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Graphic novelist Michel Rabagliati puts Paul on the shelf – at least for now

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CoverFeatureMay_Michel_cr-Richmond-Lam

(Photo: Richmond Lam)

Michel Rabagliati, the author and illustrator known for his series of semi-autobiographical comic albums featuring a character named Paul, recently took a stroll around his childhood neighbourhood in Montreal’s east end. Rabagliati has a fairly unassuming look, despite a bold pair of eyebrows that define his round, gentle face, and no one gave him any particular notice as he walked, even though his work has granted him a certain amount of local celebrity. Many of the personal landmarks he visited have appeared directly in the stories of his fictional stand-in: a hardware store, a bakery, the local public school. Rabagliati smiled as he took credit for inspiring a faded sign outside his family’s former apartment prohibiting the bouncing of balls against the brick wall. He became especially animated discussing a large courtyard that acted as a makeshift playground between buildings. “This used to be paved, but when a new landlord moved in he tore it up to plant a garden and installed this fence,” he said. “That was the end of the open and free-flowing yard. We used to be able to ride our Mustang bicycles straight though all the yards down the block. This fence screwed everything for the kids.” Rabagliati beamed as he sat down to overlook the area. “I haven’t been back here for a very long time,” he said wistfully.

Since 1999, Rabagliati has written and illustrated eight books, each focused on a different stage in the life of Paul, a fairly average Montrealer who, like his creator, grew up in a caring home, attended Scouts, went to art school, fell in love, became an illustrator, and started a family. The Paul books have been extremely successful in Rabagliati’s home province, where they are published in their original French by Montreal-based La Pastèque. It has become cliché to refer to Paul as Quebec’s Tintin, the boy adventurer who starred in a series of comic adventures by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Paul’s face “is very simple, like Tintin’s,” says Rabagliati. “Round head, two black dots for eyes, simple nose, line for a smile. But for me, that’s as far as the similarities go.” Paul’s “adventures” are quite ordinary – he rarely leaves the province, let alone flies a rocket to the moon. A better comparison might be to the work of Jaime Hernandez, whose Locas series in Love and Rockets, the comic he writes and draws with his brother Gilbert, has followed the same group of characters, in more or less real time, for nearly 35 years. Like the stories of Hernandez’s Maggie and Hopey, the day-to-day events in Paul’s life often pack an emotional punch through their empathy and relatability.

Mining his own past has been one of Rabagliati’s greatest assets as a writer, but despite the joyful sense of nostalgia he expressed on his tour of childhood haunts, the past is something he’s ready to put behind him. After 17 years, he says his latest book, Paul Up North, a story of first teenage love and heartbreak, will be the last to feature his alter ego, at least for now. “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. I have to do something else.”

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(Photo: Richmond Lam)

(Photo: Richmond Lam)

Rabagliati grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in Rosemont, a historically working-class neighbourhood. His father was a “funny, jovial, and very affectionate man” who worked as the production manager in a typesetting shop; his mother worked on an Avon production line, and after raising Rabagliati and his older sister, took a job in a shoe manufacturing plant. Like most children, Rabagliati enjoyed reading comic books, but the insular nature of Quebec society meant “kids weren’t reading American superheroes. French and Belgian comic distributors were all-powerful, and magazines for kids, like Spirou, Tintin, Pilote, and Pif were cheap and easy to find.” Around the age of 10, Rabagliati began drawing his favourite characters into comics of his own, but his disinterest in learning the mechanics of setting up pages or developing plot lines left him frustrated and unable to ever finish more than a page or two of a story. “What I appreciated most growing up was the freedom I had,” he says. “The freedom to dream, to play, or just to do nothing.”

His father encouraged him to consider a career in typesetting, but Rabagliati ended up focusing his attention on graphic design and commercial illustration. He graduated from Collège Salette, a commercial art school in Montreal, in 1980, with aspirations of becoming the next Paul Rand or Saul Bass. “My dream was to do poster art for big cultural events,” he says, “but I didn’t actually get much opportunity, and did whatever fell in my lap just to survive: logos, printing, annual reports.”

As the graphic-design business became less handcrafted and more digitally focused, Rabagliati moved into magazine illustration, appearing in Reader’s Digest, Today’s Parent, and Owl. In 1991, cartoonist Luc Giard introduced Rabagliati to Chris Oliveros, founder of the fledgling comic publisher Drawn & Quarterly. Oliveros hired Rabagliati to create a new logo for D&Q’s eponymous anthology series, which exposed the artist to a new wave of English cartoonists, including Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt, who were drawing comics for adults, and reignited his interest in the field. He decided to focus on stories from his own life, and created Paul, a lightly veiled version of himself. In 1998 he pitched a story to Frédéric Gauthier and Martin Brault, two Montreal booksellers who were launching a French-language comic anthology under their new publishing house, La Pastèque. The next year, Paul à la campagne (Paul in the Country) became the first book for both the artist and the press. “Right off the bat, Michel was very natural in the way he handled the rhythm of a graphic novel,” says Gauthier. “We felt, just reading his first pages, his way of telling such a personal story was very strong. It’s rare that you encounter all these qualities in one work, and it was all there in his first story.”

