Since the publication of Paul in the Country in 2000, the Quebec comics artist Michel Rabagliati has completed no fewer than eight accomplished graphic novels. All of them follow the daily activities and thoughts of the author’s alter ego, Paul, at some time in his life—Paul Has a Summer Job (2003), Paul Moves Out (2005), etc.— and all were published first in French by Les Éditions de la Pastèque and then translated and published in English.
The stories are a lot like accounts of real life, with joys, surprises, coincidences, secrets, loves, hopes and fears, bad decisions, revelations, rites of passage and boring bits. Rabagliati understands the shape and grammar of panels, tiers of panels, pages, sections. His artwork is both loose and sure, with lines so fluid and panel-to-panel flow so smooth that at times it seems almost glib; his use of repeated motifs is occasionally heavyhanded, and there is the odd sentimental moment. But in the latest volume of the Paul stories, The Song of Roland, translated by Helge Dascher (Conundrum Press), Rabagliati is bang-on from start to end in both writing and artwork.
It is an account of the last days of Roland, Paul’s father-in-law, and a look back at Roland’s life. As a youngster he was terrorized by a “no-good cheating bastard” drunken gambler dad, got shipped to an orphanage and a seminary, and then somehow clawed his way to the middle in business because he happened to have English as well as French, and became a husband and dad and grandfather. All of this and more materializes through the memories of Roland’s wife, children and grandchildren, whose own stories come to life in the process. Rabagliati has chosen a subject riddled with exposition and sentimentality traps, but he sidesteps them with ease.
Every panel has meaning, every sequence builds on the ones before, every word belongs where it is. Rabagliati deploys splash panels, overlapping talk bubbles, cinematic cuts from image to image, border-free panels and other cartoon devices in a way that calls attention to a scene or a person or an idea, not to the device. The story is as funny and troubled and sweet and maddening as Roland himself. Although every page is beautiful, and Rabagliati makes each one a shapely “paragraph” (harder than it looks in the comics medium), the power of the book—like the power of life itself—is its aggregation of seemingly trivial moments.