in a convertible, waving at a waitress on roller skates.
“C’est Paul!” several people called out as they walked past. The image is one of a dozen twelve-by-six-feet panels that make up the walking tour Paul à Montreal, which features various points in the city’s history, and stars Paul, the popular Quebec comic book character created by Michel Rabagliati.
“Of course I know Paul!” Mathieu said, as if talking about a real person. “I’ve known him since I was little.” He looked up again at the comic. “It’s cool. It really shows the evolution of Montreal. If someone graffitis these, I’ll be very angry.” (Most of the panels are well out of reach, at least twelve feet from the ground. The two that sit at eye level have, in fact, been tagged—and restored—repeatedly.)
Rabagliati himself soon pulled up on a bicycle, ready to take a walk through Montreal’s past. He wore a grey T-shirt featuring the geodesic dome of Buckminster Fuller’s Expo 67 American pavilion, which seemed appropriate attire for a chronicler of the city’s history.
Rabagliati referred to his project—which was installed in August and is on display until the end of the year—as “historical fantasy,” due to the liberties he took in combining notable moments from a ten- to twenty-year span in each scene. The first panel, located at the Laurier Metro station, depicts the 1642 settlement of Ville-Marie. At its centre, a woman drops a red polka-dotted apron. Paul tries to return the lost article, but the woman is elusive. Their missed connection continues through all twelve panels, leapfrogging from one era to the next, before Paul finally catches up to the object of his chivalry, in 2017. “I needed a story that would work for children, and tourists who don’t speak French,” Rabagliati said.
Montreal has always been a major character in Rabagliati’s work—his stories, which take place at different times in Paul’s life, have a melancholy appreciation of the past, and depict specific sentimental aspects of the city, from the Expo grounds to the grand Eaton’s Ninth Floor restaurant to the narrow Cinema Parallèle on the Main. Rabagliati initially balked when Frédéric Gauthier, the co-owner of La Pastèque, which has published the French editions of all eight Paul books to date, approached him about undertaking a public art project for this year’s three-hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of Montreal’s founding. Rabagliati’s thirty-year marriage had ended recently. He was lonely and depressed, and working on a new book in which Paul, Rabagliati’s thinly veiled alter ego, is recently divorced, lonely, and depressed. Gauthier persevered, and Rabagliati spent the next four months researching and drawing. (La Pastèque released a coffee-table edition of Paul à Montreal, including forty extra drawings, in November.)
A woman with a baby noticed Rabagliati on the corner of rue Berri and called out, “Quelle chance, meeting you here! C’est incroyable!” Rabagliati smiled and handed her a map of the walking tour he fished out of his knapsack. “Papa will be so excited!” the woman told her baby.
On rue Marie-Anne, in front of a panel depicting the first trip of the Metro, a slim blond woman exited a storefront office and introduced herself as a designer. “Are you looking at your drawings? Félicitations! People stop here all the time to look at your work. They should put your face up there!”
“I’m sort of a cult figure,” admitted the cartoonist, after the woman had walked away. “Although I don’t feel like one.”
Rabagliati zigzagged toward Parc La Fontaine, following his parcours through small streets and down alleys. The tour has been so successful residents of the sleepy rue Demers (home of Panel No. 5: the nineteen-thirties) have complained about noise from the influx of pedestrians.
Along the route, people stopped, checked their maps, looked up, and took pictures.
“Look at that!”
“We used to go there, didn’t we?”
“Do you remember those signs?”
In the middle of Laurier, an older couple risked traffic to get a good look at a panel depicting the facades of Old Montreal. Later, they sat on a shady bench in Parc La Fontaine, near the end of the tour, and shared a bag of chips. “I haven’t been here in fifty-eight years,” the man said. “The quartier has changed a lot. But I recognized the house where a girl I liked used to live. I still remember her name: Raymonde Labelle.” He pronounced the name with a reverence that suggested it still held magic for him. “We played spin the bottle.”
It was a perfect Paul à Montreal moment. As Paul travels through time, he crosses into Montrealers’ own personal history of the neighbourhood.
“I love my city,” Rabagliati said. “I don’t need to take a plane anywhere. I take vacation and go to Marché Jean-Talon and talk to people. Or I go to the park. I’m an awful traveller. When I’m away, I want to come back as soon as possible.”