Now, my emotional response to Rabagliati’s stories is informed by the fact that his life milestones track mine fairly well: Happy childhood, unhappy adolescence, domestically settled 20s, kid-centric 30s, encroaching middle age clouded by parental health problems. But it’s not just in Paul’s similarities to me that I find pleasure in Rabagliati’s books. His cartooning, always sharp and energetic—those years as a commercial illustrator gave his first books a great deal more visual polish than most cartoonists’—has nevertheless evolved over the past 15 years to become significantly more sophisticated and detailed. And Rabagliati’s a whiz at endings, a talent few writers in any medium can claim. All of his books have five-star endings, gentle and thoughtful final scenes that recontextualize the stories we’ve just experienced, helping readers see them in a new light. Many of the books have longueurs or scenes that don’t quite land, but the effect of these beautiful endings is always to send me out of the book feeling the joyful thrill of great populist storytelling.
I’m also infatuated with the unique locale of the Paul stories—Quebec, a place I’ve visited only briefly, but which feels familiar and alien at the same time. The books’ clarity about the unique challenges and pleasures of living in that Francophone province no doubt contribute to Paul’s popularity in Canada. (Want a Paul chocolate bar? Buy one at the Comptoir du Chocolat in Saint-Lambert. Want to watch a Paul movie? Coming soon, reportedly, starring Quebecois TV star François Létourneau.) I’m not Canadian, but I love the precision of the Paul books’ setting: the Catholic-inspired curse words; the generational and political strife; the interplay between the near-European, progressive cities and the broad wilderness surrounding them. Paul Joins the Scouts takes place against the backdrop of Quebec’s “October crisis” of 1970, when Quebec separatists’ campaign of violence expanded to include kidnapping and murder. One of Paul’s scoutmasters gets embroiled in the struggle, and the boys in his troop watch the adults in their lives consumed by concern and debate about the future of their home. Considered collectively, the Paul books function as a sort of shadow history of a place over the past 50 or so years, and that specificity contributes to the books’ emotional authenticity. The people in Paul’s life are deeply connected to the place they live, and their complex love for that place makes me love them more.
Yes, it’s utter and unconflicted love I feel for these characters, in a way that testifies to Rabagliati’s strengths as a storyteller. He portrays his characters truthfully but with no desire to undercut them. His characters are kind to each other, in the way that good families are, and he’s an expert at putting readers on their side. In the parlance of the day, they’re likable—realistically likable, in a way that helps me, the reader, identify and foster the likable parts of myself.
Rabagliati is unafraid of occasionally portraying his hero in a bad light—Paul can have a short fuse, and make stupid mistakes, and put his foot in it. But in general he’s sensitive and empathetic in a way that makes him an ideal center for this expanding universe of family stories. Take this scene from 2002’s Paul Has a Summer Job, in which 18-year-old Paul, a camp counselor, describes the view from atop a mountain to a blind camper:
Paul is cautious and nervous about doing this thing for a little girl who means a great deal to him—“I’m not great at describing things,” he says. But of course the description he offers is magical. We later see that very view, in one of those touching real-world photographs at the end of the book, and his description does it justice—he helps her see the world through his eyes, helps her feel something she otherwise couldn’t know. Through his 15 years of autobiographical comics, Michel Rabagliati has been doing the same thing for me. Let him tell you what he sees.
The Paul books by Michel Rabagliati: