Comics of the Decade: Chester Brown’s Louis Riel


This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

I
There is an extraordinary moment near the beginning of Chester Brown’s historical reconstruction, Louis Riel: the newly, ad hoc-elected eponymous popular leader sends his troops into the nearby-situated Fort Garry to secure the provisions and weapons stored there, before they fall into the hands of their pro-Canadian adversaries. A scout is sent ahead and finds the fort deserted, after which he signals his brethren to advance through the open gate.

Before and after.


The scene is presented in birds-eye, or – more appropriately in this case – God’s-eye perspective, and like every page in the story it is fastened in a six-panel grid. Our gaze is directed almost analytically through the comic by this ordering principle, its distancing effect instilling a certain sense of objectivity. The soldiers surge ahead like ants, framed in the panel square, while our attention is kept at its approximate center by what appears to be the same figure. This is a depiction of transition divided into six panels. The time that passes not only represents the first step taken in a dawning rebellion, but more generally a shift toward the ominously unknown. This is very simply suggested by the cannon that menacingly points at the people from the upper right corners of the two topmost panels.

Pictures like these extend logically from Brown’s earlier work, which has always been characterized by a rare sensitivity to the ineffable, not to say enigmatic qualities of the image. From the surreal excess of Ed the Happy Clown (collected 1989), and the existential desolation of I Never Liked You (collected 1994), to the weirdly beautiful, mysteriously charged dream sequences of the unfinished yet extraordinary Underwater (1994-97), Brown’s unique visual sensibility has always been the driving force.

Emerging as it does directly from his compositional method, by which each panel is drawn separately, only later to be assembled into full comics pages, Louis Riel is his most carefully composed construction so far – his most reflexive use of the fragmentary image as his basic building block.

It has been asserted that comics owe their communicative efficiency to the way they approximate experience itself. Speaking through fragments from which our sense of order elicits coherence, the idea is that comics provide a particularly felicitous condensation of the way we continuously create meaning from fragmentary sensation. Whether this hypothesis stands up to scientific scrutiny is more than doubtful, but that does not make comics as a meaning-making apparatus any less powerful or fascinating. Their emphatic appeal to our participation, our filling the blanks of the ‘gutter’ between panels – what Scott McCloud calls closure – is highly stimulating to the imagination.

It seems natural that a medium that so explicitly works through fragments would be a child of modernity. A fundamentally subjective, fragmented worldview came increasingly to characterize the times around the turn of the 19th century and later engendered the radical notion of God’s death. It not only manifested itself in the broken pictorial field of open-air painting and photography’s luminous grasp of the moment, but also in the birth of a new, mass-produced, caricatured hybrid medium, which in its own way charted and subverted this new, unseated reality.

From the sequence describing the first battle of the rebellion, at Duck Lake

II
More than a century later, Louis Riel is one of the first conscious attempts in the medium to diagnose central aspects of the century that gave it birth. As in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s superstructure on the London Ripper murders, From Hell, Brown seeks to describe the definitive changes in self and society that came to characterize the new times. Both works are based on historical events, but where From Hell attempts to chart a modern mythology by way of Jack the Ripper, Louis Riel is a more scrupulously executed historical reconstruction of a central phase in Canadian history.

The book describes the conflict between government and people that resulted from Canada’s purchase in 1869 of the central territories of the country, then called Rupert’s Land, from the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company. Canada was ruled by the British crown; Rupert’s Land was populated by French-speaking métis of mixed European and native American blood. The Canadian policy of colonizing and reorganizing the land, which the métis regarded as theirs led to a number of clashes over the following decades, culminating in an armed rebellion that was brutally suppressed by the Canadian army. Louis Riel (1844-1885) had been educated as a priest in Montréal and spent part of his life in the United States. He was métis from the contended territories and quickly became a central figure in his people’s negotiations with, and eventual rebellion against, the Canadian government.

The first part of the story as told by Brown describes the conflict between the métis and the local English-speaking population. This ends with the execution of the loyalist Thomas Scott, an event that, as eventually becomes clear, proves fatal for Riel and his cause. This section also deals with the formation of a local government by the métis and their English-speaking neighbors – to which Riel is elected president – and its negotiations with Canada. These lead to the promise of extensive autonomy for the region, now called Manitoba by its government, as well as amnesty for those involved in the insurrection and the execution of Scott. Rather than honoring the deal, however, Canada sends its army to the area and crushes the opposition. This leads to the English-speaking part of the population taking over the region’s governance and Riel being forced to go into hiding.

