If the latest volume in the long-running, semi-autobiographical Paul series by the Quebecer cartoonist Michel Rabagliati is by far the saddest of these wonderful books, it’s also much the better for it. No one writes, or draws, the nerdish white male quite as Rabagliati does, but in this volume, as his titular hero finds himself adrift in middle age, there’s a special richness: a melancholy that has its perfect expression in his monochrome pages. A story of loneliness and loss, it could hardly have arrived at a better moment. Who knew that I would find Paul’s daily dread so soothing? Who would ever have guessed that his crotchety musings on such subjects as sleep apnoea, mobile phones and internet dating would suit my present mood so marvellously well?
Paul is a successful illustrator and comic book writer. At the Quebec book fair, his signing queue is long, and the fans in it (mostly) devoted. But his outward success has little bearing on the rest of his life, which has fallen into what can only be described as decay; a decline symbolised by his mouldering back-yard swimming pool, and the rotten old apple tree that stands next to it. His back aches, he sleeps badly and, thanks to a disaster with a tooth, his head aches permanently.
Meanwhile, there’s the grey tundra that is his emotional life. He and his wife have divorced, and his beloved daughter is about to go and live in London. Should he start dating, as both his shrink and his elderly mother insist that he must? Though he tells himself he isn’t ready, in reality he’s just afraid. He feels old before his time. The few women who do come his way can hardly believe he’s only 51.
His mother, though… At the heart of this book is a fine portrait of a stoical, reserved and sometimes rather difficult woman who lives alone in a retirement flat. Paul recognises her indomitability, and traces it back to the days when, as a young woman, she wouldn’t leave the house without lipstick and a squirt of Femme Rochas on her wrists. But for him, their encounters now are edged with sorrow, not only because her cancer may have returned, but because so little seems to separate them at this point; his own isolation is hardly any less pronounced than hers.
Does this sound depressing? If so, all I can say in mitigation is that Paul at Home (translated by Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall) is also blackly funny, whether our narrator is obsessing over the typeface of street signs, or giving yet another talk to bored students at a school where the teacher who booked him mistook him for someone more famous.
And there are moments of solace, too. Eventually, the apple tree comes down. In its place, Paul plants a cherry, and though digging a hole for it half kills him, there’s optimism in its blossoming – a simple line drawing Rabagliati accompanies not with his own words, but with lines from a favourite song of his mother’s, Petula Clark’s Downtown. The world, we understand, is still out there, and when he’s done grieving, he’ll get back to it.
• Paul at Home by Michel Rabagliati is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply