Paul at Home is Quebec cartoonist Michel Rabagliati’s latest memoir and probably the most difficult to read. In 2012, in the mid-middle ages, Rabagliati’s cartoon alter-ego Paul finds himself dealing with sickness, the aftermath of divorce, depression and, eventually, sorrow.
And still, Paul at Home is full of sweetness, good humor and fantastic cartoons, as depressing as the subject matter might be.
Rabagliati speaks here of the fictionalization of life, of the pandemic, and of his passion for typography:
Can we start by asking how many of you are in Paul, Michel? Are you in any way different?
In terms of his personality, Paul is really similar to me, I’d say 100 percent of me, and 80 percent of me in terms of the things that happen to him – the events of life. If I feel it will entertain the reader or create a more interesting story line, I’m not afraid to heighten the drama of a situation or alter the chronology.
Of course, I work in autobiography, but it’s autobiography that has been updated to satisfy the reader. I want the reader to be engaged and entertained by my pages, even if the subjects I deal with are heavy or hard.
You are processing some traumatic events from your own life in Paul At Home: divorce, ill health, loss, sorrow. What was the most difficult thing on the page to work through?
At the beginning of the novel, I believe the toughest part was sharing my mother’s life story. I’ve been looking at her old pictures for a while, and that has helped me get to know her better. I realized I had no knowledge of her inner life, of her hopes and worries. I was too wrapped up in my own little life when I was young to pay attention to her, which is a shame.
At the same time, is registering these events on paper a comfort?
I was kind of hoping for salvation or healing to come from writing this book, to be honest. But I just haven’t felt it! It was a hard book to do – it caused me a great deal of grief. For all my thoughts, it was a trap. Sometimes we do things without knowing what motivates us, precisely because we have to. I hope that I would feel the benefit of having done this in a few years.
What comes across very strongly is your mother’s strength and stoicism in the face of everything.
In this book, I tried to paint a fair, non-idealized, non-romanticized portrait of my mother. She might seem fairly cold and stern. Her father came from a military background, so he was very strict and never made jokes. She came from a family where you weren’t allowed to show “weakness.”
Does 2012 feel very far away today?
It doesn’t feel that far off. The pandemic definitely took me back to those years when I struggled so much with loneliness, but it’s not as hard for me today. I’m not completely cured, but I’m definitely not as sad as I used to be, even though my dad passed away not too long ago too. It’s the cycle of grief that continues. They say time heals all wounds, but maybe it just takes longer for me than it does for other people.
I love the physical world in which you situate your character on the page. It is both realistic and sweetly cartoonish. It’s also very detailed, meaning it looks like a lot of work. Is it fun to create those details, or is it a pain for you?
I’m a sucker for drawing Montreal and its surroundings. It’s a lot of fun for me to be a kind of guidebook, to describe my country, its features, its sometimes terrible architecture, its people. All of that is really fun to draw, but it takes its toll on my neck and hand.
Paul is obsessed with typefaces. Are you, too? When did your own interest in them begin?
It’s an interest I’ve always had. My father was a typographer, and I became very interested in him and therefore in his career. When I was 18, I studied typography myself, but by that time (1979) the profession was already disappearing. So I turned to graphic design, thinking that this was a profession in which I could still sometimes immerse myself in the world of typography.
How did you experience being alone in a year when we were all isolated? Is a pandemic good for cartooning?
The pandemic is too unsettling and destabilizing for me to make comics. I’m ready for the winds of change to blow away this unpleasant atmosphere. I want to rediscover my choir, Musee