The studio where comic-book artist Chester Brown works isn't so much messy, really, as overcrowded. Contrary to the airy and light-filled space the word studio summons, the place where Brown draws his comic books is more of a cave -- a cave carved from piles of books, audiotape stacks and reams of paper that cover every horizontal surface of the one-room apartment, located in the King and Bathurst neighbourhood of Toronto. Some of Brown's books include the historical fiction of Edward Rutherford and the historical non-fiction of Pierre Berton, alongside compilations of Walt Disney artwork. On the adjoining wall are flip books of the Japanese samurai comic book Lone Wolf and Cub.
"That's my grandmother's," Brown says, nodding at an oil painting that stands out from the rest of the studio's cartoon-style artwork. His grandmother painted in her spare time and many of her other canvases are at the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Sook-Yin Lee, the CBC radio host. Then Brown frowns. "The frame is crooked," he says. Ever the fiddler, he steps forward and adjusts the canvas.
It was in this studio that Brown, 43, drew one of the more interesting works of Canadian history in years. Titled Louis Riel, Brown's comic book recounts the life story of the Métis leader whose crusades against Ottawa ended with his execution in 1885. Brown initially released the story in a series of 10 issues published by Montreal's Drawn and Quarterly; this summer, the series was nominated for an Eisner award, the industry's Oscar equivalent, and Brown's publisher has compiled the series in a graphic novel to be released in September.
Brown is something of a legend among the independent comics crowd, that species of reader that shares more attributes with antiquarian bookshop-dwelling literary snobs than adolescent X-Men fans. Brown's antecedents are people like Robert Crumb, who helped found underground comics in the late 1960s, and Will Eisner, whose genre-defining 1978 work, A Contract with God, chronicled New York tenement life, and is popularly understood to be the first graphic novel. Art Spiegelman, creator of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust narrative, Maus, and American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar, are also Brown's forebears -- placing Brown firmly within the ranks of the graphic novelists who are drawing critical attention to this traditionally ignored field.
Growing up in Montreal, Brown says he got into comics because friends and relatives encouraged his drawing. He began work on his first comic in the early 1980s, shortly after he moved to Toronto. He called the series Yummy Fur. It was published by Toronto's Vortex Comics and it dealt candidly with such adult themes as the effect of pornography on relationships with women, and the horror of high school. Later, Brown's work, The Playboy, was the first graphic novel to be published by Montreal's Drawn and Quarterly comics, in 1992, and it drew wide acclaim.
Dressed in a pair of jeans and a wrinkled dress shirt, Brown is likable and quick to smile, and a lot more shy than one might expect, given the honesty of his autobiographical comics.
He retrieves a pile of poster board opposite his bed and flips through what turns out to be the original artwork from Louis Riel. He explains how he works: The series format was six panels a page, and Brown drew each panel individually, on a worn slab of plywood he would typically place on his knees as he sat on a spartan plastic chair by the window.
"Look at how different Riel looks here," Brown says, comparing a photocopy proof of the graphic novel to the first issue's original artwork. Brown's technique developed as he worked on the series, and by the end he had increased his caricature of Riel, drawing him with an almost monstrously inflated body. So when he had finished the 10th issue, he went back to the first issues and redrew many of the panels that included Riel's skinnier version to make the Métis leader's appearance more consistent. He also added more background art. The result is a graphic novel that will be a subtly different experience for readers than the original series, one that more firmly places the reader in Brown's cartoon setting.
The idea for the Riel biography, Brown says, came after he had created a six-page strip, My Mom Was a Schizophrenic, which presented Brown's antipsychological bias. The strip was his first attempt at compressing an enormous amount of research into a short illustrated narrative, and Brown liked the result. So after a failed attempt at an experimental comic book called Underwater, which he placed on hiatus in 1997, Brown began to look for another opportunity to create a research-intensive story. He settled on Riel, he says, because the Métis rebel's antigovernment stance appealed to Brown's anarchist sensibility.
The first issue of Louis Riel reached stores in 1999. Brown begins the story with the first conflict between Riel and the Canadians at Red River settlement in 1869 in what would become Manitoba, and ends with Riel's hanging in 1885. Brown depicts Riel's story somewhere between the era's French and English biases. Riel has heroic overtones, genuinely wanting to represent the interests of the prairie Métis. But Brown's Riel is also a profoundly flawed leader, one who discounts the military advice of his peers in a mistaken belief that God will save the Métis community from the Canadians. Particularly entertaining is the manner in which Brown portrays such famous Canadians as Sir John A. Macdonald, who walks through Brown's panels wielding a nose so large it would provide the same silhouette as a 60-watt light bulb.
One of the more entertaining features of the stories are the endnotes, which Brown has handwritten on the back pages of each comic. With refreshing frankness, Brown makes clear the concessions he's made to winnow Riel's life into only 230 pages. Brown doesn't intend the endnotes to stand up to academic rigour. "I'm pretty sure I didn't make this up," he says in one endnote. "But I can't find the reference right now."
"Some people asked me why I was bothering to do this, because biographies of Riel already existed," Brown says. "But to me, a comic-book narrative is just a fundamentally different work than prose. There's a tendency to think of things that are easier to read, like comics, as somehow less worthy of respect. I disagree with that, although I like reading historical non-fiction, the comic book is just as interesting, but in a different way."
Does Louis Riel work? In other words, is a comic book able to carry the complicated portrait of a life? Ultimately, yes. Brown has winnowed Riel's story into a fast-paced tale that, despite its relatively slim page count, contains about the same amount of detail as one might find in a cinematic biopic. The result is a story that entertains as well as informs, and it would make an excellent addition to the curriculum of high-school history classes. Apart from its academic value, it's a great read, an accessible pop work that proves the lie to the belief that Canadian history is dry.