On the Real — An Interview with Chester Brown


This interview with Chester Brown, who is currently garnering much attention for his extraordinary new book Paying for It, was conducted at the 2004 MoCCA Arts Fest in a small storage room where they kept the boxed-up Harvey Awards, a couple of hours before the ceremony was to start. Brown had recently released the collected edition of Louis Riel, which naturally became the main subject of our conversation.

As should be evident from my 2005 review, I consider this a remarkable book in a remarkable oeuvre. I never thought the interview rendered Brown nor the book justice, consisting mostly of dead ends and leads left unpursued, but I still think the artist makes a number of interesting points and observations and foregrounds the motivations that led him to write Paying for It. I am in any case grateful that Mr. Brown took the time.

The interview was published at Rackham in 2004. This is its first publication in English. I hope you enjoy it, despite its shortcomings.

From Ed the Happy Clown

I want to start by asking you what it’s been like to work with historical material [in Louis Riel], and especially in relation to your earlier work. Because I see underlying themes, which – as far as I see it – are recurrent in all your work that I want to touch upon later. What were the differences between this and your earlier work, and what were the continuities?

There weren’t a lot of problems. Really, the jump from what I was doing before to doing historical comics wasn’t that big a jump. I’ve being doing autobiographical comics, which are about someone’s real-life experiences, so moving to biography, which deals with someone’s life… the only difference is that it’s someone else’s life rather than mine – in both cases you have the same problems of dealing with a large mass of material, all the events in a person’s life, and trying to condense it down into a narrative of however many pages you have – I knew from the beginning I wanted it to be around two hundred pages. The problems were rather ones of finding reference, not the least visual, and trying to reconcile different historical accounts, where for example two historians would disagree with each other, or where two eyewitnesses had different versions of the events, that sort of thing. Whereas with autobiographical material, it’s just one person’s version of what happened – my version.

The reason I’m asking is because I see a lot of your work dealing with notions of reality and normalcy. The problem of what constitutes insanity – you have the whole question of Riel’s sanity…

Right.

From "My Mother Was a Schizophrenic, published in Underwater #4.

… and you address it very directly in your work on your mother – as well as the ideas, I guess, of representing reality in comics, which is something one does pretty directly in many ways – and in some ways not – in both autobiography and history writing. Do you see some kind of continuity there? And, if you do, what kind of problems do you see in relation to representing reality in comics?

Uh… problems?

Well, the problems, which present themselves as to what to show, how to be honest, being true to reality, while telling a story at the same time…

Yeah, being really honest and really true to Riel’s story was impossible in two hundred pages. That’s why I had to have the footnotes at the back of the book; to explain where I’d fudged stuff or changed details for the sake of narrative flow. Most of the changes I made were to keep the book at around two hundred pages. If I really wanted to tell Riel’s story as honestly as I could in comic book form, I would have needed more like a thousand pages or something, not two hundred. That was the big problem – space consideration. Being able to stay true to the material.

The sequence at the bottom of this page from Louis Riel 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.

Do you regard what you did as a representation of reality or more as a work of fiction?

Uh, it certainly has fictional elements in it, but I don’t think my concerns were the same as someone who sets out to write fiction. I think writing fiction has more to do with entering into a character’s emotional life, whereas I had absolutely no interest in that. History is more concerned with the events, the outer representation of those events, what happened, the sequence of events and those sorts of things, not getting into a character. So my interest was more of a historical one, but in order to tell that historical story in two hundred pages, I had to resort to fictional methods – making up dialogue, inventing or condensing scenes, that sort of thing.

The reason I’m asking is because so many of the themes found in your previous work seem to pop up in Riel. Did you set out to consciously treat these themes, or did they just present themselves as part of the material as you went along? I can see how some of them would, but…

Yeah, that’s certainly why I was attracted to the story in the first place – Riel’s interest in religion, the whole question of his sanity, his messianic fervor, and those sorts of things. It was there, that’s why I did the story.

Riel is transported to the 4th Heaven.

There are points in the narrative where you sense a definite authorial hand, the most obvious being the representation of Riel’s vision. That kind of moves beyond traditional historical writing, you become aware that there’s an author interpreting the material and adding to it. Did you plan to make that kind of thing obvious, or did it just come naturally? What were your considerations regarding that?

I don’t think I was aware of it, and with that particular scene, it shows what Riel said happened. Of course, in representing it…

Yeah, that’s what I mean.

Yeah, in drawing it, you have to invent – I have Saturn in the back, and Riel never said Saturn was there, or whatever. But of course, that happens in any scene in the book; I draw Riel in a room and have a chair next to him – who knows whether that chair was there?

