Solitary Man

Michel Rabagliati confronts age and loneliness in Paul at Home.

Winter, 2020–21 / No. 46
Richmond Lam

One afternoon this September, Michel Rabagliati went for a walk along the river near his home, in Montreal’s Ahuntsic district. He had spent the morning drawing—an act that has become increasingly difficult for him, as years spent leaning over a drafting table have ravaged his neck—and planned to spend his evening playing guitar or piano, or maybe watching TV. Most of Rabagliati’s days are equally solitary, but that has failed to give him any special resilience to the social distancing brought on by the covid-19 pandemic. “I’m not comfortable with this confinement at all,” he said, post-walk. “I think it’s the idea of the impossibility of going toward somebody else, hugging somebody, talking close to people. I go to the cinema very often. I go to the theatre. I sing in my choir. I enjoy all of these social activities because I’m so alone in my work. I’m reaching for other people. I like people. So if you tell me I can’t see people, it really makes me panic.” 

Rabagliati had just completed the English edition of his latest comic album, Paul at Home—a title that has taken on unexpected new meaning since it was first published, in French, last November. Over the course of nine books, Rabagliati has used his character Paul—a thinly veiled alter ego who, like Rabagliati, is an illustrator—to explore events from his own life. Paul’s stories are not fantastical. In one book he is a boy attending Scout camp. In another he is a young man renting an apartment and starting a family. In his best-known story, Paul suffers the death of his father-in-law. In Rabagliati’s new book, Paul is middle aged, divorced, and alone. He suffers from chronic neck pain, sleep apnea, and a general disappointment boarding on rage that his world, and the world in general, has changed. “He feels like he’s getting old,” Rabagliati said. “When he goes outside, he’s confronted with that. He’s goes to the pharmacy and the girl working behind the counter tells him they can’t give Aspirin to seniors. He’s only fifty-one. It’s a slap in the face. He’s not young anymore and it shows. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t want to buy one. When girls come up to get him to sign their book they tell him it’s for their father, who’s the same age as him.”

When I last interviewed Rabagliati, in 2016, we walked around his childhood neighbourhood, in Montreal’s east end, and spent an afternoon sitting around his kitchen, in close vicinity to each other. The day before we spoke this September, Montreal was facing rising covid numbers, and the provincial government had just imposed new rules against social interactions for twenty-eight days, making an in-person talk both pointless and unwise. Like his fictional counterpart, Rabagliati doesn’t enjoy online communication, but, under the circumstances, happily agreed to meet on Zoom. He was jovial as we talked, despite his pandemic anxiety. He dressed in a green T-shirt and his hair and beard were neatly trimmed. His trademark eyebrows ascended above glasses he frequently removed to reference pages of his new book. 

When we spoke in 2016, Rabagliati had just published Paul Up North, a story of teenage adventure, love, and heartbreak. At the time, he told me he was ready to leave Paul behind and do something else. His next book, he said, would feature an unnamed, middle-aged character and contain very little dialogue. “My wife and I have been divorced for three years. My dog is dead, my mother’s dead, my father’s ill—my life is really changing, and I’m not in the mood to tell that kind of story anymore,” he said then. He didn’t rule out returning to Paul someday, once some time had passed: “I’d like to write a story where Paul is fifty-five years old, but I’m not that eager to keep talking about myself for the rest of my days.” Now, four years later, when I asked him why he decided to return to Paul so soon, and what had happened to the other story he’d planned to write, he laughed and said he often thinks of moving on from Paul—and that he had no memory of the alternate story he’d described. “It sounded like I was done with it, but I don’t know. At some point I had an idea, and I had some energy to continue, and I thought I could tell this story. It sounds boring, but it’s a guy struggling to rebuild his life. He’s not meeting anybody new. He’s just coping with his emotions. He’s with his little dog, and he’s trying to live day by day. He’s got his mother, who is sick, so he’s dealing with that too. It seemed interesting. When I start a new book that’s what I ask myself: Is it interesting for the reader? Can I do a story with it?”

Paul at Home takes place in 2012, but little has changed in Rabagliati’s real life in the ensuing eight years: Paul finally has closed the gap in the game of catch-up character and creator have been playing for two decades. The Paul in Paul at Home feels closer to the real Rabagliati than he has in any previous book. Paul’s sadness and anger in the story are raw, and it feels like Rabagliati may have chosen to return to Paul out of a need to process his own feelings. “I’m not sure if it has been therapeutic or it has pulled me down more into sadness,” he said. “I had a Kleenex box beside my table. I was always crying at the end of the day or at the end of certain passages. It’s like self-flagellation. It’s hard to explain. Talking about my life gives me energy to do it. I wanted to talk about my mother dying, my daughter going to England, my little dog, what it’s like to be alone in suburbia. One thing I was afraid of was launching the book. The only thing I wanted to do was finish it and ship it to the bookstores. I didn’t want to be interviewed or be on TV or be on the radio. One time I told a journalist, ‘Listen, you have the book, you can see I’m sad, it’s not a really good part of my life, just read it and make what you want.’ One thing is for sure: I don’t want to talk about my relationship and why it went wrong. We were married thirty years, and it’s pretty hard to come back to a normal life for me. Maybe I’m too sensitive. I thought that, yes, this could have been an outlet, but mostly it just kept me busy. I’ve been at peace. I’ve been working on this book for two years. I didn’t have to think about my relationship. So that was good. But at the launch, I crashed a bit. It didn’t make me that happy. You can get trapped in there because it’s so emotionally implicating. I give a lot away about myself. This is the most autobiographical book I’ve done. But there’s a price to pay there. I feel more vulnerable, more exposed. I’m not sure I like that.”

