In: Louis Riel A Comic Strip Biography

Louis Riel | Chester Brown, 1999 – 2003
February 23, 2022

Louis Riel | Chester Brown, 1999 – 2003
Drawn & Quarterly, 2003

It seems an appropriate time to revisit Chester Brown’s excellent graphic novel Louis Riel (A Comic – Strip Biography), with Louis Riel Day having recently passed. I also say this not just due to recent domestic terrorism in Ottawa, but also as when I was living in Saskatoon, with a statue of Riel’s ally Gabriel Dumont prominently installed near the South Saskatchewan River, the reality of contested narratives about history was necessary to consider. An ongoing debate in Niagara, about a statue of a soldier glorifying the North-West Rebellion being removed from St. Catharines city hall, indicates this isn’t solely a regional concern.

More to this point: an exhibition at the now defunct Mendel Art Gallery a few years ago, on the work of James Henderson, displayed a full scale portrait of the judge who presided over Riel’s ‘trial’, where his execution was a foregone conclusion, and this fact was – still – not particularly welcomed when imparted to various tours and visitors. 

“Chester Brown reinvents the comic-book medium to create the critically acclaimed historical biography Louis Riel, winning the Harvey Awards for best writing and best graphic novel for his compelling, meticulous, and dispassionate retelling of the charismatic, and perhaps insane, nineteenth-century Métis leader. Brown coolly documents with dramatic subtlety the violent rebellion on the Canadian prairie led by Riel, who some regard a martyr who died in the name of freedom, while others consider him a treacherous murderer.” (from here)

One of many fine publications from Drawn & Quarterly, this is one of a number of Brown’s excellent comics, and has been cited, along with Jeff Lemire (with his anthology Essex County) as an example of how ‘comics’ in Canada are engaging with historical narratives that are very relevant today. 

Minimalist in format, this text fills in gaps that many of us were left with, studying history in school. Several years ago, in conversation with people from various parts of Canada, it was telling that Riel had been demonized in some historical accounts, completely ignored in others and given a more honest treatment in others. It’s an overused quote, but seems apt here : My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back. (Riel, as cited in The Defiant Imagination : Why Culture Matters (2004) by Max Wyman)

Louis Riel was the first comic book to receive a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and has won three Harvey Awards.

A preview can be seen here and it can be purchased from Drawn & Quarterly, if you can’t find a copy at your local library. ~ Bart Gazzola

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