No, I guess I’m talking about traditions of historical writing. In a traditional account, you normally wouldn’t normally go into a person’s head as you do in that particular scene – not that you do it that much in the book, but in that case, at least. Whether it’s real or not is of course the question, but it’s Riel’s vision represented on paper in your line; it becomes much more palpable than if you’d drawn him coming up telling somebody about the vision.

Yeah, it is an interpretation, and I probably chose that way of doing it, because I do take seriously when people say the have visions. I’m sure sometimes people aren’t truthful about that sort of thing, but other times I think we have to take seriously what people say they experience – if they say they experience talking to the Holy Ghost, then I think they probably really did experience something, and we tend to discount those sorts of experiences and I don’t think we should.

Following the discussion of representation, I would like to ask you what you think are the strengths and the advantages of doing an historical narrative in drawn, comics form.

[Pause] I think it’s more readable. History does seem to be kind of dry, and I say that as someone who enjoys reading historical books. But I know that for a large part of the population, reading history is less exciting than reading other sorts of things, and I think that comics might be a good way of popularizing history in a way that doesn’t do damage to historical truth in the same way that, say, film does when it tackles historical subjects. I think if someone tried to do a… well, actually, there have been film versions of Riel’s story, and I think… I can say for certain that my book was closer to the truth than those films were; it’s probably not as true as a serious prose biography, it kind of sits somewhere in the middle between film adaptations or versions of the story and prose histories. I think cartoonists should be looking at this more seriously at this as a way of getting people to read history.

A while ago I was talking to Joe Sacco about similar problems. The fact that if you recreate something on film, it immediately looks fake [Brown laughs], it connotes fiction…

Yeah.

…whereas, if you draw it, it seems more convincing. It’s obviously an interpretation, but because it’s so obvious, it kind of seems more real than film, which on the face of it looks more real… it’s something he’s given a lot of thought, but couldn’t say anything definite about – have you had similar thoughts? About the interpretative act of drawing? What’s the nature of reality drawn by you, in a style obviously derived from cartoon history?

[Pauses] I didn’t worry about it that much. I think what made this seem not so daunting a task was reading Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe; he just made drawing people in certain historical periods look so easy, the costumes he would put people in just looked so cartoony, so dashed off, but still looked right, somehow. That kind of made it look possible, and made me worry less about getting things absolutely accurate. Obviously, I did try to research as much as I could what things looked like, but…

It didn’t trouble you too much if you couldn’t find a source for something you needed to draw?

No, I did try…

Because I know for Joe it’s very important…

Heh, yeah…

What he does is obviously quite different from what you do, but there are central similarities – the representation of truth in drawn form.

Yeah, maybe I should have made that even clearer in my notes – to refer to my visual sources. I would try to find reference for all the historical figures – photographs or drawings – but sometimes I couldn’t, so I would just make up what they look like, so maybe I should have mentioned in the notes when I did that.

You did that at least once, with that guy whom you drew skinny, but who was actually fat [laughs].

Yeah. There were other instances where I couldn’t find references, and I didn’t note that in the back.

William Mcdougal incorrectly depicted as a skinny man.

I’ve already asked this question, but I think I’m going to ask it again…

OK.

Did you set out to represent historical truth, or did you primarily want to tell a story?

[Long pause] The thing is… you can’t know the truth at this point… Yeah, I was more concerned with the story, and I had a bias. I set out to make the Canadian government look as bad as possible, because my political stance when I began the project was anarchism – it was supposed to be an anti-government work, even though my politics kind of changed while I was working on the book – what I believed at the beginning wasn’t what I believed at the end – and even though I knew Riel himself wasn’t an anarchist, if anything he was politically conservative.

So, did your view of the situation and your politics change because of the work?

Yeah, because of the reading I was doing.

McDonald, "the villain of the piece," presents a plan to thwart Riel.

Yeah, you express in your annotation that, even though [the Canadian Prime Minister] McDonald is sort of the villain of the piece…

Yeah.

… you wouldn’t want to live in a state governed by Riel.

When I began the book, I saw McDonald as a villain, but several years later, when I was actually drawing those scenes, I felt differently, so that’s why I wrote that in the notes. Changing the book’s direction at that point just seemed too difficult; I actually sat down and tried to rewrite the material to reflect my changed in political perspective and it was just too difficult, so I just kept to the script that I had originally written and finished the book that way.

Approaching a work with such profound spiritual content from an anarchist point of view seems kind of problematic. How did you reconcile the two? I mean, you’ve always treated themes of spirituality in your work – could you comment on that? Have you become a religious person along the way?