Riel meets the bed-stricken Bishop Bourget

The second part follows Riel, in spite of being on the run from the authorities, is elected to the Canadian parliament in 1873. As a wanted man, he feels incapable of filling the post, even after he is reelected in 1874. Around this time, he meets the French-Canadian Bishop Bourget, who tells him that he has been chosen to fulfill a special mission. This is a life-changing event for Riel. On a visit to the US in 1875, where he is seeking help from president Ulysses S. Grant and planning an invasion of Manitoba, he experiences a divine vision. He is transported to the Fourth Heaven by a God who gives him the name David, shows him the splendors of all the Earth, and the road he must follow as a prophet of the New World. We then follow his incognito commitment to a mental institution in Canada.

McDonald presents his plan to the director of the CPR

The third part describes Riel’s return in 1884 to a Manitoba under the yoke of the Canadian government, which is in the process of colonizing and reforming the land with no regard for the métis. Riel’s reemergence puts further pressure on Canadian prime minister John A. Macdonald, who is already reeling politically from the troubled efforts by the Canadian Railway Company (CPR) to build a trans-Canadian railway. Macdonald devises a plan that allows him to kill two birds with one stone. By provoking a rebellion in Manitoba and sending the army there to quell it by train, he is able to secure for himself the funding necessary to finish the railway. He succeeds in suppressing the rebellion fairly easily, not the least because of Riel’s unconditional faith in divine providence and insistence on fighting in a ‘civilized’ manner and not resorting to guerilla and other, more advantageous but ‘primitive’ strategies. Riel then gives himself over to the authorities, believing it the best way for him to advance the course of his people.

The railway. A constituent of modernity. The sequence at the bottom is typical of Brown's method. The three generals never met in person, but by presenting it thus, Brown saves himself and the reader unnecessary complications.

The fourth and last part of the book details the trial against Riel, accused of treason. He is defended by a lawyer who – against Riel’s will – seeks acquittal on grounds of insanity, but ends up convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. The punishment is executed on November 16th, 1885. In the epilogue we see how Canada consolidates its power in the region and grants amnesty to most of the métis rebels, as well as how the railway is completed, making the CPR’s director one of the richest men in the world.

Riel is transported to the 4th Heaven.

III
Central to Louis Riel is the question of whether or not he is insane, and – by extension – what insanity in fact is. Long-term readers will be familiar with Brown’s description of his mother’s schizophrenia in I Never Liked You and with his preoccupation with this question. He himself regards Louis Riel as a direct development of the thoughts he advanced in his documentary short comic about the historical reception of schizophrenia, “My Mother Was a Schizophrenic” (1995). He basically considers schizophrenia and many other so-called mental illnesses social constructs defined in accordance with established conventions of normality, rather than actual afflictions.

The basic premise of Louis Riel therefore is the conflict between different conceptions of reality: between a deeply religious, traditional peasant society led by the possibly prophetic Riel, and a modern, rationalist, and pragmatist power structure, personified by Macdonald, the “villain” of the piece. On a more general level, this conflict reflects the great changes to society in the 19th century.

The documentary staging elevates this conflict to a macro level; it becomes an inquiry into our understanding of history. And because it is done in comics form, the work questions fundamentally the conceit of writing history, highlighting the choices any historian must make, and the connections, often narrative in kind, that inevitably arise in order for the material to make sense. In his endnotes Brown explains how he constantly chose to simplify and alter historical facts: three métis negotiators sent to Toronto are reduced to one; Bishop Bourget communicates to Riel in person the words he actually transmitted in a letter; a group of fleeing Mounties leave Fort Carlton in Manitoba in the day rather than – as actually happened – at night, so we can have a conversation between Riel and the military leader of the métis forces Gabriel Dumont, whom Brown places overlooking the flight; and so on.

Riel discusses strategy with Gabriel Dumont

Brown mostly takes such liberties for the sake of clarity, and most of the time he succeeds: many events and relations are simplified simply because presenting them faithfully would unnecessarily muddle and confuse the presentation without adding much of anything. In certain places, however, one senses the difficulty of thus simplifying complex events: in the courtroom scene, for instance, characters appear for the first time that have clearly been involved in the events already narrated, talking about other events that we have not been made privy to. But again, this reflects choices made to advance the narrative. Louis Riel is history as storytelling – if an adjustment to the facts helps the story, Brown makes it, despite its inevitably undermining historical credibility as we normally understand it. At the same time, Brown maintains a certain methodological consistency and privileges the sources. His interpretations never contradict the material and are explained and excused – very scrupulously, it seems – in the notes. Everything is presented in a distanced, matter-of-factly manner, seemingly objectively. Only when we suddenly find ourselves sharing Riel’s vision from the Fourth Heaven is the story’s blurring of the boundaries between different levels of experience made clear.

