On a Mission from God

Justice, Canadian style: Chester Brown's 'Louis Riel'
Chester Brown
Chester Brown
Louis Riel
Drawn & Quarterly

Chester Brown is one of the comic book's great formalists: For his "comic-strip biography" of the 19th-century French-Canadian rebel and politician Louis Riel, the artist has hand-lettered even the notes and index. Riel hasn't achieved PBS-level fame in the U.S., but his story is legendary in Canada: He led two uprisings of the part-white, part-Indian Métis over land rights, winning execution for his efforts. The Métis rebellions involved a lot of intricate political maneuvering--hardly the stuff of action-packed comics. But what seems to have attracted Brown to the subject is the way Riel perceived the events of his life, and the conflict between subjective experience and historical nonfiction.

Riel developed a messianic complex--and perhaps schizophrenia--in his later years, and declared that God had appointed him to save the Metis people. (His time in exile included stays in an asylum.) This pathology must have struck a nerve with Brown, who has grappled with the workings of the mind and personal interpretations of religion in eccentric adaptations of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. His autobiographical comics (including I Never Liked You) have chronicled his mother's schizophrenia. The version of Riel seen here is, for the most part, perfectly rational--at least by his own standards. The insurgent simply believes that the world is controlled by an active God whose will he knows for certain. Brown seems sympathetic to Riel's cause (the Canadian government that destroyed him is depicted as a bunch of scheming buffoons) but not necessarily to his actions.

The challenge for the artist-historian, then, is to balance Riel's view of the world with its view of him. Brown's solution is to put as much distance as possible between his comic and "you are here"-style history. His tone in Louis Riel is uncharacteristically and disarmingly uninflected and "cartoonish." Brown maintains a steady rhythm of identically sized panels, making the most conventionally dramatic scenes in the book (escapes, battles, executions) its most visually understated. And his characters have small heads, chunky bodies, oversized noses, and blank, Little Orphan Annie-style eyes. The idea is to emphasize that the comic is not a representation of the past as it happened; it's an interpretation.

The same goes for Brown's dialogue. Where it's not pulled from the historical record, it's deliberately flat and expository ("If only we had a royal proclamation signed by Queen Victoria"). The images are obviously caricatures rather than drawings from life, and the characters' words are likewise not to be mistaken for those of the actual historical actors.

Brown remains, above all, a storyteller. Even when his pacing is perverse, it's never dull. He has made substantial elisions and revisions to the facts for the sake of the story's flow. (Brown annotates every deliberate inaccuracy in the book's notes.) His line work is expressive and spare, almost ecstatically austere: He can suggest a coat or a tree--the light on an object and the weight of it--with a few judicious, scraggly lines. And he's a master of solid white and black spaces. The courtroom where Riel's sanity is debated is jet-black except for lawyers, witnesses, and their furniture. The battlegrounds that led the rebel to this gloomy chamber are bleak expanses of snow.

In Louis Riel's central incident, a brief, deadpan, eight-panel sequence, Riel stands on a hilltop near Washington, D.C. There, he finds himself in the presence of God, who declares him Prophet of the New World. On the book's cover, we see Riel on that same hilltop, staring raptly into the sky. He sees his Lord compelling him to free his people, but all we can see him looking at are empty gray clouds. For Brown, this may be the central mystery of biography: When vision itself becomes so subjective, nonfiction's pretense of objectivity becomes an offense against history.

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