Louis Riel: Chester Brown

I know, I know, I’m the last person on the planet to have read this. I think high schools are using this book to teach Canadian history even. It’s one of those books that’s always on my list that I never get around to somehow, even though I really like Chester Brown’s other work and I was fully expecting this to be just as good or better. I even managed to read his latest (Paying For It) before getting around to Louis Riel. It is one of those books that forever lurks in my periphery, never managing to quite make it to the front of the shelf.

But then I gave it to T. for his birthday (yes, I am even giving it to people, knowing as I do that it must be great, and yet I do not read it), and he was shocked to learn that I hadn’t read it yet since of the two of us, I am the comics lover. So he loaned me the book that I gave him and I got to work learning some long overdue Canadian history. Looooong overdue. Like I had the faintest memory of the name “Louis Riel” and something about the Métis from grade school, but they weren’t even connected in my mind. Yeah, they should revoke my passport. 

So for those of you who are soon-to-be-passport-less Canadians like me, or just citizens of other countries, a quick overview. Louis Riel was a nineteenth-century Métis leader who went up against the government of young Canada to try and re-claim the land of the French-speaking Métis in what would become the province of Manitoba, largely thanks to Riel’s own intervention. The government of Canada is basically English and pretty anti-French, so they think of all kinds of ways to screw Riel and his Métis. I’ll keep my mouth shut about the rest of Riel’s history since it is technically a spoiler if you didn’t study at a Canadian elementary school. But really, it’s Brown, his technique, his storytelling that make this particular “comic-strip biography” worth reading.

One of the first things I noticed reading Louis Riel is how Brown artfully deals with the cursing of one particularly racist and profane individual by simply putting Xs in place of the offensive language, making the book safe for all ages and sidestepping language anachronisms in one fell swoop. I also appreciated it in the context of the book, as in Brown was not out to point out so crassly the racist nature of the time and the people who populate the book. But without putting something in, it would look a bit like he was whitewashing the past.

And he doesn’t need to fill his characters’ mouths with racist utterings for the reader to grasp just how hateful things got at the time. His re-telling of the story of Louis Riel is dispassionate in its presentation of the facts, which is exactly what makes it so effective in conveying the more emotional aspects of the tale. Brown keeps himself at a distance, but it is clear which side he’s taking, if only due to the fact that he tells the story from the perspective of Riel and the Métis. But he gives more than a few pages to a drunken John A. MacDonald and some distinctly anti-French plotting to drive home the point that the Métis are the tragic heroes of this tale.

Riel and his compatriots are portrayed as human and deeply sympathetic, more so when things start to really fall apart. And I love the way Brown draws them all! In the foreword, he mentions that Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie was an inspiration for the artwork, and reading it, those strips did float through my mind occasionally. The influence isn’t slavish, but it’s there, in the empty circles for eyes, the way horses leap across the landscape, the square shoulders. But he builds on this influence and makes it his own so naturally, with extra large hands and small head for Riel, and other exaggerated characteristics for other characters. The images feel static and dynamic at the same time, which is quite a feat and I lingered on more than one panel, drinking the image in.

And for the historically minded, there are pages and pages of notes to reference for how the tale Brown tells differs from the tale the history books tell. He also suggests further reading, which is probably a high school history teacher’s dream come true. And a fascinating glimpse at a part of Canadian history in the form of a comic strip is every high school history student’s dream come true. So basically, with Chester Brown, we all win!

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