The life story of Louis Riel has been told in almost every form imaginable, from traditional historical fiction (Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched Wood People
) to punk rock (Thee Headcoats' "Louie Riel"
). Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
introduces the Métis rebel to yet another medium: the graphic novel. Brown covers the Riel tale from the arrival of Canadian surveyors in the territory that would become Manitoba to Riel's martyr's death on a Regina gallows. Brown tells a highly subjective version of the story but provides maps, plenty of footnotes, and an extensive bibliography, making accessing the historical record very easy.
Riel is Canada's most famous folk hero, and only a country like Canada could turn someone like him into a national icon. He was a religious zealot, a probable lunatic, a tormented, charismatic despot with a good but hopeless cause. His memory is usually defiled by complacency; Canadian nationalists like to bandy his name about, but the social ills that drove him to rebellion continue to fester. It is to Brown's credit that he resists the temptation to present Riel as an unimpeachable hero, or to pretend that Riel's legacy has become part of the Canadian state.
The drawings in Louis Riel are impeccable. Brown notes in his introduction that his work is commonly compared to that of Tintin creator Hergé, and he cites Little Orphan Annie as a primary influence for this book. Both are abundantly evident here, combined with a feeling that Brown is illustrating a minimalist political play, staged under Brecht's dramatic principles. Landscape and period detail take a back seat to character and caricature: Riel is stout and taciturn; Gabriel Dumont, his deputy, is stouter yet and oozes righteous violence; Sir John A. MacDonald is given the small head of a moron and a huge gin-guzzler's schnozz. Brown's weakness is his use of language; his dialogue pushes the plot along and gets the story told, but there is no snap or sparkle to it. Readers with no special affinity for the artwork will probably find the book flat, but those who are immediately drawn to his illustrations will find Louis Riel a visually stunning and pleasingly accessible take on the old Riel tale. --Jack Illingworth
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 Metis, 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.
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