February 22, 2011

Review of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography

In Happy Louis Riel Day! I noted the Métis rebel's life and legacy. Now here's the comic-book version, which I recently read:

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip BiographyLouis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography is a highly acclaimed comic book biography of the Métis rebel leader, Louis Riel, by Chester Brown and published by Drawn and Quarterly. Time Magazine included it in its annual Best Comix list in 2003.

The novel, drawn entirely using a six-panel grid, gives a somewhat sympathetic chronicling of Riel's resistance to the Canadian government's mistreatment of the Métis community, in both 1869-70 and 1885, which resulted in the Métis' military defeat, and Riel's trial and execution. Brown eschews defining exactly what Riel, the most debated figure in Canadian history, should mean to a contemporary audience. His ambivalence about Riel's status in Canadian history is revealed in the novel's very large appendix, which serves in part as a running commentary on the novel's action. In some instances, Brown wonders why he depicted certain scenes in the way he has, suggesting perhaps a postmodern approach to his subject, in that precise meaning is deliberately confused or left vague, thereby enjoining the audience to "fill in the gaps," as it were.
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography [Paperback]From Publishers Weekly

Brown's exploration of the life of a [...] 19th-century Canadian revolutionary Riel is a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever. Over five years in the making, Brown's work is completely realized here, from the strikingly designed two-color cover to the cream-colored paper and pristinely clear drawings. The story begins in 1869, with the sale of the independent Red River Settlement area of what's now Canada to the Canadian government. The area is inhabited by the French-speaking Métis, of mixed Indian and white ancestry, who are looked down upon by the Canadians. Riel is bilingual and becomes a de facto leader for the Red River Settlement, demanding the right for them to govern themselves within Canada. Not surprisingly, this request is denied, and the conflict is set in motion that ultimately consumes Riel's life. Brown doesn't deviate from a six-panel grid for the entire book, telling his story in a cartoon realism style reminiscent of Little Orphan Annie. And while the book concerns imperialism, empire, nationalism and the chaos that results, Brown maintains a still, almost silent atmosphere. He brilliantly renders a lengthy courtroom sequence by setting figures against a black background, heightening the tension of the events by employing minimal effects. Even the battle scenes are subdued. All of this will hook readers' minds and eyes, but never tell them what to think or feel. Instead, Brown calmly lets his story unfold, making the reading process deeply affecting. This is an ingenious comic and a major achievement.

The story of a Canadian rebellion, January 6, 2004
By SPM "scott_maykrantz" (Eugene, Oregon)

What sets this book apart is the fact that it's a big comic book. Brown tells the story using silent pictures whenever possible. Characters are drawn in a flat but beautiful way. No one is depicted as a cartoon, but the tone never matches a straight history book, either. Brown goes further by using the footnotes in a surprising way: He tells you that he got things wrong. Then he says he isn't sure why. At first, these tiny confessions seem strange, but then you realize he's just being honest.

If you're looking for a great graphic novel, this is the book to buy. Chester Brown has taken the story of a historical figure very few Americans have heard of and presented it in a unique way. Although it was written for adults, Louis Riel is a perfect gift for a young reader--it's a comic book, but a very sophisticated one.

Amazing artwork should be noted too., September 26, 2004
By Fergus Haggis "Slightly Geeky Reader" (Northern New Jersey, USA)

For both story and artwork, five stars are too little for Brown's beautiful comic-strip biography. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in either history or graphic novels/comic strips.
Rob's review

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography includes five pages of glowing comments from reviewers, many from major publications. So the comments above are typical rather than atypical.

Some people have called it "gripping" and "a page-turner." I wouldn't go that far. I was able to put it down and pick it up several times. It reads quickly because there are a lot of wordless pages, not because it's the greatest piece of literature ever.

I'd say Louis Riel is comparable to the best biographies and historical narratives. Not just in the comic-book field, but in all of literature. True, history is complex and convoluted, so it's rarely as good as a work of fiction. But this is about as good as history gets.

Brown has presented a story that could've been boring or confusing and made it clear and compelling. That alone is a huge achievement.

The meta-message of Louis Riel

To me, what really sets Louis Riel apart is the appendix. The tiny print can be wearying, but the information is provocative. It makes you rethink the whole concept of writing history.

Brown provides sources for his storytelling decisions along with further details. That's standard footnote or endnote practice. What isn't standard is how he critiques his decisions. He repeatedly tells readers how he moved characters in time or space, combined several characters into one, changed a character's age or shape, decided a character's motivation when it wasn't known, etc.

Each choice is likely to provoke one of three reactions:

1) Disagreement: Why change such-and-such when the actual history was just as straightforward? For instance, making a thin character fat. This change seems arbitrary if not incomprehensible.

2) Uncertainty: Does such-and-such a change work better than the actual history? Maybe yes, maybe no. You'd have to read an alternate version of the story to know for sure.

3) Agreement: Yes, such-and-such a change makes the story better. For instance, combining several lawyers defending Riel at his trial into one. Having to learn four or five minor characters wouldn't improve the reading experience; it would only bog it down.

Accuracy isn't always good

As Newspaper Rock readers know, I'm a stickler for accuracy. But Louis Riel makes the case that you have to simplify and sometimes change history to make it readable. Like most historic episodes, Riel's life has hundreds of characters participating in hundreds of events. A writer has to decide which of these characters and events to include or exclude.

The takeaway is that every work of historic nonfiction is really a work of fiction. The author chooses what to emphasize and so manipulates the reader's perceptions. That's why you can read a thousand books about Lincoln or Kennedy and no two will be the same.

This is why we read several books on a subject, and reviews of the books: to see what we've missed. By critiquing his own book, Brown has done that for us. If you're a Riel scholar, you could use Brown's Louis Riel to construct your own version of Riel. That's impressive.

Anyway, I don't think Louis Riel will replace MAUS or WATCHMEN as the best graphic novel ever. But it's a worthy addition to any collection of Native-themed books and comics. Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.

For more on the subject, see Métis Awareness Day and "Hanging" Louis Riel T-Shirts Offend Métis.

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