Title: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
Writer and Artist: Chester Brown
Drawn and Quarterly
I first discovered Chester Brown's Louis Riel as part of this year's A-Z Challenge. While intended as a single graphic novel, Brown's biography of Riel was originally serialized. The one issue I read inspired me to read the entire collection.
I've developed a strong interest in Canada recently. The Vermont/Quebec border is under an hour's drive from our house and we've paid quite a number of visits to our northern neighbor over the past year. Louis Riel is one of many reminders that my knowledge of Canadian history is embarrassingly lacking.
Riel (1844-1885) was a political and spiritual leader of the Métis people of the Canadian prairie. The Métis are technically of mixed-race heritage: First Nations and European. Their resistance to Anglo-Canadian domination played a crucial role in the formation of Canada's western provinces, beginning with Manitoba, Riel's home.
Riel enjoys widespread folk hero status today but was far more controversial in his own lifetime - celebrated by French Canadians, mistrusted by the English speakers. In the end, the Canadian government hanged him for treason. Brown's work is certainly sympathetic to Riel and his cause. However, this well-researched biography also documents Riel's history of mental illness (diagnosed posthumously as megalomania by historians) - an important theme of Chester Brown's other books as well.
Louis Riel is very highly regarded within the comics industry, considered a ground-breaker for non-fiction graphic novels in English. As I wrote in my A-Z post, much of the book's effectiveness derives directly from Brown's minimal artistic style. If anything, the dialogue is rather dry and to-the-point but the drawings afford the reader an intimacy with the historical figures that few text-only renderings could allow.