An evening with Chester Brown

A biographical comic on Louis Riel celebrates its 10th birthday

In 2007, Manitobans got a new holiday, named after Louis Riel.

While many enjoy the day off, opinions of the man himself vary widely: was he a hero or a traitor?

For those who may be wary of the text-heavy nature of historical accounts, look to Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. This year marks the comic’s 10th birthday, and it is being re-released in a special 10th anniversary edition, with added bonus material, such as draft scripts and earlier artworks.

Chester Brown has been credited with influencing many cartoonists with this work, which led to a reinvigoration of the genre. While biographical comics are not necessarily new, they have been used for more conventional ends since the 1920s and 1930s.

“[Biographical comics were primarily used] as educational tools to depict the ‘great lives’ of religious leaders, scientists and inventors, political heroes and so on,” says Candida Rifkind, associate professor of English at the University of Winnipeg and host of the event to celebrate the 10th anniversary edition.

Brown, however, came from a different lineage – one of cartoonists from the 1960s and 1970s.

“[They used the genre] as a countercultural medium to challenge the status quo,” says Rifkind. “A lot of their work was autobiographical, confessional, and sexually graphic.”

Some other examples of this genre are Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the work of R. Crumb.

While Riel is a politically and historically relevant subject, he was also a complicated and fascinating human being.

“[Brown] depicts [Riel] as a complex man and doesn’t shy away from representing his religious mysticism and messianism,” says Rifkind. “[Brown’s book] shows the complicated situations Riel faced, both within his community and outside it, and so goes beyond the usual caricatures of him as either ‘traitor’ or ‘hero.’”

Brown’s nuanced depiction of Riel also complicates the definition of lives worth chronicling, and has inspired many other alternative cartoonists to continue in this vein.

“[Brown exposed] lesser-known aspects of famous subjects [by] telling the life stories of everyday people, outsiders, and rebels.”

In writing about Riel, Chester Brown has inspired a new way of writing history.

Spend an evening with Chester Brown at McNally Robinson on Tuesday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. for a talk and book signing.