- Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography is a self-reflexive portrayal of the subtle human relations that create legal and historical events—in this case, a narrative of the Red River Rebellion and the Métis resistance to Canadian incursion on their territory, with an emphasis on how these events were informed by Louis Riel’s political and personal life. In Brown’s hands, the comic strip becomes an ideal medium for conveying the story of the historically marginalized character of Louis Riel. The black-and-white publication draws the reader’s attention to the shades of grey that are silenced in historical accounts and contemporary retellings.
Brown draws artistic inspiration from the visual style of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie to relate a gripping drama. The result is both story and history: although Brown cites factual information from a range of historical sources (listed in the bibliography), he presents a dramatized version of events for the purpose of storytelling in the comic-book form. By documenting factual details and the creative liberties he has taken in extensive footnotes, he discloses his intertextual and creative process to the reader. In this way, he explicitly acknowledges the subjectivity of interpretation in any representation of this controversial figure.
Brown establishes his pacing by repeating panels, as demonstrated by the court-martial and execution of Thomas Scott, a controversial event that led to Riel’s exile from Canada (p. 71). By repeating panels in which little action occurs (e.g., the four almost-still frames of an outhouse on p. 49), Brown allows readers access to the slow pace of events from 1869 to 1885 that led to Riel’s execution. The Métis are depicted not as a panicked mob with weapons but, rather, as an organized community pursuing what they saw as a reasonable course of action. Since many readers know how the story ends, Brown’s piece is about the journey.
Brown’s narration of Riel’s journey through the Canadian legal system shows his compelling use of visual imagery in service of larger points. When Riel is taken to trial, the courtroom is denoted by a black background, while the characters in the foreground are drawn in white (pp. 203–32). Riel appears on the left side of the panel, which forces him to face the right, where the judge’s desk is located. When Riel repeatedly objects to his counsel’s attempt to pursue an insanity plea, his lawyer faces the judge and states, “Mr. Riel should [not] be allowed to say anything” (p. 210). He then adds, “Mr. Riel must be given to understand immediately that he won’t be allowed to interfere in the management of this case” (p. 211). Through the combination of visuals and text, readers see how the silence imposed on Riel by his lawyer is echoed in the historical records.
Brown depicts silence in his landscapes of quiet snow (p. 149) and in Riel’s silent desperation in his cell (p. 113). This silencing continues to the hangman’s [End Page 469] scaffold, where a priest advises Riel to die like Christ, with quiet dignity (p. 237). Riel’s death is symbolized by the absence of a comic frame, the only disruption of the border in the consistent six-panel pages (p. 238). In this rendering, the tragic irony of Riel’s situation is that in his desperate attempt to be heard, he fell from the hangman’s scaffold to the margins of history. By employing the marginal medium of a comic strip to tell this story, Brown cleverly invites readers to reflect on Riel’s marginality in his trial and in the story of his life.
How can silence and miscommunication be represented in a graphic novel? To signal the lack of communication between the Métis and the federal government, Brown puts the Métis dialogue in brackets. This meta-textual and visual use of bracketing indicates the linguistic divide more clearly than narrative alone could: it asks us to see that...