In 1869, Riel founded the Comit? National des M?tis to protect his people’s rights, and helped stage the Red River Uprising for which he was exiled to the United States. Entreatied by settlers, he eventually returned to set up a provisional government and, as the self-declared prophet of his people, became embroiled in the 1885 rebellion. When the Canadian government finally responded with military force, the rebellion was quickly crushed and Riel surrendered. His subsequent trial and execution aroused bitterness and debate. Alternately described as visionary and madman, victim and villain, he remained a controversial figure in death as in life.
With the perspective of time, Louis Riel has come to be seen as a combination of martyr and hero in the eyes of many Canadians. (Canadian Heros)
I’ve been facinated while learning about Mr. Riel during the past couple years. Mostly from online sources, such as CBC’s Rethinking Riel, a short biography from the University of Saskatchewan and Louis Riel: One Life, One Vision from Soci?t? Historique de Saint-Boniface, I’ve come to learn of his story and hold him in high regard. What I hadn’t found was a broadly accessable biography of Riel. I finally found it in Chester Brown‘s Louis Riel : A Comic-Strip Biography.
For a long while I eyed the book (and before it was published, the individual issues) every time I visited the local comic shop. I was always distracted by other books or had too little money to pick it up. A week before finally bringing home Louis Riel I had read Chester’s I Never Liked You, a book that “mixes scenes from Brown’s strained relationships with girlfriends and school bullies with a sudden, staggering subplot about his mother’s schizophrenia,” (CBC). I was captivated by the mixture of caricature and realism he deployed in that work and knew it was high time to finally read what is regarded by many as Brown’s masterpiece.
Chester Brown presents Riel’s story sparsely, employing the light flow of a storyteller rather than the weight of a historian. By filling in blanks and explaining necessary alterations with extensive footnotes, the main narritive is free to tell a story unencumbered by details most would find boring or too weighty. The story remains engaging and fulfilling while also as accurate to historical observations as possible.
The caricatures of the various historical figures are effective, though a bit jarring at first. Brown shares often in interviews that he was inspired by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie and this is most prominent in his deptiction of Riel, who appears large and bear-like. This gave him a sense of grandness and also vulnerability. Others, like Sir John A. MacDonald, with his distinct nose and arrogant manner, were well protrayed, giving the story an intimate feel that historical accounts very often lack.
The panels employ a minimalism that enhances Riel’s moments of heroism, stoicism and failure. Filling the pannels are bold, yet subtly emotional accounts. Speach and narration are well balanced, using the medium to its fullest. It reads very much like storytelling done by the masters of oral history, the moderate pace and dramatic events feeling like the ebb and flow of campfire stories while letting the scholarly twinkle of the eye speak for itself.
Louis Riel : A Comic-Strip Biography is among the finest graphic novels I’ve had the priviledge to read and one of the finest works of biography done on prominent Canadian figures. One could imagine it as comfortable in the hands of a juniour high student, a history professor or a comics enthusiast. It has the mark of a classic work and, at the very least, elevates Chester Brown to the fore of modern comics creators.