Re-imagining a rebel

Louis Riel

By Philip Hawes

A review of Louis Riel by Chester Brown

Published on October 1, 2003

Louis Riel
Chester Brown

Drawn & Quarterly
$36.95
cloth
260pp
1-896597-63-7

“He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour,” says an eggplant- nosed John A. Macdonald in Louis Riel, the comic book series on the life of the French Canadian martyr, leader of the Red River and Northwest Rebellions. Like the Canadian prairies, history is a fertile but less than ideal terrain, not an obvious place for a cartoonist to stake his claim. It is a stony expanse of minor characters overrun by spindly poplars with stubborn pedantic roots. Nevertheless, Chester Brown proves a stalwart author, ploughing us through a coherent pictorial narrative with only occasional ellipses. Although Brown is clearly engaged in his subject, it is this supreme narrative challenge, a mammoth task completed over four years, which earns the most respect. Drawn and Quarterly is now reprinting the entire ten issue series in one volume.

In the sixth issue of Louis Riel, Sir John presents a booze-inspired plot to George Stephen, president of the CP Railway: to orchestrate a Métis rebellion in order to win parliamentary support for the railway’s completion. Only when we read Chester Brown’s endnotes, minutely handwritten pages of burnt midnight oil, do we perceive the whole ball of wax, how the scantiness of cartoon narrative forces the author’s oversimplifications. In these endnotes, Brown acknowledges his narrative licentiousness, his deliberate alterations, omissions, and biases. In the case of Macdonald’s CPR conspiracy, Brown sheepishly admits that both of his historical references can “…scratch up little in the way of hard evidence.” However, in anticipating the criticism that history is ill served by a comic book, Brown has created a self-critical work. Thus in the interplay between the notes and the cartoon, the act of adapting history becomes as engaging a subject as Riel himself.

In Louis Riel, Riel’s execution is seen as a political crime, a death sentence for opposing a colonial vision of a friendly “anglicised” West. Despite its central tale of injustice, Louis Riel is not a romanticised account. It is a cheeky retelling, the product of a bemused rather than cynical author. The minimalist line drawings of austere but solid figures with oversized hands recall the sympathetic simplicity of American illustrator Ben Shahn, and avoids excessive veneration of its subjects. In Brownian semiotics, diminution of head size seems to be the only graphic clue to an increase in heroic stature, with Riel slowly taking on linebacker-like proportions. Economy is the key word in Brown’s aesthetic, and the frugality with which he orders his painstaking compositions is echoed in the text. As a puff of breath before a speech balloon signifies sub-zero temperatures, as hoof prints pock-marking a white expanse suggests snow, the disappearance of “H’s” signifies French Canadians speaking English. The dialogue is colloquial and hilariously didactic: “He’s just the excitable type,” says a bystander of Thomas Scott, portrayed as a psychotic axe murderer. This is, after all, a comic. Although Louis Riel retells a tragic and shameful story, its gallows humour prevails, right up to the scaffold itself.

Chester Brown’s previous works have been in an autobiographical or surrealist vein. In Louis Riel, Brown displays the same dexterous mise-en-scène: deft pacing and a knack for arresting and emotive images. This is an ambitious comic, a virtuoso piece marred only slightly by certain stylistic quirks. As a comic which challenges the presumptuousness of its own narrative, delighting in conflicting scholarly references, Louis Riel is a sophisticated polemic, unabashed and humane. Chester Brown is currently working on a comic book adaptation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, so his explorations in the cartoon narrative form will undoubtedly deepen. mRb

Philip Hawes traveled from Edmonton to Frog Lake in the summer of 1991, under the auspices of the Alberta government. There, in an empty field, he hammered, as instructed, a sign proudly proclaiming the contributions that Alberta Lotteries had made to that community.

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