Chester Brown, Louis Riel: a Comic Strip Biography (Drawn & Quarterly Publications, 2003)

In the USA, history has been used as a basis for all sorts of entertainment. Novels, films and television shows have long been built out of the legends of American history. And so American history might have been distorted in so doing, but at least everyone in the States has an idea of a rich proud heritage.Canadian history is the story of political maneouverings and struggles between two groups, the English and the French. When I studied it in high school (in the 60s and 70s), in Ontario, the English were right and the French were wrong. English good. French bad. In Canada — and I'm thinking particularly of the history of the West — the understanding is: west = farms. That's it. No great train robberies; no cowboys; no outlaws; no kindly madams at the local saloon, nothing particularly interesting. The legacy of the American approach is that legends developed into a part of the cultural consciousness. The legacy of the Canadian approach is that we have few legends, so we maintain our connections to the country we came from rather than the country where we live. The USA is the great melting pot where people become American; Canada is a huge quilt, with cultures stitched together, but still distinctive. Chester Brown is attempting to change this in a small but highly effective way.

Louis Riel was a French-Canadian born in the Red River Settlement (which is southern Manitoba); although he trained for both the priesthood and as a lawyer in Montreal, he didn't finish either and moved back to Red River as a teacher. Well educated, ambitious and bilingual he soon emerged as a leader of the Metis (people of mixed blood, especially French and Native Canadian) people, and a thorn in the side of the British interests in western Canada. As spiritual and political leader during the 1885 Rebellion, he carried no weapon and even hindered the military actions of his "general" Gabriel Dumont but was found guilty of treason and hanged on November 16, 1885. To the Francophones his name lives on as a symbol of the struggle; to the Anglophones he is either thought of as a rebel, or not thought of at all. Brown has chosen various events in Riel's life to illustrate and relate the whole story. Obviously, in a work of this type, there is much selection and compression that takes place. However Brown has provided over 20 pages of footnotes and an in depth bibliography stating his sources for those interested in checking the facts. Brown is under no illusions that this is the definitive biography but for someone interested in the story who wants to understand the issues and events, this is a fine starting ground.

Louis Riel is clearly subtitled A Comic Strip Biography. Chester Brown is a Canadian artist well known to those comic book devotees who want to dig deeper than Batman or the Hulk into the graphic storytelling format. He published a semi-regular, slightly bizarro book (for adults) called Yummy Fur which I used to read semi-regularly. That is, whenever I could find it. I recall him filling the back pages of Yummy Fur with a graphic adaptation of the life of Christ, a rather straightforward illustration of one Gospel or another (was it Luke?). It was remarkable in its faithfulness to the text, and the juxtaposition with the "yummy-furrish" elements in the front of the book made it even more intriguing.

His drawings for Louis Riel are elegant; cartoony, but instantly recognizable portraits of real historical figures. His John A. MacDonald is a delightful caricature. Somewhat reminiscent of Herge, the drawings maintain a dignity and a style that is all Chester Brown. Beautiful.

This is a lush and husky book, printed on heavy paper, bound well between hard covers, it is a comic book designed to last. And it is filled with such wonderful drawings, and such dependable research, it should last.

Will Louis Riel: a Comic Strip Biography add to the Canadian cultural consciousness? Will it spark new debate about Riel and Dumont and their struggle to own the land they lived on? I'm not sure. It should, if it reaches far enough. I'd like to see it used as a textbook in high school history classes. The comic book/graphic novel form would be one way to get young people to read history. Whatever its importance in historical debate, it is a stunning model of the bookmaker's art, and one I am proud to say comes from the Great White North. Highly recommended!

[David Kidney]