April 2004

Karin L. Kross


Louis Riel by Chester Brown

The autobiographical comic book was well-worn long before the prose memoir boom of the last decade, but historical biography is considerably less common in the medium. Somewhere between the rigours of the scholarly biography and the accessibility of the movie biopic lies Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. It’s an elegant, visually spare work, thoroughly researched and annotated, and it tells a compelling story. Released originally in ten issues, the entire work has been collected in a handsome hardcover volume, published by Drawn and Quarterly.

The history of Louis Riel and of the Métis Rebellion is probably new to most non-Canadian readers. Riel, a former divinity student, represented the French-Indian people known as the Métis in their negotiations with the Canadian government. He was charismatic and a natural leader, and was pivotal in the creation of the province of Manitoba, but his role in the execution of a Canadian made him a fugitive. He fled to the United States, where he experienced the first of his mystical visions; afterwards, having declared himself a prophet, he was committed to an insane asylum.

Years later, after he had been released from the asylum and was working as a schoolteacher in Montana, he was asked to return to Manitoba and represent the Métis to the Canadian government again. In 1885, the Métis declared a provisional government in rebellion against Canada, and Riel became their leader. Despite the abilities of his military leader Gabriel Dumont, Riel undermined the rebellion in his insistence on following what he believed was the divine path that had been revealed to him -- among other things, he refused to let Dumont engage the Canadians in guerilla warfare, on the grounds that “God doesn’t want us to use savagery." The rebellion was ultimately a failure, and in the end, with the Métis outnumbered and outgunned, Riel surrendered to the Canadian troops. He was tried for treason, and despite the efforts of his attorneys to have him found not guilty by reason of insanity, Riel was convicted and executed in November 1885.

Much has been made of the artistic style that Chester Brown uses in Louis Riel, which is reminiscent of both Harold Gray’s work on Little Orphan Annie and of Herge’s Tintin (the former of which Brown acknowledges as his chief influence). It’s a minimalist style of few words that doesn’t call attention to itself, and which allows the story to be told without much obvious authorial interference. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Brown is sticking as closely to the historical record as an academic historian might; as his extensive annotations indicate, characters have been composited and events compressed to facilitate the pacing and dramatic arc of the book. Most crucially, one plot point regarding Canadian Prime Minister MacDonald, the Canadian-Pacific Railway, and the Métis Rebellion is derived from a fairly controversial reading of historical events. It does, however, make for the most dramatic story.

In the respect of the elisions and compressions (and, most obviously, the artist’s need to devise dialogue for events from which no direct dialogue was recorded), Louis Riel is not unlike a biopic along the lines of Julie Taymor’s Frida, where the people and places are manipulated to one degree or another to make a more dramatically satisfying story. And yet, as with a prose biography, there is ample time to make sure the salient facts are covered in detail, and documented with references as necessary. It’s especially interesting to read Louis Riel after having previously read Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha -- a heavily fictionalized version of Siddhartha’s life, which can’t really be considered a “biography” even in the non-academic (though certainly scholarly) sense of Louis Riel. Both books, however, seek to engage the reader in a personal and historical story that they might not otherwise approach. That one should tell such a story as a comic book is undoubtedly old hat to anyone who has been following the Bookslut blog and this column for any length of time, and it’s highly enjoyable no matter how you look at it.

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Autobiography by Chester Brown
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN 1896597637
272 Pages