Louis Riel: A Comic Biography Hardcover – Oct 15 2003
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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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Top Customer Reviews
This is perhaps the cleanest, loveliest art of Brown's distinguished career. He modestly asserts that he's no competition for either Herge or Gray in the introduction. Well, he is Canadian, and darn, this is fine black-and-white cartooning.
Copious endnotes explain Brown's sources and where Brown changed history in minor ways for the purposes of drama. He didn't have to change much. The saga of reluctant revolutionary Louis Riel, the Metis of what would become Manitoba, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the greedy and manipulative Hudson's Bay Company, and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad supply pretty much all the drama and absurdity, the comedy and the pathos, that one could want out of a historical event.
One of the most fascinating decisions Brown seems to have made in creating this book was to essentially make it an 'All-Ages' project, with little swearing and no nudity or sex. No nudity or sex in a Chester Brown comic? Holy Moley!
I rarely find books to be 'unputdownable,' but this one kept me reading early into the morning before I finally succumbed to sleep. It's a brilliant accomplishment.Read more ›
To be clear, Brown's version of events is biased by his own admission and certainly some elements were invented to fit the comic-strip. An example of this is the conversation between Lord Granville and Sir John A. MacDonald about sending troops to apprehend Riel. Brown admits that such a conversation never actually took place but certainly MacDonald did have to obtain permission from mother Britain.
Another interesting event to me was the meeting between Riel and then US President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875 to discuss plans to invade Manitoba. There were certainly some sympathies from some Americans such as in Minnesota who were pro-annexation but as Brown correctly points out Grant was in no position at the time to risk war, especially since the country was still amidst the reconstruction following the costly civil war.
Perhaps most controversial is Brown's characterization of MacDonald. The father of confederation, Brown portrays MacDonald as a ruthless conniving egomaniac hell-bent on expanding the railway (with kickbacks), ethnic cleansing of the Metis, and making an example out of Riel. Based on the sources that we have now, I would have to agree with Brown. MacDonald was a brilliant politician, he out-witted all his opponents including the British, the Americans and the natives. MacDonald was a master manipulator of which there has been no match since.
I've read a few comic-strip novels and I think that in certain situations they work extremely well. In this case, I would have to agree, the illustrations along with Brown's wit and choice of dialogue make this both an accurate historical representation and enjoyable reading.
The first thing that attracted me to this Comic-Strip Biography was its style of illustration: that deceptively simplistic and elemental style of basic shapes that make up all of Chester Brown's characters in this book. It is an excellent example of "the cartoon" as Scott McCloud explains it: a simplified image that you can relate to on an intuitive level. When I first saw this style that Chester Brown utilizes, it reminded me of wood-cut panels that you would find from the late 19th century and before it. It definitely has a presence to it.
Another element that really attracted me to this story is the details of politics, philosophy and spirituality that it sometimes delved into with regards to the historical events and individual actions occurring in the narrative. I know that from Grade school all the way to Secondary school, I heard the story of Louis Riel and basic facts about the Canadian government and its handling of him at that time. To be honest, I had never really paid it much mind. But this book fleshed out the characters and made them seem alive: as though they exist even now and are doing everything they think is right ... or expedient.
Where this book may fail as factual history -- and Chester Brown even admits in his Introduction and his Footnotes that he glossed over and changed certain historical details for the narrative's sake -- to me it succeeds in capturing the spirit of that time and what was happening.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
This was a captivating and interesting method of telling Louis Riel's story. A lot of historical information combined with an unique style of art. Well worth the read.Published 4 months ago by Al
This book is a great way to learn or teach the history of Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion. The comic strip format makes it accessible to everyone. Read morePublished on Feb. 3 2014 by Starrynight
I decided to read this book after reading the amazing reviews it had received. I found the story to be boring and lacked any depth. Read morePublished on Aug. 24 2011 by Rachel
Louis Riel is an infamous Canadian personage. His story is very controversial and the story of what happened back then and what is politically correct to say happened can cause... Read morePublished on Jan. 8 2009 by Nicola Mansfield
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