February 19, 2009

Chester Brown: Louis Riel, A Comic Biography

I'd already read a biography of Louis Riel and I came pretty close to skipping over this one in favour of any other Chester Brown graphic novel. However, it was this book that first drew my attention to Brown and in all honesty, I remembered little from the other biography. So, when I found this one at the local library I grabbed it.

Apparently Brown and Seth (It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken) are friends. I'm not sure then if one's art influenced the other or if they came together out of respect for one another's art because both are very similar: black and white drawings with bold, simple lines. However, there are some differences: Brown seems to use more detailed lines in the background shading, and his characters seem more stylized. At first I thought Brown was using caricature. John A. MacDonald's nose, for instance, is drawn like a half-filled balloon. However, Louis Riel, A Comic Biography isn't remotely funny. I question if satirical drawings would fit. Also some aberrations are too consistent across characters to be merely an exaggerated attribute of one individual. The most common of these include the boxy bodies and over-sized hands. Had such a feature been isolated in one person, I'd guess Brown was merely poking fun. However, everyone was drawn that way and I figure it's just Brown's style. It took more getting used to than Seth's art, but I still enjoyed it.

I also enjoyed Brown's story-telling. Though he admits to misrepresenting facts at times, he is careful to point out inaccuracies in notes at the end. Some of these are done for dramatic effect, but the essence is the same. For example, in the opening scene John A MacDonald is shown in London negotiating with the Hudson's Bay Company. In reality, he had sent along representatives to do the negotiating. Small points like these are just fine with me.

For me, the biggest strength of the book was in Brown's compelling depictions of three characters in particular: Riel, John A. MacDonald, and Gabriel Dumont. Riel, though shown as wise and honourable, sometimes made some bad decisions out of trust or confusion (likely delusions). John A. MacDonald is shown as a calculating liar. And I thought Dumont was perhaps the wisest of all, except for his one mistake: letting Riel talk him out of using guerrilla warfare. Brown's portrayal seems to show Dumont of being more the type of person that the Canadian government tried to make Riel out to be, eventually hanging Riel and giving Dumont amnesty.

It's a phenomenal historical graphic novel, and a biography of Riel that, this time, I won't forget.

1 comment:

Laza said...

I think it is interesting that you brought up the idea of truth in nonfiction for the graphic novel. I spent a lot of time thinking about this for a nonfiction class last semester, but it never occurred to me to apply this to graphic novels. There's not only the same potential to misrepresent facts for the purpose of storytelling (as you point out) but there is also the potential for the art skew a representation of a character or event. I'll definitely have to give this aspect a more thought as I read more nonfiction graphic novels. Thanks so much for the review.