Oh yeah, I’m a religious person and I have been all along. I don’t see a conflict between being anti-government and believing that there’s a God. Actually, my political views and my spiritual views kind of complement each other, but I’m sure that there are committed anarchists that are also atheist, and that’s fine, whatever… [chuckles]

I just figured that anarchism at its base tended to preclude spirituality, but, of course, looking at your work, that’s obviously not the case. [Long pause] Right, I think I want to return to the drawings. To me, perhaps the strongest aspect of your work is the poetry of the drawings, for example the sheer evocative power of the dream sequences in Underwater, and it’s also very present in Riel, although it has obviously been reined in a little. Did you have any conscious goals you wanted to accomplish with the art themselves, the style, the compositions – the open field, the cartoony characters…

My… one goal was to make the artwork look as much as the artwork in Little Orphan Annie as possible, I was trying to draw like Harold Gray, and…

Was that just self-indulgence or…

I love Gray’s work and that looked like fun to me.

OK.

It looked like fun to draw like Harold Gray. I had other things going on too; there’s a lot of distance between the viewer and the characters, the characters are drawn really small in most of the panels and there’s almost no use of close-up. And that had to do with not wanting to enter into the emotional lives of the characters, trying to stay as distant from them as possible. They were drawn in a very cartoony style, a more cartoony style that Gray used actually, they have big noses, wild hair and that sort of thing, and that was really to keep the characters distinct from each other, so that you would be easily able to recognize which character was which.

Accessibility again.

Yeah.

Yeah, that was also my hunch about it – it was enjoyable to draw like that [Brown laughs]. Your resistance to the use of close-ups – and I might be going out on a total limb here – complements ideas of nineteenth-century visual culture very well. It’s almost like looking into a stereoscope; you present a view that seems God-like, objective, but upon further scrutiny, especially of the framing, you start noticing how subjective it is – it’s all chosen for the viewer by you.

Mm-hm.

You work with that very rigorous grid, and all the panels are the same size – do you think a lot about framing as you work, or does it just come naturally?

Um… Yeah, I guess you could say it comes naturally. I don’t think there’s a lot of thought given to that… the compositions are pretty simple and basic, the characters are either centered or very close to the center of the panels.

Riel's men enter Fort Garry.

There’s a very interesting passage – the one where Riel’s men are entering the fort at the beginning and you keep a figure – not the same figure because they’re all running – but you keep one figure almost at the center of each panel [Brown chuckles]. And at the very corner of the upper images, you can just see a cannon on the other side of the gates.

Mm-hm.

To me, it seems like some thought went into that composition.

Yeah, probably [chuckles].

I don’t know, maybe not, maybe not [laughs]. I’m just thinking of how, in the nineteenth century, images tend to become fragments of a greater whole, and your work very much seems composed of fragments, not the least in how you compose the page; the way you draw each panel individually as you’ve mentioned in several interviews.

Right.

How has your approach to the composition of a page evolved? Have you given up page layout as a prime concern?

Oh yeah, completely. I never think of how each panel is going to work on the page. That happens once the page is put together. Certainly, there was no point in Riel where I put a page together and decided it didn’t work and had to be changed. There was one instance of it in the Ed the Happy Clown book, where I had drawn a head in one panel, a close-up of someone’s head, and when I put the page together, the panel directly below it was a picture of someone else’s body, and it became an odd juxtaposition, it looked like it was supposed to be a total drawing of a head and body, so I had to change the panel with the body – I moved the body over a bit. But nothing like that happened in the Riel book… So yeah, if the pages work, it’s just serendipitous.

OK. Why are you not concerned with that?

[Pause] Because I don’t have to be concerned with it. The pages look fine to me without it. There have been times in the past where I’ve been concerned with it and have tried to be conscious of images work together in sequence, and have tried to do what comic book artists are supposed to do where you lead the eye compositionally through the panels on the page, and… I don’t know, I don’t think that makes a page any more appealing than the random placement of images that were used in, say, the Riel book. People know how to read a comic book page, what balloon to read first and so on; I don’t think there’s a need to guide them.

It again makes for very interesting results in Riel; almost no page is self-contained…

Right.

There’s invariably a change of scene or something on each page that embeds it in the narrative.

Right.

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

And you have many instances, especially in the courtroom scene at the end, where the characters are talking to each other with the images showing them as if their backs were turned to each other. Is that also serendipitous?

Yeah. Just as there are sequences were the characters have their backs turned to each other, there are others in that courtroom scene where they actually are facing each other. I just didn’t worry about it.

So there’s no concern with guidelines like the 180 degree-line which is used in film and which some people claim also works better in comics… well, you obviously don’t think so.