Rabagliati was raised in the working-class neighbourhood of Rosemont, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. His father worked as the production manager in a typesetting shop, and his mother worked on a production line for Avon and, later, in a shoe manufacturing plant. Rabagliati grew up on a steady diet of the French and Belgian comics popular in the province, titles like Spirou, Tintin, Pilote, and Pif. As a child, he created his own comics but, at the time, wasn’t interested in putting in the work necessary to learn the mechanics needed to make a career of it. Instead, he focused his attention on graphic design and commercial illustration, graduating from Collège Salette, a Montreal art school, in 1980. He held romantic notions of doing work akin to that of Paul Rand or Saul Bass and was disappointed when he ended up mainly designing rudimentary logos and annual reports. As the work became less handcrafted and more digitally focused, Rabagliati moved into magazine illustration. A design job in 1991 for the recently founded comic publisher Drawn and Quarterly introduced him to English cartoonists such as Chester Brown and Seth, who were drawing comics for adults, and reignited his childhood interest. Rabagliati created the character of Paul and began writing stories more than loosely based on his own life. Another new Montreal-based comic publisher, La Pastèque, published his first album, Paul à la campagne, in 1999, with an English edition, Paul in the Country, released by Drawn and Quarterly the following year. Over the next decade, Rabagliati published three more Paul books with La Pastèque, followed by D. & Q. editions for the English market. 

Rabagliati tells Paul’s story in a non-linear fashion. Paul is a father reflecting on his youth in Paul in the Country, a teenager in Paul Has a Summer Job, a naïve art-school student in Paul Moves Out, and a young man about to welcome his first child in Paul Goes Fishing. Sales of the English editions have always been modest. In Quebec, however, Rabagliati is a celebrity, and his books sell in the tens of thousands. Paul has appeared on merchandise from chocolate bars to beer, and the film Paul à Québec, directed by François Bouvier and based on Rabagliati’s 2009 book of the same name, was both a critical and commercial hit in the province, grossing $1.4 million at the box office. A few years ago, the municipal government hired Rabagliati to create a series of posters featuring Paul dropped into notable moments of local history, to celebrate Montreal’s three hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary, in 2017. The posters, which were publicly displayed around town, were collected and published by La Pastèque in a deluxe hardcover, Paul à Montréal.

Paul often is referred to as “Quebec’s Tintin,” after the popular character created by the Belgian cartoonist known as Hergé, in 1929. Rabagliati has always resisted the comparison, saying that, aside from some physical similarities, the characters have little in common: Tintin flies to the moon; Paul rarely leaves his hometown. Recently, he’s joked that, in his latest book, Paul now has more in common with Captain Haddock, Tintin’s gruff, short-tempered, alcoholic companion. “Somebody told me that, and I thought it was funny,” Rabagliati said. “In the first albums Paul is really naïve. He’s very happy and thinks everything in life is beautiful. And now he’s very grumpy and he has a beard, like Captain Haddock. Haddock is my favourite character in Tintin. Tintin is pretty boring by himself.”

Rabagliati leans into the Tintin comparison even further in Paul at Home, with a surrealist conceit that will come as unexpected to many readers familiar with his work. Early in the story, after Paul arrives at home from visiting his mother, Cookie, the family dog introduced as a puppy in an earlier book, begins to speak, not unlike Tintin’s canine companion, Milou (Snowy, to those reading in English). “Milou used to talk, but Tintin didn’t really listen,” Rabagliati said. “The dog had some commentaries, some theories, but Tintin didn’t really hear him. That’s what I was trying to do there. The dog talks but you don’t know if it’s for real. I really hesitated to do that. My books have always been very plausible and down to earth, and a talking dog doesn’t really fit in there, but I think it fits because Paul’s alone. Maybe that’s Paul’s own voice he’s hearing. I think it helps keep the action going, because he’s always alone. He’s not calling anybody, no one’s coming to his home. That was the plan. I wanted to have the house really empty. When you have kids twenty, twenty-five years old, you don’t see them that often. When they come home, you’re all excited, but then they’re only there five minutes to take some stuff. When my daughter comes over now it’s to get something or she needs the car. I don’t really see her on Sunday. She doesn’t come for supper. She has her own life. That’s what I wanted to illustrate here. It emphasises the loneliness.” 

