Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Paul Goes Fishing

One of the most difficult things for an artist to do is to portray emotion without wallowing in Spielbergian sentiment. It's incredibly easy for a skilled artist to manipulate an audience into being moved with cheap, tragic stunts. Tugging one's heartstrings is the only goal, and there's not much difference between this and an action movie shuffling around its characters so as to move them to the next fight or explosion. This sort of manipulation has nothing to do with actual emotion and has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. If one was to seek out a primary reason why as a reader I feel angry at being manipulated in such a way, it's because the characters presented to me are either weak protagonists or lazily sketched-out and one-dimensional.

In contrast, Michel Rabagliati's "Paul" series works so well precisely because each character is given a rich inner life. Rabagliati is a master at portraying the small but crucial moments that make up a life and give readers enormous insight into each character. He also expertly balances the themes and plot of the overall narrative while frequently going off on seemingly unrelated but absorbing tangents. These tangents inevitably tie back into the main story but never in a way that seems ham-fisted or obvious. Most of all, by making the small moments the meat of the story, he's able to shift gears and address a series of tragic events with enormous sensitivity, subtlety and a minimum of mawkishness. The latest edition, Paul Goes Fishing is by far his best book to date. This one's themes revolve around innocence (both lost and taken), parenthood, the creative process and the precarious balance between life and death. These are heavy themes, but Rabagliati navigates them gracefully with a light storytelling touch. For example, on pages where Paul and his father are on the lake,  Rabagliati avoids using extreme close-ups of their desperate faces and instead pans way back to show us a tiny drawing of the sinking boat on the vast lake. Even the panels where Paul's father bursts into tears aren't dragged out--we instead get a real sense of the tension and emotion of the moment where they both nearly died and his father's feelings for him. This is further set up a few pages earlier, as Paul's amiable father is singing to him and Paul notes how meaningful this moment of extremely quiet time with his father is so important to him.

Rabagliati flashes back and forth in time like this as Paul and other characters recall moments of great importance to them in a setting that is intentionally set up as a remote, still location. The contrast in setting and story is obviously deliberate and quite effective. The plot is simple: a 20-something man named Paul takes a vacation with his pregnant girlfriend Lucie to a fishing cabin site on a remote man-made lake in Canada. They meet up with Lucie's sister Monique and her family. This basic set-up triggers a number of memories for Paul: his traumatic past fishing trip with his father, his brother-in-law Clement's obsession with fishing being a result of working in a job that becomes increasingly soulless, a poignant and painful memory of Monique's as a case worker for at-risk mothers and their children, and Paul's own memories as a teenager. All of the memories relate to current events, but not always in obvious ways.

Rabagliati carefully constructs a narrative that addresses birth, death, growing up and the creative process--and how they all interrelate. The relationship between work and creativity is an important theme--for Clement, the intrusion of bottom-line corporate concerns into his job destroyed creativity, camaraderie and a real sense of accomplishment. For Paul, his job as a graphic designer lost its sense of soul when it became entirely computerized. Dehumanization and detachment are the great enemies in this book. A couple of teenagers who capture and leave a rabbit for dead are representative of a certain deadening of spirit--an inability to have meaningful relationships with others, which in turn leads to potentially monstrous behavior.

The first two thirds of the book give us a variety of points of view on children and how they're being raised. Paul's own recollection of hating school and running away, only to meet a kid in a far worse spot than he was, was the only portion of the book that felt slightly over-the-top. This street kid who lived with a sister that was a prostitute with an abusive pimp of a boyfriend felt like a bit of overkill, as did some of the narration. Rabagliati quickly redeems himself when Paul comes home from running away. The scene where his parents don't acknowledge that he's done anything wrong or hurtful and that he's not in trouble--indicating that they understand that he's going through a tough time-- is one of many emotionally powerful moments in this book.

The languid pace of the book takes a sudden shift when Lucie starts bleeding and is rushed to a hospital. She miscarried, which begins a time of great pain for the couple, as they try to have another child and the same thing occurs. This is where Rabagliati's skills as an artist are at their best. The brutally efficient technology of the vacuum pump used to take care of Lucie and the blood it pumps out represent the sense of defeat and dejection that they feel--and this ties in perfectly with earlier imagery from the book. The anger and fear that Lucie feels when others around her are pregnant, the desperate rage she feels when her parents insisted on buying baby items before the second baby came and then the second time she miscarried are powerful moments that have an almost visceral quality to them.

What's impressive is that Rabagliati's iconic, angular artwork that normally has such an amiable quality manages to mute a potentially histrionic presentation of such raw emotion. Rabagliati's line is witty and lively, spare and economical, and yet so full of expressiveness. His sense of composition is peerless, his character design is clever and varied, and he cleverly solves storytelling problems through the use of unusual lettering techniques. The Paul stories are said to be semiautobiographical, and Rabagliati manages to fuse the emotional verisimilitude of his real-life experiences with a carefully-constructed narrative. That fictive element forestalls the kind of navel-gazing that can plague some autobiographical work, while the real life elements provide fuel for his characterization. It's a delicate balance that he navigates expertly.

The final payoff of the book in its last four pages are so exquisitely constructed and pack such a powerful emotional punch that I was moved to tears. That is rare for me with any media, especially since I despise most media whose goal is to evoke that sort of reaction. Rabagliati cleverly ties the last four pages of the story with a seemingly-unrelated prelude, and then provides the final scene with most of its power by keeping it so stripped down. Again, there are no close-ups, no overselling of its importance with gratuitous narration. The sense of gratitude Paul feels for his child being born is conveyed in such a clever manner leads the reader to understand that Rabagliati was solving a storytelling problem in addition to conveying the feelings of his vividly animated characters. That he was able to act as both craftsman and artist with equal facility in Paul Goes Fishing makes this his most ambitious and most accomplished work to date. There's no question that this will be a "best of 2008" selection.
This article was originally written in 2008.

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