Vancouver Sun Features Louis Riel

“Comics for the literati: The graphic novel is a genre to watch” / Vancouver Sun / Shawn Conner / December 27, 2003

The first years of the 21st century have been boom years for comics. In multiplexes from here to Krypton, X2: X-Men United, The Hulk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Daredevil made it nearly impossible for a movie-goer not to see at least one comic-based character fly across the screen. Box-office records weren't smashed in each case, but with the success of X2 and Spider-Man, rest assured there'll be plenty more film adaptations of costumed crime-fighters before the trend dies out.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe where cartoonists strive to make deeper statements, American Splendor topped many critics' best-of-2003 lists. While it's unlikely to lead to more big-screen versions of autobiographical, non-superhero comics, the film's small-scale success bodes well for cartoonists who are producing serious, intelligent work on the fringes of a fringe medium.

As for the source material, comic books remain a pleasure of the brave, devoted few. However, the graphic novel -- comics' more acceptable sibling, available at mainstream bookstores -- is inching forward. Chris Ware's wonderfully designed story of pathetic loserdom, Jimmy Corrigan, topped many critics' best-of-2002 lists.

This year, Chester Brown's Louis Riel and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis have emerged as the two graphic novels you can safely recommend, even to unbelievers and prose snobs.

Of the two, Persepolis is both more unrefined and more affecting. Told in stark black-and-white, the graphic-novel debut by the Paris-based Satrapi (who has also written several children's books) is a memoir about her Iranian childhood and the persecution of her family following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Her style is cartoonish and blunt, but the freedom and expressiveness of her awkward, graceless figures, with their simply delineated facial features, adds to the feeling of childhood experiences being recollected by an adult. Although the story-telling is sometimes confusing, the subject matter and art combine in a devastatingly real way. The end is heart-breaking.

Cartooonist Chester Brown is unafraid to follow his obsessions, whether in the adaptations of Bible stories that mark some of his earliest work or the exploration of language and meaning in his ambitious, short-lived Underwater series. He remains one of the medium's most intriguing talents.

In Louis Riel, the Toronto creator turns his eye to this country's foundation with a scrupulously researched retelling of the Metis Rebellion. He begins the story with the 1869 land negotiations that resulted in the Red River Settlement being sold to the Canadian government. He makes clear his opinion that the settlers never had a chance against the cunning and more powerful John A. Macdonald (here drawn with an exaggerated, almost comical proboscis).

Brown is sympathetic to Riel but, by emphasizing Riel's belief that he is in direct communication with God, allows that the Metis leader might have been a little crazy, too.

Canadian history has a bad reputation, and many of the early panels of Louis Riel are formed by talking heads and static figures.Even the most uneventful drawings have a curious kind of power, due to Brown's ability to express character in a few brief, economical lines. When the panels do get busy, as in the latter stages of the rebellion, the effect is that much more powerful.

The pages depicting Riel's final days are particularly exquisite in their evocation of the inexorable forces of history closing in. For those interested in such things, a section at the end of the book cites the author's sources, panel by panel. Here you can see where fact and fiction deviate, and what liberties and prejudices Brown brings to the story.

Will Eisner performs a little revisionist history of his own in Fagin the Jew. As the veteran cartoonist explains in the book's foreword, his depiction of the young black sidekick Ebony in his most famous creation, The Spirit comic strip of the 1940s and '50s, may have been true to its time, but it did nothing to break Stepin Fetchit stereotypes about African-Americans.

In Fagin the Jew, Eisner attempts a moral reckoning by explaining, and finding sympathy for, the exploiter of young men in Oliver Twist. He benefits from being able to draw on Charles Dickens' novel for much of his tale, but the cartoonist also gives us a back story and a researched look at the conditions that gave rise to the prejudices against Jews in England.

As for the art -- well, it almost goes without saying that Eisner is practically unmatched, not only as a master of naturalistic body language and facial expression but also as an inventor of much of the language of comics. His experience and love for the form is apparent in every sepia-toned panel.


Nearly two decades ago, The Sandman was one of the first titles to bridge the gap between superhero comics and the more intriguing material in the then-emerging alternative black-and-white scene. Guys would give their girlfriends a copy of The Sandman in an attempt to justify another trip to the comic-book store.

Nevertheless, in comparison to the substance of the Eisner, Brown and Satrapi books, the Sandman spinoff Endless Nights looks like pretty -- and pretty thin -- escapism.

For this lavish tome, Sandman creator Neil Gaiman (the series that jump-started his reputation pursues him the way the tag "ex-Beatle" sticks to Paul McCartney) has written seven short stories, each illustrated by a different artist about a different member of the Endless, a family of gods invented for the series.

But the premise of immortal personifications of Desire, Destruction, Despair, Delirium, Dream (a.k.a. the Sandman himself), Death and Destiny, kept alive only by people's belief in them, allows Gaiman the freedom to venture wherever his imagination takes him.

In Death, the inhabitants of a debauched island hold time and mortality at bay. A series of one-page portraits illustrate various manifestations of Despair, while the alternating perspectives by a group of deranged outcasts and mental cases tell of an attempt to rescue one little girl's psyche.

This last story features art by Bill Sienkiewicz, one of comics' most gifted stylists and a man who can't seem to draw a page that isn't innovative in its layout and technique.

Also worth mentioning are the poetry of artist Craig Russell's lines in the opening story and Italian erotic comics icon Milo Manara's gorgeous Desire. The latter is definitely a case of the right man for the job. As Gaiman notes in his introduction, "The notion that Manara would draw me a tale of desire was one of the things that carried me into the book . . . ."


Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the well-known tale of a man who wakes up to find that he has turned into a cockroach, seems a natural for a graphic adaptation. Peter Kuper's black-and-white (mostly black) woodcut-style art imbues the story's mood of claustrophobia and paranoia with just the right amount of dread.

Seeing the story in graphic-novel form is a nice twist on the whole superhero genre. Interestingly, when Gregor Samsa wakes up with the body of a cockroach, his first impulse is not to don a cape and fight crime. Instead, he tries to hide from his family and the rest of the world, and Kuper's adaptation highlights Samsa's relationship to his dysfunctional relatives.

While the above books are evidence of the graphic novel's continued health and near-limitless artistic possibilities, A Right to Be Hostile shows just what a dead end the traditional newspaper comic strip has painted itself into. One of the earliest examples of "sequential art" (Eisner's preferred term), the form is in truly benighted shape if we are to believe, as some critics tell us, that Aaron McGruder's Boondocks is one of the last remaining alternatives to piffle like Cathy.

On the basis of this third collection, I suspect the raves are more the result of political correctness and the novelty of a strip featuring African-American characters than of any intrinsic value. With its formula of fast-talking, mischievous kids and cantankerous grandparents, the strip offers little that is innovative, and the jokes are painfully unfunny.

As Doonesbury begat the less insightful, less caustic Bloom County, so does Bloom County beget an even more pedantic and obvious offspring. It's enough to make you long for the return of Bill the Cat.

Vancouver entertainment writer Shawn Conner still has a stuffed Bill the Cat given to him for Christmas years ago.



Random House of Canada, 153 pages ($26.95)



Raincoast Books, 272 pages ($34.95)



Doubleday, 128 pages ($23.95)



Vertigo/DC Comics, 160 pages ($37.95)



Adapted by PETER KUPER

Three Rivers Press, 80 pages ($27)


The Boondocks Treasury


Three Rivers Press, 256 pages ($25.95)

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