Paul at Home is the latest memoir by Quebecois cartoonist Michel Rabagliati and perhaps the toughest to read. It finds Rabagliati’s cartoon alter ego Paul in 2012, deep in middle age, dealing with illness, the aftermath of divorce, loneliness and ultimately grief.

And yet, downbeat as its subject matter is, Paul at Home is also full of sweetness, good humour and gorgeous cartooning.

Here, Rabagliati talks about fictionalising life, dealing with the pandemic and his love of typography :

The Herald:

Can we start by asking how much of yourself, Michel, is in Paul? Do you differ in any way at all?

Paul is very close to me, I would say 100% me in terms of his personality, and 80% me in terms of the things that happen to him – the life events. I am not shy about amplifying the drama of a situation or altering the chronology if I think it will amuse the reader or create a more interesting story arc.

I am working in autobiography, of course, but it’s autobiography that’s been altered to please the reader. I want my pages to transport and entertain the reader, even if the themes I’m tackling are heavy or difficult.

You are dealing with some difficult events in your own life in Paul At Home: divorce, poor health, loss, grief. What was the most difficult to revisit on the page?

I think the hardest thing was to tell my mom’s life story at the beginning of the book. I spent some time looking at her old photos and that helped me get to know her better. I realised that I had no awareness of her interior life, of her sorrows or her hopes. I was too caught up in my own small life to pay attention to her when I was young, which is a shame.

At the same time is there a consolation in putting these events down on the page?

To be honest, I was sort of looking for redemption or healing to come out of writing this book. But I just never felt that! This book was difficult to make – it caused me a lot of sorrow. It was a trap for all my emotions. Sometimes, we make things without knowing what is motivating us exactly because we have to. I hope maybe I’ll feel the benefit of having done this in a few years.

What comes across very strongly is your mum’s strength and stoicism in the face of everything.

In this book I tried to create a fair, non-idealised, non-romanticised portrait of my mother. She could seem pretty cold and severe. Her father came from a military background, so he was very strict and never joked around. She came from a family where you weren’t supposed to show "weakness."

Does 2012 feel very far away today?

It doesn’t feel as far away as all that. The pandemic definitely brought me back to those years where I struggled so much with solitude, but things aren’t as hard for me these days. I’m not totally healed, but I’m definitely not as sad as I was, even though my father also passed away not so very long ago. It’s the cycle of bereavement that continues. They say time heals all wounds but maybe for me it just takes longer than other people.

The Herald:

I love the physical world you locate your character in on the page. It’s both realistic and yet sweetly cartoony. It is also intricate, ie, it looks like a lot of work. Is there a pleasure in creating that detail, or is it a pain in the backside.

I have a soft spot when it comes to drawing Montreal and its environs. I take a lot of pleasure in acting as a tour guide of sorts, in describing my country, its particularities, its sometimes horrible architecture, its inhabitants. All of that is really fun to draw, but it takes a toll on my neck and hand.

Paul is obsessed by fonts. Are you too? When did your own interest in them begin?

It’s an interest I’ve had forever. My father was a typographer, and I was very interested in him, and by extension in his career. When I was 18 years old I studied typography myself, but already by that time (1979) the profession was disappearing. So, I turned to graphic design, thinking in part that that was a profession where I could still sometimes absorb myself in the world of typography.

In a year in which we have all been isolated, how have you found being alone? Is a pandemic good for cartooning?

The pandemic is too unsettling and destabilising for me to be able to make comics. I am ready for the winds of change to blow this unpleasant atmosphere away. I want to rediscover my choir, museums, theatre, art exhibits. After all, art nourishes art.

The Herald:

What do you love about comic strips?

I love working alone. And I love the fact that, with pencil and paper alone, you can create and control a universe as complex as any found in feature-length film.

What’s your history with them?

My father bought me my first Tintin when I was six years old. I never lost my passion for comics from that day onward. It’s a major art form that people are just beginning to appreciate. There’s nothing else like comics. A comic is completely different from a novel or a static illustration or even an animated drawing. It’s all of those things at once. In French we call it the ninth art because it’s unique!

What’s next?

I’m thinking. If I come up with anything to say that seems interesting enough to merit it, I’ll start working again. In the meantime, I’m learning piano : "Bach for beginners."

The Herald:

Paul at Home by Michel Rabagliati is published by Drawn & Quarterly