Getting Riel with Chester Brown

Louis LouisWhen I visited him in 2003, he was living in a posh, modern mid-rise, its lobby
ablaze in polished surfaces that gleamed like gold teeth. A waxed baby
grand languished near the concierge’s desk. His apartment on the
10th floor seemed an affront to the cool gloss below: homey,
dishevelled, hot as an incubator. And books, everywhere, sprouting
like mushrooms in a greenhouse, pullulating on shelves, in shoots
that teetered at navel height like cubist stalagmites.

Elfin and inward, Chester Brown at home could almost have been mistaken
for part of the ephemera, though a reader of the Toronto
cartoonist’s work would have spotted him instantly from the precise
self-portraits in his comics: the aquiline bone structure; the large
head that, like a satellite, seemed to orbit its willowy body; the
long hands, one of which laced mine in its slender fingers and
faintly mimiced a handshake, giving my wrist a gentle nudge as
though it were setting a bowl of hot soup on a table. I foraged for
a seat amid the chattel, and navigated a landing on the ottoman of a
lemony 19th-century fauteuil, a family heirloom. “The person
who owned that chair was living out West at the time of the Riel
rebellion,” Brown was saying. “It would have been in the same air as
Louis Riel.”

It’s Riel I had come to discuss, the Métis hero/pariah of my
gradeschool Canadian Studies course and the subject of Brown’s
then-recently compiled comic-book biography, Louis Riel. Except
Brown, folded in a straight-backed chair, seemed in no mood to
gab. He was spent. Or wary. He kneaded at his sock and stared at
me blankly. He’d just returned from the western limb of his Riel
promo tour, and in two days was leaving for Montreal, stopping back
in Toronto that November. He was hoping the new shipment of books (published
by Drawn & Quarterly, $36.95) would arrive from Hong Kong in time —
they’d been in vexingly short supply, flying off vending tables
like goats in a tornado. And now he was facing a journalist, another
in a nosy procession that had been coursing to his door, firing
intimate questions and vivisecting the new book, his first since the
richly poetic I Never Liked You — a graphic novel on his
troubled youth in Châteauguay, Quebec.

His last project, the experimental series Underwater, he
had drowned abruptly when the improvised main story outgrew its tank. In
response, he had planned Riel with minute precision: the book
demanded five years’ labour for its 272 pages; dozens of books to
scour, facts to annotate, panels to draw. Riel Love
“There were a couple of
times when I felt I might be in over my head,” Brown reluctantly
admitted. His voice was a reedy hush, like a jet of water issuing from
a punctured pipe. “Not wanting to fail again at something.”

His protagonist was one of the most divisive figures in Canadian
history, the mercurial leader of an armed rebellion against English
government forces in Manitoba, hanged for treason in 1885, who still
looms over the political landscape. “What happened to Riel severely
weakened the Conservative party and lead to the dominance of the
Liberal party today,” Brown argued. He was taking his time, weighing
his words and squeezing them out in measured drops. “It’s not as
personal as some of my autobiographical work, or even Ed the
Happy Clown
,” he said, alluding to a tale he serialized in his
early-’90s comic Yummy Fur about a hapless clown who, in a
Kafkaesque twist, wakes one morning to find Ronald Reagan’s head
grafted to the tip of his penis. “I admired [Riel’s] heroic
qualities, his desire to live what he thought was a good and
honourable life and do the best he could for his people.”

Riel was originally published in 10 issues, from June ’99
to February ’03. The book was split into four chapters, each page
evenly divided in a six-panel grid. Characters, like a mango-nosed
John A. Macdonald, often moved silently through panels, with only
glancing narration — and a lengthy appendix of footnotes — guiding
the action. “With Riel, I wanted to show what the medium is
capable of. It seems that most people who use [comics] to tell a
historical story are very narration-heavy. They use narration blocks
in every panel. And there’s not a lot of panel-to-panel continuity.
That’s not the best way to use the medium.”

As every other journalist had scooped out of him, Brown admitted to
the powerful influence of Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie)
on his work, Riel in particular: his spartan line, uniform
panels, spacious composition. “It’s his dramatic restraint,” Brown
explained. “Those blank eyes.” Pause. “I like the lack of emotional
expression there. I’m a big believer in emotional restraint.”

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