Really "Riel" History: Time.comix

“A Canadian History Lesson” / TIME Comix / Andrew Arnold / May 30, 2003

Chester Brown doesn't need your love. Part of the second generation of "underground" comix artists of the mid 1980s, Brown has gone from absurdist humor ("Ed the Happy Clown") to confessional autobiography ("I Never Liked You") to adapting the Gospels, to a fictional series with all-gibberish dialogue. His latest project, "Louis Riel," (Drawn and Quarterly; 24 pp; $2.95) the tenth and final issue of which has just arrived, was yet another radical shift in subject. Although choosing to do a biography of a 19th century mystic and rabble rouser known primarily in Canada is another test of his audience's loyalty, those who have remained with Chester Brown can see that it fits perfectly into his oeuvre. "Louis Riel" contains all of Chester Brown's favorite themes in a superb example of historical storytelling.

Riel belonged to the community known as the Métis, a mixture of Native Americans and French settlers who lived along the Red River just north of Minnesota. In 1869 the land was ostensibly owned by the Hudson's Bay Company, who sold it to Canada. Fearful of having another French influence in Parliament, the Canadian government attempted to install an English Protestant governor. Angry that they were left out of the deal and determined to have elected representatives the Métis prevented the governor from entering the territory. Riel's knowledge of English, Montreal education, and overall charisma made him a natural leader. Democratically inclined, he organized a provisional government that included the minority English settlers. Yet his efforts would be repeatedly undermined by the Canadian establishment until eventually he became a wanted outlaw.

At this point, around issue five, things take a strange turn. While in exile in the United States Riel has a vision from God, appointing him as a new prophet. Thus divined he returns to Canada to lead the Métis from bondage as Moses led the Jews. By now, many of the them have moved further west where they continue to rankle against the Canadian government. In the story, the Prime Minister takes advantage of Riel's return to deliberately provoke a rebellion, then sends in troops on the Canadian-Pacific Railway. Declaring that God doesn't want the Métis to use guerrilla tactics, Riel disastrously waits for the soldiers who promptly end the Métis rebellion. The final issues recreate Riel's trial for treason where he must reluctantly submit to being defended on an insanity plea. Found guilty, he dies at the gallows in 1885.

Chester Brown takes admitted liberties with some aspects of the story. Some are as small as combining Riel's several defense councils into one character. Bigger leaps include the theory that the Canadian government actually conspired to cause the last Métis rebellion. In a remarkable move that lets Brown tell the best story and tell the truth, every deviance from recorded history is meticulously footnoted at the end. Deeply researched yet carefully manipulated, the final result goes past history and into literature. "Louis Riel" ties together all the ideas Chester Brown has explored before in disparate ways: the capriciousness and injustice of authority, the relationship between religious fervor and madness and the relative "truth" of nonfiction. "Louis Riel," as told by Chester Brown becomes a deeply personal, utterly compelling page-turner in the guise of a 19th-century history book.

Being a smart comix artist, Chester Brown makes the design of "Louis Riel" match its concept of history as viewed through a personal lens. He strives for historical accuracy in every way except the characters, who are deliberately cartoonish — sometimes absurdly so. Canada's Prime Minister, Sir. John McDonald has a comically gigantic gibbous nose. Riel himself starts out rather normal in scale but after his enlightenment becomes huge, like the Hulk in a wool suit. In the final issue, Brown cites Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie" as a major influence, and the comparison is dead on. From the thin, uniformly weighted pen lines right down to the circles for eyes, Brown has updated Gray's technique to tell a true adventure.

Though very different from his previous work, "Louis Riel" fits perfectly into Chester Brown's oeuvre. Part of his artistry has always been to challenge himself and his readers with the new. That may make him tough on his fans but it makes him one of the medium's brilliant mavericks.

All ten issues of "Louis Riel" remain in print and can be found at superior comic shops. The are scheduled to be collected into a book in the fall.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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