Some books are clearly autobiographical, even if that fact isn’t printed anywhere within the book. In the hardcover comic Paul Moves Out, writer/artist Michel Rabagliati is clearly the title character. There’s no two ways about it, they are one in the same. Perhaps not all of the events in the book happened, or if they did, their sequence and dialogue within the scenes was changed for the sake of clarity. After, who can remember the wording of every conversation they’ve had. But there are some things that you just know in your heart of hearts to be true just by reading, and in this case I know that Michel is Paul and Paul is Michel.
Paul Moves Out, a follow-up to Paul Has a Summer Job, is a series of slice-of-life tales dealing with the life of Paul, who we see as both an art school student and as a graphic designer. It follows some important moments in Paul’s life spanning his twenties as he becomes fascinated with a new teacher in his art class that exposes him to new ideas, meets the girl who he’ll one day marry, moves out of his parents’ home, and baby-sits the neighbors’ kids for a few days, among other occurrences and events. And I know it is true when I say that Paul’s experiences are based on Michel’s own. The experiences themselves are, in many cases, archetypical life experiences: the teacher who inspires you, the first meeting with the woman who seems to perfectly understand you, your first experience as a (replacement) parental figure. Still, the way in which Michel Rabagliati presents these scenes makes them feel not like fictional moments constructed by a writer but rather like real moments recreated in comic form.
But readers will see that these are more than just scenes from a man’s life as Michel captures authentic human emotion. We share Paul’s frustrations, confusions, and joys, as well as feelings that words can’t quite capture. This is why I know that Michel Rabagliati is the titular Paul: everything that Paul feels through the course of the book feels honest, gently moving and true without feeling melodramatic or manipulative. Frankly, I’m pretty easy to move emotionally, but I can tell the difference between when sentiment is constructed for the sake of the story and when they are taken from personal experience.
There’s something about the emotions Michel Rabagliati presents in this book that are more intangible than the ones found in fiction. When Paul’s English teacher, Jean-Louis Desrosiers, is coming on to him, he’s scared and finds himself in an uncomfortable position. Later, Paul wonders if he led him on by mistake and remembers points in their friendship where his actions may have been misinterpreted. When Paul later finds out that after he rejected Desrosiers he spent the night with some other guy, calling the sex an act of hygiene rather than one of love, Paul doesn’t know quite how to feel: he’s insulted that perhaps the mentor he respects may have viewed him as just a means to pleasure and he’s sort of jealous, but he also feels only platonic feelings for his teacher and he just doesn’t know quite what to feel or exactly what he is feeling. The emotions aren’t simple and though words like “upset” or “confused” wouldn’t be incorrect, but those words really don’t do justice to what Paul is going through.
The art of Paul Moves Out has the kind of simple and iconic look one expects to find in an indie book. The art style is eye-catching and fitting considering that we get to see Paul/Michel learning so much more about graphic design and presentation than he ever had before. The smooth simplicity of the character designs helps convey the characters moods clearly despite (or because of) the complexity of what they’re feeling. The pitch-perfect pacing and the gentle stories show that Michel Rabagliati can use sequential art to tell a truly personal story that wouldn’t quite work in any other medium. My only complaint is that the stories themselves don’t really have a strong or common theme to hold them together, and the books seems to end rather abruptly. They are good stories, but it doesn’t feel entirely cohesive, as the book works more as just a random collection of events.
Whenever I read a book published by Drawn & Quarterly, my faith is renewed in the independent comics’ scene. Paul Moves Out is no exception. A quiet, unpretentious book, Paul Moves Out can easily be enjoyed by anyone and touches on those beautifully complex emotions that everyone feels but has difficulty putting into words. Paul and Michel are one in the same, and it is hard to imagine that this is not the case, but whether he is or isn’t, Michel (and he is, I know it) he can still capture complexity of simple emotions better than anyone.