Ottawa Citizen Features Chester Brown & Louis Riel

“'He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour."” / The Montreal Gazette / Matt Radz / October 27, 2003

It's a bird, it's a plane ... it's Canadian history: Montreal-born artist Chester Brown's adult comic-strip book adds fresh images to the Louis Riel debate, writes Matt Radz.

If you happen to know the condemned man was Louis Riel and remember that it was prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald who spat out those hateful words on the eve of the Metis leader's execution for treason, you have to see Chester Brown's new book.

For those less familiar with the leading political actors in this blood-spattered chapter of early Canadian history, Brown's just-published Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, is a thrilling way to catch up with a decisive moment from our nation's past -- the birth of Manitoba and the "Half-breed Rebellion" of the late 1800s.

Issued by Montreal's Drawn and Quarterly Publications, the bio is an impressive work of art that delivers the narrative goods with a cinematic punch.

Dubbed "a brilliant maverick" by Time magazine, Brown is the Canadian superhero of the not so new, but suddenly hot, adult comic-strip phenomenon.

An underground DIY graphic-art movement dating back to the late 1960s, the adult comic is enjoying a new round of mainstream attention, thanks in part to the hit movies Ghost World and American Splendor. The form won literary respect in 1986, when Art Spiegelman's Maus won the Pulitzer as best novel.

Brown, born in Montreal and now living in Toronto, addresses the all-Canadian question: Riel, folk hero prophet or demented terrorist?

The question has not been settled since Riel's execution in 1885, and Brown's bio adds fresh images -- nearly 1,500 comic-strip panels -- to keep the debate going.

"It's not a black and white thing," Brown says -- without a trace of irony.

"But Riel certainly had heroic qualities and he was certainly not a villain. He was a flawed man who made a lot of mistakes. Those heroic qualities make for an interesting story. Obviously, he was someone willing to make sacrifices for his people."

Each black and white panel in the book -- there are six per page -- began as a blank slab of posterboard on plywood the artist holds on his knees. After five years of drawing Canadian history, Brown said he is not convinced the Metis leader was quite the heroic figure Maggie Siggins writes about in Riel: A Life of Revolution.

He credits the landmark 1994 biography with inspiring his own 272-page book and triggering research that allowed him to append an impressive bibliography and nearly two dozen pages of meticulously hand-written footnotes.

Brown draws Sir John A. as a free-swigging backroom operative with a bulbous nose roughly the size of Hideki Matsui's bat. And the notes tell us that the famous "barking-dogs" riposte was our first PM's way of dismissing Roderique Masson, the lieutenant-governor of Quebec, begging for the French-speaking Metis chief's life.

Sir John A. would have none of it. Riel had to hang to signal the end of the threat from the West.

Putting down the Metis uprising was all part of a stratagem Macdonald had devised to transform the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway from a crass commercial venture into a patriotic act, by persuading the public mind the link was necessary to carry troops West to restore peace along the Red River.

Brown admits he was an anarchist when he started his Riel project, but in all the years it took to ink it, his politics changed. "I am a libertarian now. I believe that some form of minimal government is necessary."

And he cautions he might have over-dramatized Sir John A.'s political perfidy.

"Macdonald was not as villainous as he is in my book," Brown said.

Riel was a 41-year-old father of three children, one yet unborn, when he fell through the trap door and Canada's nascent language/culture wars had their first francophone martyr outside Quebec.

As irony would have it, knowing how to parlez in English put Riel on the road to the gallows and the journey of doom began in Montreal.

By most accounts, including Brown's, Gabriel Dumont was a more combative and decisive Metis chieftain, but Riel spoke English and was drafted to represent the "half-breed French savages" in their land dispute with the Crown.

When, at the beginning of Brown's book, Canadian survey teams arrive in Rupert's Land, the French-speaking inhabitants circle their ponies and cast about for someone to negotiate with the new arrivals, in their own language.

"There's that young fellow -- Riel," one of the mounted community leaders remembers.

"He just got back from studying in Montreal -- he knows English."

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