Michel Gets A Comics Job: Cartooning and Cultural Work in the Graphic Novels of Michel Rabagliati

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Michel Rabagliati is a well-loved Canadian cartoonist, and yet he did not begin working in comics until he was in his 40s, following a career in graphic design. Rabagliati’s Paul books contain various portrayals of labour. Significantly, Rabagliati’s
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  Rabagliati Paper ScriptCultural production and cultural work are areas ofresearch that are gaining ground within comics studies,and it’s great to see a panel at this conference dedicatedto cultural production. My contribution to this will be apaper focusing on work in the comics of Michel Rabagliati,and as an Englishman visiting it’s a pleasure to be able togive this paper in Canada.I’m going to talk a little bit about comics and cultural work,referring to some recent texts, and I’ll give a littlebackground on what discussing cultural work means forcomics and the questions it asks of them. After this, I’llbring up some examples from Michel Rabagliati’s comicsand discuss how they depict work both cultural and non-cultural. Then perhaps we’ll see if his comics can answersome of the questions raised by the engagement ofcultural work by comics scholars so far.I think most of you will be familiar with Michel Rabagliati,but just in case, here’s a quick summary of his life andwork in comics. <SLIDE 2> He’s a Quebecois cartoonistwho grew up in Montreal, and worked for a number ofyears as a graphic designer and commercial illustratorbefore writing and drawing his first comic, Paul a la campagne  , <SLIDE 3>, which was published in 1999 byLa Pasteque. His books have been published in Englishby Drawn & Quarterly and Conundrum Press, and D&Qare partly responsible for his move into comics at whatmost people tend to regard as a relatively late stage of hiscareer. He got back into comics, after having had achildhood obsession with <SLIDE 4> Spirou, Tintin,Gaston and Asterix, when D&Q’s Chris Oliveros hired himto redesign their logo, and from there started writing anddrawing comics of his own, when he was around 40.Michel Rabagliati’s Paul stories <SLIDE 5> are oftendescribed as “semi-autobiographical,” though I personally  think this downplays the level of autobiography present – Iprefer to go with Craig Fischer’s description in The ComicsJournal of Paul as “Rabagliati in all but name.” The Paul  graphic novels are all self-contained stories which depictvarious episodes in the life of Paul, Rabagliati’s avatar,such as a summer fishing trip as an early middle-agedman or a period spent working at a scout camp having justleft school. His depictions of growing up in Montreal,<SLIDE 6>, like these pages from his most recent book Paul au Parc  , are vivid and augmented byautobiographical detail to give charming, nuanced portraitsof life in Quebec, with its various joys and relatableproblems.When he was interviewed by the Toronto Star in 2008,Michel said the following about the autobiographical detail:"Sometimes I put some fiction there, 5 to 10 per cent, togive it a snappier story and (make it) more interesting forthe reader. Because at the end, I want a nice book that'scaptivating and interesting to read." So we know we’redealing with books that are at least 90% autobiography ifnot 95%, and such we can fully read Paul as Michel’savatar – at least for the purposes of this short paper. Also,in the same interview, Michel said this: "I kind of forgot about comics for about 25 years ... Istarting doing comics around when I turned 40 andstopped doing graphic design and illustration work. I'mthat kind of guy and I do these kinds of moves in my lifeand they're pretty hazardous sometimes. Now it's payingoff a little," he says. "I'm 47 years old, I'm not supposed todo that. I'm supposed to have RRSPs at the bank,because I have a family and a house, it's pretty perilous.It's a career change you don't usually do at that age."These ideas are significant, as we’ll see when I get intodiscussing cultural work shortly. But, for a little morebackground on Michel which will open up questions aboutcultural work, I’d like to look at a couple of quotes from an  interview Michel did on the Inkstuds Podcast. <SLIDE 7>If you don’t listen to Inkstuds, check it out – it’s a regularseries of interviews with cartoonists. Michel wasinterviewed in February 2013 following the English releaseof his latest book Paul Joins The Scouts  , and the interviewaffirms his assertions about his work and career in theaforementioned Toronto Star interview.Most significantly for this paper, Michel says that his mainreason for moving from graphic design and commercialillustration into comics was that he “wanted to dosomething more creative.” He also describes the moveinto comics as a “back to basics” process of ink andpaper, associating his client-based graphic design andillustration work with the computer, which he portraysnegatively