Monday, January 2, 2017

Michel Rabagliati's Paul Up North

The final volume (for now) in Michel Rabagliati's Paul series features many familiar delights, but it's ultimately the most lightweight. Rabagliati has gone on record saying that he decided to quit the semi-autobiographical series that jumped back and forth in time after he and his wife got divorced, noting that it was now just too painful to delve into the past. To be sure, Paul Up North's virtues are simple, and it has the least amount of depth of any of the books in the series that has spanned nearly 20 years. It more-or-less picks up right after the end of the last book, Paul Joins The Scouts. The running theme in every Rabagliati book is that of transition and the difficulty of accepting change. It's also about people trying to find their place in life, be it Paul, his family or his friends, there's always a tension between the instant nostalgia of the moment and the desire for things to never change and the need for growth at different stages in one's life.

This book follows Paul's family moving to a new town when he was sixteen and his adolescent tendency to pull away from his parents. Along the way, he makes the kind of close friends that are so valuable to a teenager, has some wild adventures with his new best friend and has something close to his first mature relationship--and first real heartache. Rabagliati is superb at relating the small details in friendships that give his stories a real sense of authenticity, especially with his slightly bigfoot, cartoony style of character design. Every character is distinctive in their own way, but it's clear that his friendship with fellow smart-ass Marco was the most important. The key sequence in the book was their hitch-hiking adventure that nearly got them killed when a powerful snowstorm rolled into northern Quebec. Marco represented that friend who was a little cooler than you are who introduced you to all sorts of music and culture while pushing one beyond their comfort zone in an effort to get them to try new things. The snowstorm sequence saw Rabagliati in peak form as a cartoonist, using swirling whites and grays to surround his clueless protagonists with increasing (if denied) levels of danger. The color dream sequence that followed was also an unexpected delight, especially after the reader was subjected to such an intense and harrowing series of panels.

That said, Paul in this book was especially whiny and immature. Rabagliati wasn't necessarily trying to make Paul look good, to be sure, but rather to normalize him. In other words, "here's a teenage asshole boy, just like all the other ones". Doing so was an effort to neither let Paul off the hook nor judge him too harshly, especially given his naivete. However, the inexplicable and tedious attitude he gave his parents did not make for great storytelling, even when Rabagliati went over the top in ham-handed metaphors at the end when Paul burned his old childhood playhouse and helped his father on the project he had been requested to work on from the start. While Rabagliati mercifully made this a silent sequence, that's all that saved it from cliche'. There are other problematic elements in the book: there's a deep undercurrent of sexism that pervades it, especially with regard to how men treat women as objects. From his uncle taking him to a strip club and sexually harassing women (played for laughs) to the way he and his friends treated and talked about girls, there's a tacit acceptance, a sort of boys-will-be-boys understanding of their actions. There's a homophobic sequence regarding a guy picking up the boys as well as a sequence that was simultaneously fat-shaming and slut-shaming of a girl who wanted to fool around with several of the boys. I found that tacit homophobia to be especially surprising given Rabagliati's sensitive handling of the subject in Paul Joins The Scouts. While one can appreciate Rabagliati's honesty in telling it like it was with regard to how a teenage boy might approach things (freaking out about a guy coming on to him and freaking out about sexual contact with someone he was not attracted to), there was little to indicate in the text that Rabagliati found any of these behaviors regrettable now.

While Rabagliati made it clear that Paul in this book was to be considered an unreliable and immature narrator, there was enough of a sense of nostalgia running through the book to blur the line between reporting on things as they were without celebrating them (like the sexism) and cheerfully recalling the good ol' days. There are other problems with the book as well: a subplot regarding his mother getting a face-lift goes nowhere, as does a subplot involving her sister dating a possible criminal. Every storyline, including Montreal hosting the summer Olympics in 1976, is inevitably sucked into the teenage Paul vortex, which concludes with the hilariously over-the-top sequence of him listening to the same sad song for over two weeks in a row as he lay in his underwear in his bedroom. To be sure, Rabagliati is in no way trying to glorify himself when his girlfriend broke up with him, even if she tried to avoid him instead of telling him. Rabagliati does suggest that finally facing up to his heartbreak was what enabled him to make the transition from adolescence to early adulthood and an acceptance of his responsibilities. It's unfortunate that Rabagliati concluded a series filled with emotionally powerful moments earned through his storytelling prowess with what amounted to the melodrama he usually managed to avoid. That's especially true given how wonderfully deft his cartooning has become, as it carried many an underwritten sequence in the book.

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