Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Louis Riel

Title: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
Writer and Artist: Chester Brown
Image via 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.


  1. Okay, I've just had a chance to sit down with this post and give it the proper attention. I don't know that I have anything intelligent to add to your thoughtful words but I will say that I was exposed to a lot I didn't know in this brief history.

    I was immediately drawn the minimalist aesthetic in the renderings you posted on 'L' day but there was something else about them that nabbed my interest. You mention that the drawing of Riel had a Yellow Submarine sensibility and that may be part of what I like about it. In fact, I think because I took a Film as Art class in college, and the instructor had an entire section on early 20th-century cartoons, I begin to develop an appreciation for a vintage feel to renderings. Vintage, for lack of a better word. I'm thinking of the Fleischer brothers and certain Halloween (I took the damned apostrophe out, even though I like it, gud durnit) decorations from the '30s and '40s.

    1. I envy you! I'd love to learn more about the history of animation. The late '60s - between Yellow Submarine and Terry Gilliam - seems like a particularly interesting time for the medium.

    2. First thing that comes to my mind when I read Terry Gilliam is 'Time Bandits.'

      That Film as Art class was pretty great. It's where I was first exposed to Preston Sturges's screenwriting.

    3. Really? Not Python for Gilliam?

      My wife's a big fan of Preston Sturges. "The Lady Eve" is a family favorite.

    4. Didn't I recommend The Lady Eve to you at some point? Sturges's rapid-fire dialogue is so enjoyable.

      And, no, surprisingly. Not Python first.

    5. I don't think we've ever discussed Sturges before. He is good. But this is all the more reason I think you'd enjoy "The Philadelphia Story." It's not Sturges but same era and similarly witty.

    6. See, I coulda sworn I mentioned Sturges and TLE when you recommended TPS ...

    7. That sounds likely, actually. I first saw it not long after my wife and I started dating. Movies were a big part of our getting-to-know-you phase.

    8. Well, I just tried to track down 'evidence' in the comments but couldn't find it. I did, however, get reminded of your 10th-grade story from the perspective of a Jack-o-Lantern. I'd still like to read that.

      The first year Shawn and I were married, we went to the cinema a lot. That was when we were first exposed to Miyazaki. We caught 'Spirited Away' and I remember feeling disoriented by its non-Western narrative. Here, I thought the hero's journey was universal and it's really not! That was an eye opener. After we had our little one, we didn't have the chance to go the the movies for a while because we didn't live in a city with family and I never wanted to leave my infant with a baby sitter. Things are different, now, our community here in the Q is like family but when we were in Houston, for those first couple of years of marriage, it just wasn't like that.

      Now, movies are coming back as a part of what we do together -- the three of us -- and it was inspired in large part by your own family movie night. So, thanks. :)

    9. Well, I'm delighted to have inspired that! How do you folks pick which movies to watch?

      I understand about missing out on movies with a young child. Apart from the sitter issue, our daughter didn't enjoy movie theaters much herself until a couple of years ago - afraid of the dark. She's been more adventures over the past couple years, though, which is nice.

      Our first date was a movie: "Shakespeare in Love" at the Angelica in New York. You'd think the movie would be a sentimental favorite as a result but I don't think we've watched it since.

    10. :) Shawn *loves* that movie and I've never watched it.

      We pick the movies we're gonna watch by consulting a medium. No, I'm joking. I don't know, we just kinda walk around Hastings -- the only place around here that still sells DVDs and see what pops out at any one of us, I guess. Since I'm doing the I Heart the '80s series, we're kinda heavy into that decade at the moment. I'm getting ready to air a post about the next movie in a sec, here.

      How do you guys pick yours?

    11. We take turns picking. No one can pick a movie that's already been chosen in the past year. It's the girl's turn this week.

      I look forward to your next review!

    12. And I look forward to the resuming of regular programming with Family Movie Night! :)

    13. I am, too. I enjoyed A-Z and the theme worked out nicely. Far too often, though, focus comes at the expense of dimension.

    14. I actually enjoyed this year's A-Z more than last year's because everyone was out posting and reading but I didn't have to conform to a theme. I still initiated and received a ton of interaction and wrote more posts than I had in a long time but I didn't *have* to. I did it because I wanted to, when I wanted to. Way fun.

      April was just really good, all around. :)

    15. Good to hear! Still, it's good for me to remember that I have other interests, too.

    16. You used to post about outings at one point. I think I remember pies and a pancake house ...

    17. The challenge has been great for learning new things. I had no idea the Métis are so important to Canadian history.

    18. Suze, the narrowed focus with the family posts was deliberate and I'm pleased with it so far. Even so, expanding horizons there may become appropriate at something. That seems to be the pattern for Squid evolution in general: broaden focus-narrow focus-broaden-narrow, etc.

    19. Maurice, I agree that A-Z can teach you all kinds of things. There were so many interesting themes running 'round the sphere in April.