Revolutionary Riel A Graphic Tale of Canadian History
Published Nov 01, 2003What does the name Louis Riel mean to you? If you're Chester Brown, the name conjures up images of rebellion and organised strife. Louis Riel was the man who led the Métis against the Canadian government in a dispute over land sold to the Canadian government by the Hudson's Bay Company. This was done without consulting the people who lived there and because of his involvement, Riel was eventually charged with treason and executed.
Reading his ten-part graphic tale Louis Riel, one can tell that Brown had indeed done his homework. From the extensive notes at the back of each issue to the vast bibliography he provides with each instalment of the story, it's clear his passion is in the pages. When asked why he chose Louis Riel, Brown admits that his interest in the story was the main drive for pursuing it.
"In reading and researching, a storyline often presents itself. In the case of Louis Riel, his sanity was, for me, something worth investigating," Brown said. A previous comic he had done entitled My Mom is a Schizophrenic was used for much of his information about the disease that many historians claim was responsible for Riel's actions during the Red River Rebellion.
Brown admits that while he is fascinated with Riel and his motivation for leading the Rebellion, he has taken liberties with the story. He explains that the main reason for the extensive notes at the end of each issue was to clarify why he altered some facts. "The notes are there because I wanted to be honest. I wanted people to know that I had altered certain facts and to know why I did that. If I could have told Riel's story in 1000 pages instead of the 200 or so that I had planned, I wouldn't have had to change a thing," he explains.
Brown spent roughly ten months researching before he lifted his pencil to sketch. "For me, the writing and the researching went hand in hand. Changes were being made constantly as the script evolved and I read more on Riel and his point of view."
Being a bit of an anarchist at the time fuelled Brown's desire to tell Riel's story. Conversely, he related to Riel and his sense of "messianic destiny" because of a scene that appears in Louis Riel that also occurred in his own home. A little known fact, Brown's middle name was changed to David after his mother had a dream in which God appeared to her and told her to rename her son. Readers of Louis Riel will recognise that scene: in one part God appears to Louis and tells him his new name is David. Coincidence?
Brown chuckles at the thought. "My brother and I used to think that I had a divine purpose, a great destiny, but now I don't see it. I don't relate to Louis Riel anymore, despite the similarities between us."
Brown is an accomplished artist and a mainstay in the alternative comic scene. What sets him apart though is not only the subject matter he chooses, but also the amount of research he does to substantiate his work. Each of his collections contains at least two pages of notes and some, as in the case of Louis Riel, more. The Little Man contains short strips from 1980 to 1995 and includes work previously released in Yummy Fur. Both The Playboy and I Never Liked You deal with adolescence. In choosing to deal with topics that concern him, Brown has managed to tell a story that although is hard to read at times, is one that everyone can relate to on some level.
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