Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I was a big fan of Chester Brown when he was doing Yummy Fur, and I faithfully bought all eleven (iirc) issues of Underwater. When Louis Riel began its serialization, I didn't buy it: partly because I was mad at Brown's having abandoned Underwater (leaving me having spent thirty dollars on a largely incomprehensible fragment), and partly because when I looked at it in stores, neither the subject matter nor the art appealed to me. When Riel came out as a graphic novel, I still didn't buy it, despite the chorus of praise calling it an artistic breakthrough and Brown's best work. Recently my local public library acquired Riel, and I finally read it. After reading it three times, my main reaction is puzzlement: both at what Brown sought to accomplish by telling Riel's story the way he did, and at why the book has been acclaimed so extravagantly.

The subtitle of Louis Riel is "a comic-strip [sic] biography," though "docudrama" would be a more accurate term: as Brown himself acknowledges in the foreword, he ignores many aspects of Riel's life, and makes numerous alterations to the facts to simplify the story and make it read better (which are scrupulously documented in the book's endnotes). Louis Riel was a controversial, but (as far as I can tell) fairly minor character in Canadian history. A Metis (mixed French and Indian ancestry; there should be an accent over the "e") living in what is now western Canada in the nineteenth century, Riel led two rebellions of his fellow Metis against the Canadian government. The first ended in a negotiated settlement, though Canada later reneged on its end of the deal; the second was crushed, and Riel executed. In telling Riel's story, Brown takes an ascetic approach. He renounces most techniques comics use to add expressiveness, and he deliberately downplays moments of high drama. With few exceptions, the story is told through dialogue, and this dialogue is mainly matter-of-fact, with few dramatic speeches. It's a tribute to Brown's ability as a cartoonist, and to the intrinsic interest of Riel's story, that the book isn't boring. But I still don't see what Brown gained from doing it the way he did.

Brown's approach does give the book an air of neutrality and objectivity, which is not entirely accurate. As mentioned above, Brown has made numerous minor alterations to the historical record. He also makes one major alteration: he invents two scenes in which the Canadian prime minister John Macdonald deliberately sets out to provoke the second rebellion, as a result of which Riel lost his life: that Macdonald did so provoke the rebellion is a theory held by some historians, but with "little in the way of hard evidence," as Brown admits (258). Brown explains that he did so "because it makes Macdonald seem more villainous -- villains are fun in a story, and I'm trying to tell this tale in an engaging manner." (259) I stress this point only because several reviewers refer to Brown's scrupulous adherence to facts, despite his own admissions: the Village Voice Literary Supplement (quoted on the jacket) said he's "not interested in making things up." In any case, don't rely on Brown's book for facts about the historical Riel, unless you read it in conjunction with the endnotes.

Another, more subtle way in which Brown manipulates his readers' sympathies is through his visual depiction of Riel in contrast to the other characters. Virtually all the other characters are drawn in a cartoony style; in particular, they all have big noses, though MacDonald's is the biggest. Riel's depiction, while also simplified, is more realistic, with a realistic-sized nose. In fact, this depiction of Riel is responsible for much of what emotional impact the book has: Riel's tortured countenance keeps our sympathy with him, even when his judgment becomes erratic, as it was during the second rebellion.

In Tim O'Neil's in-depth examination of Louis Riel, he asserts that Brown's goal in the series was "to examine and plumb and explore the unknowable texture of conscience" (Aug. 20) and "to explore the contradictory and controversial nature of history itself" (Aug. 27). These may well have been Brown's aims, but if so, for me he was unsuccessful. As a former graduate student in history, it's hardly news to me that reconstructing past events, and still more the motivations of past individuals, is a difficult and inherently uncertain enterprise. (For that matter, anybody who has read clashing scholarly monographs on the same historical topic will be aware of this.) And for me, Brown didn't bring any new insights into this issue.

For a different viewpoint on Louis Riel, read Tim O'Neil's excellent series on it quoted above: in addition to the links already given, the other installments are
here (July 22), here (Aug. 2), and here (Aug. 11). Also worth looking at are Rich Kreiner's writings on Louis Riel in The Comics Journal #s 254 (p. 66) and 259. While both O'Neil and Kreiner are considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I was, they helped me a good deal in coming to grips with it.

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