louis riel by chester brown

Audience: A biographical graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown will find its audience in readers who are most likely already familiar with the form. While this audience may have been close to non-existent 10 years ago, it is steadily growing today, with the critical recognition of books like Maus by Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, and the film adaptations of instances of the genre.

Purpose: Louis Riel presents the story of the Metis rebel through the form of "sequential art," as Scott McCloud deems it in his book Understanding Comics. For many readers outside of Canada, this will be their first introduction to the tangled past of the French and English in this nation.

Context: This book is generally available at independent bookstores that carry graphic novels, as well as the few bookstores that are completely devoted to the comics genre. Like the McSweeney's issue, it is a rather deluxe item, and would do well on sturdy bookshelf.

Ethos: Most important to Louis Riel is the quality of virtue. Chester Brown is faced with a daunting task - the retelling of one of the most controversial episodes in Canadian history - and in comic strip form, no less. He must strive to prove that his interpretation, told in a genre that has been traditionally associated with children and imbeciles, is worthy, and has not betrayed history. He does not take up this task lightly.

Materials: This hardcover version is the second edition of this novel. It was initially published in a series of 10 issues over a period of 4 years, and this edition compiles the novel in its entirety. The front, spine, and back covers are textured for a tactile feel, and the pages are of a heavy, deep-cream colored paper stock. A feature of the pages is that the ink is very saturated, and, when combined with the low brightness of the paper and the neutral/cool colors of the cover, creates an air of low-key authority.

Layout and Text/Image: What is most notable about Brown's style is the consistency and simplicity with which Riel's story is rendered. On each page of the narrative are exactly 6 panels in 2 columns of 3 each, read in the conventional z-pattern, with ample margins at the top and bottom and a page number aligned along the edge of the page. At no point in the story does he stray from this format, echoing the strict chronological order of the narrative. While this z reading pattern may seem like a given, it is actually rather rare for contemporary graphic novels to obey the traditional rules of the comic strip form. This unwavering stability functions in tandem with the book's extensive annotations to reflect Brown's ethos.

However, Brown's retelling is completely straight-laced. As his notes reveal, he took some liberties with history in order to manipulate the pacing of the plot, and he freely admits there are sections where conflicting historian accounts have left him scratching his head. Most importantly, his treatment of the dual languages inherent to the story demonstrates his departure from a strict textbook rendering of Riel's life. The speech bubble, being an unique feature of the comic form, is a way in which Brown experiments within his self-imposed 6 panel structure. As can be seen on page 65, dialogue that occurs in French in the narrative is placed between < pointy brackets > in the narrative, emphasizing the distance between the presumably English-speaking reader and the Francophone Metis. This play on language and its written manifestation is further explored in the excerpt that starts on page 62, where Thomas Scott, an English-speaking settler captured by the Metis, hurls obscenities at his captors all day, and all night, and all day, until he is finally, reluctantly, executed with Riel's blessing. The insults he yells are represented by rows of the character X, drawn big or small depending on how close Scott is to the panel in which the speech bubble appears. The censorship of Scott's cursing is an instance of the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek play with text and image Brown indulges in.

On the whole, the elegant design of Louis Riel as a book-object, combined with Brown's play with text and image, creates an intriguing tension between the constraints and affordances of history.