with regard to its status as a tool of labour inPaul Moves Out. We’ll look at his comics shortly, but if younoticed the picture of Michel at his drawing board which Ishowed earlier <SLIDE 8>, there’s nothing digital in sight,which is not common these days. So, from this briefsurvey of Michel’s life and a couple of interviews, we havesome idea of how he thinks about comics and work. Butbefore we look at his comics to affirm this, I’m just going toquickly talk about the background of my research incomics and cultural work.My thesis is entitled “Working With Comics,” and in it I’mexamining comics as work - specifically alternative comics’relationship with labour and political economy. InDecember last year the academic blog ComicsForum<SLIDE 9>, which I think some of you will be aware of, rana series of articles on comics and cultural work. Icontributed an article to this series, which looked at theportrayal of cartooning in relation to day jobs in the comicsof Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka. <SLIDE 10> Mybasic conclusion was that both Brown and Kochalka werepositive about having a day job to pay the bills, as long asyou can find a job that “doesn’t want to make you vomit,”  but both had to overcome the economic and practicalconcerns of labour and capital before they could becomesuccessful and effective cartoonists. The preceding articlein the series by Benjamin Woo asserted, drawing onAdorno and Horkheimer, that it is difficult to conceive ofcomics as labour because their labour is obscured by thecapitalist systems which surround them, and also thatwhen we do conceive of comics as labour, as a job, wefind that they are jobs with “precarious conditions anduneven rewards,” but jobs which come with autonomy, asignificant concern for cultural workers and especially foralternative comics, which grew historically from theunderground movement’s insitence on and desire forfreedom in the context of the comics code and thedeadline-based production-line process of mainstreamcomics. The series editor Casey Brienza’s conclusion tothe themed month surveyed the articles and agreed thatwe’d seen there were myriad factors surrounding comicsand cultural production, and that we’d only just scratchedthe surface.So, following this themed month I started to look intocultural work in other industries and other contexts, onCasey’s recommendation, which led me to a couple ofother scholars I’d like to touch upon, because they’vegiven me the basis for what I’m going to theorise in thispaper. The first of these are British media and communicationsscholars David Hesmondalgh and Sarah Baker<SLIDE11>, whose working definition of cultural work Casey usedin both her introduction and conclusion to theComicsForum series. Their definition features in their book Creative Labour  , which is here on the left. It’s an inclusivedefinition - they define anyone who works in a creativeindustry as a cultural worker, so we can assume from thisand for the purposes of this short paper that cartoonistsare cultural workers and that comics count as cultural  work. Most relevant to this paper and my research, however,was an article they published in the journal Poetics  , whichis here on the right. The title of this article, which I’d like toborrow to describe what comics, here exemplified bythose of Michel Rabagliati, offer in terms of work, is<SLIDE 12> “A very complicated version of freedom.”Here we can see Rabagliati’s Paul experiencing thisphenomenon courtesy of one of his illustration clients, sohopefully you can see where I’m headed with this, butwe’ll come back to Paul shortly.In the article Hesmondhalgh and Baker survey a numberof workers in the industries of television production and journalism, and find through interviews and surveys thatthe pay is low, the hours long and the terms ofemployment precarious and insecure across the board.However, they find that autonomy is the trade-off, andthey back this up by quoting the second theorist of culturalwork who I’ve found influential, Mark Banks<SLIDE 13>.In his book The Politics of Cultural Work he writes “To be(or to appear to be) in control of one’s destiny is whatencourages workers to endorse the systems put in placeto expedite flexible production.” Which is another way, Ithink, of calling a life in cultural work a complicated versionof freedom.Hesmondalgh and Baker, along with Banks, also float theidea of “self-exploitation.” In the conclusion to theComicsForum series on cultural work, Casey askedwhether comics could be seen as exploitative in thetraditional Marxist sense of capitalism being conceived ofas a societal system based on exploitation of workers forthe advance of capital. She didn’t answer the question andneither did the series, and nor will I attempt to. But whatI’m about to show you will go some way to suggesting thatworking in comics is exploitative, because cartoonistsself-exploit like other cultural workers, as Banks,
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