Each of the loosely-autobiographical volumes of Michel Rabagliati's Paul series tends to fold itself around a particular theme or phase of development. The Song of Roland is all about the acceptance of death. Paul Goes Fishing is about finding one's way in life as well as struggling with trying to create new life. Paul Moves Out is about becoming an adult. However, his newest book, Paul Joins The Scouts (the second volume published by Conundrum Press) doesn't seem to have a particular theme or goal in mind for most of the book. There's a subplot about growing up in 1970 Montreal and dealing with the reality of the Quebec separatist terrorist group the FLQ kidnapping members of the government, but that ultimately proves to be a red herring. There's a running subplot about a first romance for Paul, but that's not the meat of the story either. There's yet another subplot about Paul taking up cartooning, but that's somewhat integrated into his general development as a person through the Scouts. It's not til the gut-punch of an ending that we learn why Rabagliati has chosen to spend so much time talking about the significance of joining the Scouts, the boys he made friends with in his cohort of six, and the Scoutmasters who were kind to him. Rabagliati is paying tribute to their presence in his life at that time and mourning their absence, both their literal absence as well as the way it inexorably shaped his life, one that would become far more tumultuous in just a few years.
As is his wont, Rabagliati begins the book with a page filled with the mysterious image of a sneaker hanging in a tree, with smoke blowing by it. When that image is reprised later in the book, its meaning becomes instantly clear, especially with regard to why Rabagliati chose to open the book in such a manner. Rabagliati is such a powerfully effective storyteller because of his knack for using nonverbal clues to set up each book's events in short order. In the first ten pages of the book, we see Paul as a carefree teen, idling moments away in a park with a kite. Then we meet the girl who would become his love interest as the initial sparks are laid out in the form of a casual conversation fraught with meaningful body language. Walking home, we see separatist graffiti on a storefront wall. Then the reader is introduced to Paul's family and the tense dynamic between his mother and her mother-in-law, who lives in the apartment across from theirs and demands an "open-door policy". Just like that, an entire book's worth of characters and character interactions is neatly and seamlessly introduced in Rabagliati's attractive, clear-line style.
After every subplot and character is swiftly introduced, they get moved to the background so Rabagliati can concentrate on telling Paul's odyssey as a Scout. He delves deep into the stories of each of the three Scoutmasters. One is gay (and has a boyfriend jealous of the time he puts into scouting, which is the one time the matter of pedophilia is raised), another is a working stiff he lives to provide direction for the young, and a junior scoutmaster is a college student interested in radical politics. It's those politics that provide a tenuous link to the FLQ and their increasingly violent methods and give the reader a sense of suspense while reading the story. However, that suspense is less important than the loving detail Rabagliati gives to Paul's first camping trip. Other than the gravity of having to camp outside in the open by himself for one night, there's no dramatic tension in this sequence. It's simply a collection of character sketches and bonding rituals that detail how much being a Scout came to mean to Paul, and by extension how much the members of his troop came to mean to him. Rabagliati depicts the occasional personality clash, but it's nothing on the scale of something like Mike Dawson's Troop 142. There's simply a tremendous amount of warmth in Rabagliati's depiction of Scout life, and he depicts this as an unambiguous positive in Paul's life during the same period where he has his first love and discovers how much he loves to do comics. That he has so much of this yanked from under him at the end leads to a downbeat denouement. The resolution of his mother's feud with his grandmother is equally tragic in its own way; their inability to co-exist robs Paul of that intimate family connection (even if it' with good reason). The final, silent pages of the book are Rabagliati's tribute to his fellow Scouts, each one its own powerful image. Rabagliati has been accused by some of being emotionally manipulative and sentimental. While that can be true at times because of his tight control over the emotional content of his stories, I see him as earning the right to draw out that emotion from readers with carefully-laid details that allow the reader to take each character as they are, both positive and negative, and see them as fully fleshed-out human beings. It's easy to feel moved by the triumphs and tragedies in a Rabagliati book because of his genuine sincerity and his skill at painting complex portraits of each character, not the least of which is his own stand-in.