Yeah, I never switch – if one person’s supposed to be at the left and another to the right, I don’t switch them around.

But you do between images, and I think it adds to the narrative meaning…

Good [chuckles].

[Laughs] How and when did you develop that approach – drawing each panel on its own?

Uhm… Quite early in my work. I think the first time I did it was with the story “Walrus Blubber Sandwich” in an early issue of Yummy Fur – it’s in the Little Man book, it’s one of the earliest strips in that book. Uhm, why did I do that? [pause] I don’t know, It’s hard to put myself back in…

From "Walrus Blubber Sandwich"

Returning to that approach to the individual panel, did it feel liberating? And have you consistently done it since then?

No, no, no, for the most part I’ve worked that way, but I’m sure that there are a couple of instances where I have done everything on a page. But for the most part I’ve done it. I think I started doing it for the reason I still do it – it’s the easiest way of editing a story and making changes, and things like that. Also I think it was just due to the practical fact that it’s hard to work on a large board – at the top of the page you have to kind of stretch your arm up, whereas if I’m just working on one panel, my arm is closer to my body and it doesn’t have to stretch out as far – it’s easier.

From I Never Liked You.

Right. The reason I’m asking is it really becomes a powerful storytelling tool in I Never Liked You – it becomes very noticeable for the reader in that story. Often a scene that doesn’t necessarily carry a lot of emotional significance gets a single panel on a full page, while in traditional comics grammar you would only do something like that for an emotional climax in a story. Here, something else is going on…

Mm-hm.

Uh, I don’t know what I was going to ask you – I seem to keep wanting to attribute conscious choices to these things if they’re not there… [chuckles] Please deny it, if that’s the case. But did that book feel like a breakthrough narratively in some way? Or even in terms of your autobiographical work?

You mean I Never Liked You? Because I was using that in The Playboy too, and even with “Showing Helder”.

Right, right.

That way of isolating certain panels from the others. So, in those terms, the breakthrough was probably “Showing Helder”, even though later on, midway through Underwater, I went back to using six panels per page. But yeah, that was a great way of working – being able to have as many panels per page as seemed necessary, and being able to isolate certain panels. Yeah, probably more work should be done way, or at least it’s a potential area to be explored by cartoonists.


Brown shows part of his work process, including a phone call to his colleague Seth. From "Showing Helder" in Yummy Fur #20.

So, how much planning goes into individual sequences? How do you put them together? Do you decide in advance roughly how many panels you’re going to use and how you’re going to distribute them on the pages?

Well, with Riel, I did write out a full script beforehand. Each page of script was an 8,5 by 11” sheet of paper and I would divide the sheet of paper into six panels and write the dialogue for each panel on it. And if it was necessary to remind myself what was going to be drawn in a panel, I would have stick figure indications. I wrote out the whole script, which ended up being 240 pages, and the story ended up being 272 pages I think, which is a bit longer because I extended scenes and added material to what was in the script. I knew that would happen as I was writing the script; the script was really a draft, just because the script indicated a certain number of panels didn’t mean that was the number of panels that were going to end up being on the actual page once the book was finished.

Did you take out a lot?

There were some scenes that were not drawn, but I definitely added more than I took out.

Because I was wondering – the cover of the last issue of Riel has him exiting the window, going to his execution, an image which isn’t found in the actual book.

Right.

The cover to issue 10 or the serialized version of Louis Riel.

Are there many instances of that?

That scene was drawn for the interior of the comic and then I decided it wasn’t necessary for the story, and then I needed an image for the cover and I decided to use it [Matthias chuckles]. And yeah, there were quite a few panels like that which were taken out.

We’re getting very technical here [chuckles]. Just to wrap up, I think I want to ask you whether you see your work as continuously exploring similar themes or moving towards new ones? Some of cartoonists I’ve talked to basically say they’ve explored the same set of themes in all their work and will continue to do so – how do you see your work in relation to that? Is it something you’ve given any thought?

Hm… [long pause]. There are things I’m becoming more interested in dealing with, which I’m not sure were present in the earlier work, particularly political ideas. My earlier work wasn’t that political…

Do you see Riel as being very political?

It’s probably not as political as the work I’ll be doing in the future.

Is this a result of your work on it?

Yeah, working on Riel changed my political perspective and I’m going to want to reflect that in the work I do in the future.

How so? Do you want to express a particular political viewpoint? Or, as I see it, present a situation as you do it in Riel and leave it ambiguous? That’s why I asked whether you thought it was a political book, because I don’t perceive it to be pushing a political agenda.

It’s not an explicit agenda, that’s for sure, and the work I do in the future will probably be more explicit.

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