IV
This questioning of truth is further accentuated by the comic’s very form and structure. The six-panel grid evokes the enlightened, ordered vision on the world that has been determining for the modern experience. The page construction carries within itself the paradox between subjective experience and objective aspiration – while its symmetry assumes objectivity, it conveys a highly subjective point of view. As was the case with the proliferating optical instruments of the 19th century, such as the stereoscope or the peep box, the individual’s experience is privileged, presented with an undisturbed, ‘omniscient’ view of the world. But this view is chosen for us; like all history writing, it is a fragment of a greater, unfathomable reality, contextualized according to a specific ordering principle. By being so demonstratively homogenous, Brown’s page layouts emphasize this. He furthermore subverts very consistently the apparent symmetry of the pages, preferring for instance to cut between individual scenes on the page, rather than between pages; only rarely does he nest a full scene on a single page. And conversations are often staged so that the interlocutors remain isolated, each in their panel, “talking to the margins” rather than face each other across the central gutter of the page.

Brown’s drawing style and narrative approach is a tour de force in the language of comics. His point of departure is Harold Gray’s classic newspaper strip Little Orphan Annie, with its delicate, evocative hatching, it statuesque figures with small heads and empty white eyes. He thus populates a serious historical drama with bona fide cartoons, complete with big feet and long noses. His use of sound effects is also highly confident – shots ring out “BLAM BLAM” when close to the eye of the grid, while they clatter “PK PK” when further away. And his sense of speech balloon semantics is exquisite – all dialogue in French and other non-English languages is marked by triangular brackets as formalized in superhero comics; the thickness of the lettering is varied according to observed speech patterns; and the rank torrent of abuse that leads to the loyalist Scott’s execution is evoked by filling balloon after balloon, page after page, with loud X’s. The sense one gets is both of monotony and intensifying unease, shaping the insults and having them grow in the reader’s imagination.

The obnoxious Scott lets loose a torrent of abuse.

As in the work of the otherwise very different comics journalist Joe Sacco, the strong graphic identity of Brown’s rendering lends to the work a paradoxical sense of authenticity, because the reader is not seduced into mistaking form for reality, but rather reminded of the interpretative nature of the work. Comics as practiced here possess a rare clarity and accessibility, which communicates documentary material very effectively, especially when read along with the annotations. Beyond this, the images, with their airy layouts and varied hatching, carry an archaic feel that evokes nineteenth-century illustration. This is accentuated specifically by the use of the pre-photographic convention depicting horses running with their legs splayed – a non-naturalistic and now archaic, but nevertheless dynamic strategy fully in step with pictorial convention before Eadweard Muybridge’s late 1870s split-second sequential photographic depictions of horses and other bodies in motion.

Most importantly, Brown imbues his images with an ineffable poetry, nourished by the emptiness that seems to define them. It is as if the spirit Riel, whose presence insists upon, has left the world in which he walks. The clarity of this made painfully clear in the trial chapter, which is exclusively staged in long shots depicting figures in profile or ¾ profile against a black background. This minimalism acts as an atmospheric counterpoint to the preceding chapter’s visually expansive description of the rebellion and accentuates the sense of irrevocable loss Riel experiences. His case is not heard, even though the tribunal respectfully lets him talk at length, and he is coolly and rationally sentenced to death after a scrupulously executed trial. It becomes obvious that the times have turned their back on the God in which he so fervently believes. Instead of finding resonance, the New World, for which he would be prophet, shrugs at his accusations of irresponsibility and madness and sends him to the gallows.

From the trial. Note the assymmetry and the disconnect between the characters across the central gutter.

The portrayal of Riel simultaneously as a righteous champion both of earthly and spiritual values and an unstable, detached, and ultimately dangerous fundamentalist is central to Brown’s story. It is built upon paradoxes, both cognizant and doubtful of faith as an alternative to modernity and the world it has brought us – a world in which these divergent interpretations of life remain at odds with no resolution in sight. Upon reflection, Riel’s – and the story’s – last words grow into a desperate and hopeful supplication to Him on whom we have turned our backs.

Originally published in Danish on the Rackham website in 2005. Other installments in this series: David B.’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic), Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Sammy Harkham et. al. Kramers Ergot 4, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray., Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory. For Danish readers, I interviewed Brown about Louis Riel back in 2004.

3 Responses to “Comics of the Decade: Chester Brown’s Louis Riel”


  • Andrew McIntosh

    Nitpick—”My Mom was a Schizophrenic” was first published in 1995 (not 1997) in Underwater #4.

  • Andrew McIntosh

    Oh, and is there any chance of that Brown interview getting published in English? I imagine it was done in English in the first place?

  • Oh thanks for that, I somehow got the date of that issue of Underwater wrong.

    The interview is here.

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