The song of Roland150Rabagliati chose not to tell Paul’s story in a linear fashion: Paul is a father reflecting on his own youth though the eyes of his young daughter in Paul in the Country; a surly teen worried about his future prospects in Paul Has a Summer Job; a naive art-school student in Paul Moves Out; and a young man trying to start a family of his own in Paul Goes Fishing. All of Paul’s stories are based closely on experiences in Rabagliati’s own life. “I add a little fiction to make things more interesting, but only a little,” he says. “I re-sequence my real events to amplify the dramatic effect. It’s important for me that the reader is having a good time reading my stories. Straight-ahead autobiography doesn’t especially interest me.”

Drawn & Quarterly published the short story “Paul: Apprentice Typographer,” which originally appeared as a backup in Paul à la campagne, in its anthology in 2000, and signed on as Rabagliati’s English publisher, releasing Paul in the Country the same year. D&Q followed La Pastèque with English editions of three more Paul books between 2003 and 2008, but passed on 2009’s Paul à Québec, which focuses on the life and death of Paul’s/Rabagliati’s father-in-law. It also is slightly more Quebec-centric than previous books, with multiple references to the sovereignty movement. D&Q “opted out because they felt anglophones would have trouble grasping the Quebec spirit, the humour and everything,” Rabagliati says. “I’ve always found that a strange and mysterious decision because, in fact, it was my greatest success.”

Gauthier approached Andy Brown, publisher of Conundrum Press, who worked out a deal with Rabagliati for English rights to the story, which was published in 2012 as The Song of Roland. The book sold more than 50,000 copies in both French and English combined, and won numerous awards, including the Doug Wright, the Joe Shuster, and the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s audience choice award. “He’s one of my top sellers,” says Brown, who has remained Rabagliati’s English publisher, following The Song of Roland with Paul Joins the Scouts in 2013, and the recently released Paul Up North. D&Q’s reservations are not entirely unwarranted, as the Paul books continue to sell significantly less well in English than in French. “We’ve been asking ourselves a long time why it doesn’t translate more into sales in the English market,” says Gauthier. “Michel has always written very emotional stories and has a very enthusiastic approach in life. Maybe that’s something that’s difficult for English readers to connect with.”

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In 2010, Rabagliati contacted director and producer François Bouvier to see if he’d be interested in adapting Paul for the screen. He was, and they began co-writing a script based on Paul à Québec. The film, released last fall by Caramel Film, starred French actor and writer François Létourneau as Paul, and featured a moving performance by Genie-nominated Gilbert Sicotte as Roland. Rabagliati made a small cameo in the movie, and appeared as Létourneau’s hand double whenever Paul was required to sketch. (“When they needed me, they’d yell, ‘The hand!’”) The film was both a critical and commercial hit in Quebec, grossing $1.4 million at the box office in 2015. Bouvier “really respected the tone and the humour,” Rabagliati says. “I’m really satisfied with the movie. But I didn’t really like the experience. I’m not a team worker. Plus, Paul à Québec tells the story of my ex-family and my ex-father-in-law, so it was really hard for me. When we started writing I’d just divorced. I really didn’t want to hear about all that stuff. It was too heartbreaking.”

Rabagliati has reached a level of success with Paul he never anticipated. Stories he expected to appeal only to middle-aged men have – like those of a certain boy adventurer – found an audience of readers from ages seven to 77. “Everything about his stories reminds Quebecers of themselves,” says Brown. “Also, he doesn’t write in French French – it’s Québécois French, and people in Quebec don’t usually see that.” Sales of the French editions alone have sold nearly half a million copies combined, buoyed in part by the same provincialism that spawned Rabagliati’s interest in comics as a child: after he appeared on a popular local talk show to promote Paul à Québec, sales of the book jumped by 5,000 copies in just a few days.

Rabagliati says he isn’t afraid to set aside his popular creation. He expects his next book to feature an unnamed, middle-aged character, and little dialogue. “That’s where I am right now in life,” he says. “It might not be very funny, but that’s what I think I feel like doing. I’d like to do something 500 pages long and work for six years on just one project.” He doesn’t rule out returning to Paul someday, once he’s had some distance from his old stories. “I’d like to write a story where Paul is 55 years old, but I’m not that eager to keep talking about myself for the rest of my days. I knew that at a point I wouldn’t have any more stories. Now I guess I have to leave that character on the shelf.”