In 2009, La Pastèque published Paul à Québec, which focused on the life and death of Paul’s father-in-law, Roland, and mirrors an event in Rabagliati’s own life. The book’s overall story is fairly Quebec-centric, with references to the sovereignty movement and the former premier René Lévesque. As a result, Drawn and Quarterly opted not publish the book in English. It was instead published by Conrundrum, a smaller, scrappier press now based in Nova Scotia, that has picked up a few of D. & Q.’s authors over the years, including Joe Ollmann and David Collier. The book, published in English under the title The Song of Roland, became Rabagliati’s biggest success in both languages, selling fifty thousand copies and winning a Doug Wright Award, a Joe Shuster award, and the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s audience choice award, in addition to the eventual movie deal. Conundrum published Rabagliati’s next two books—Paul Joins the Scouts and Paul Up North—but, following the French publication of Paul at Home, Drawn and Quarterly contacted Rabagliati and arranged for English rights to the book. “I’ve always loved Michel’s work,” Peggy Burns, D. & Q.’s publisher, said by e-mail. “I was so moved by how eloquently he explored middle age, life with an empty nest, and caring for his mother in Paul at Home. It just struck me at my core.”

Frédéric Gauthier, La Pastèque’s co-founder, told me he’s always been puzzled by the English market’s narrower embrace of Rabagliati’s work, but said he feels the darker mood of Paul at Home might appeal more to an English readership. “Most of the autobiographical work in English, it’s very depressing,” Gauthier said. “Michel’s books are very uplifting. Even though there are dramatic elements, the whole feeling reading the book is always very positive, very happy, because they reflect his personality.” Gauthier said reception to the French edition of Paul at Home, which was published last November, was among the most positive for any of Rabagliati’s comics. “He’s going through a lot in that book, and it was very touching to read,” he said. “I think he was afraid people might feel maybe it was too much emotion, that he was putting himself out there too much, and he was afraid people might be thrown off by that, but it’s been the opposite. People have been even more into the book and feeling the same emotion that he’s experiencing.”

Paul at Home could have been darker still. The story, as published, ends on a hopeful note of rebirth, but Rabagliati originally had a different plan: “At the end, he was burying his dog, because the dog died when my mother died. A friend told me, ‘O.K., it might be real, but please stop it and do something brighter.’ That was the real story. Cookie was supposed to be dead.”

Rabagliati has told Paul’s life story in a nonlinear fashion. Clockwise from top left, Paul at ages ten, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty, thirty-eight, forty, and, in Paul at Home, fifty-one.

Some of Paul’s newer personality quirks in Paul at Home are exaggerated for laughs. Rabagliati is not nearly as angry at society as his alter ego, for example. But where Paul seems to hold out some hope for a brighter future, Rabagliati currently does not. Paul never gets past the aggravation of trying to write an online dating profile, but he still gets further along in the process than Rabagliati has attempted. Despite the book’s, albeit forced, positive ending, Rabagliati says he doesn’t foresee his current life situation changing anytime soon. Paul at Home takes place in 2012, not long after the character’s (and Rabagliati’s) marriage ended, but in real life little time has passed for Rabagliati. (Paul at Home is the first of Rabagliati’s books set post-1999, when Rabagliati became a cartoonist, and it’s a bit of a shock to see Paul completing Rabagliati’s book Paul Joins the Scouts—the first admission in print that the character, like his creator, draws a series of autobiographical comic albums.) “We’re practically at the same point,” he said. “That’s the reason it was a difficult exercise. This book is like last year. Everything is the same. Sometimes people call me and say, ‘Are you feeling O.K.?’ I can understand why. At the end of that book you wonder if the guy’s going to hang himself. It finishes on a winter scene. He’s alone, and it’s pretty dark. When he comes back from dropping his daughter off at airport, with his ex-wife, you think maybe something is going to happen, maybe they’re going to talk to each other. But she just says she’s sorry about his mother. There’s no miracle at the end.” 

Rabagliati, who is fifty-nine, said he considers retirement frequently, especially as his neck problems make him unable to draw for more than three hours a day, but doesn’t know what he’d do with himself. For now, he’s continuing to plan new Paul stories. “I have an idea for a short story. It’s about Paul and his dog. They’re sort of in an imaginary world. But I didn’t finish that. I’m not sure I’m going to do it. I think it’s too dark. They’re sort of trapped in a black box. I’m not sure it’s good for me. I have another one, about Paul and his daughter. In the summertime I rent a house with my daughter, on Île Verte. It’s an isolated island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, and we rent a house. I thought maybe I’d tell a story about that island and about what goes on with my daughter when we’re over there, because it’s pretty cool. That’s the only time I see her. She really likes to go. She reads books, and we talk, and we walk around. We bike, and we eat, and we read. I’d like to tell the story of that island in particular and the first people who came there in the sixteen-hundreds. I’m not sure I’m going to do it. I’m not sure my neck will be O.K. It would take me twice as long now. I worked on flat tables for twenty years just standing up and now I’m paying for it. But I’m not that old. I have to fill my time. I can’t just be here all day long watching the grass grow. And I don’t have anyone in my life, so I need to find a way to work. I tried working standing up. That’s a solution. I’m searching for solutions.”