As Seth T. Hahne points out in his review of Louis Riel on Good Ok Bad, biography, and history as a whole, is difficult to write. It’s impossible to write it objectively and it can be very difficult to even try to do so. Seth outlines the difficulties a bit more in his review but I’m not going to bother repeating him here. You should be reading Good Ok Bad anyway. Seth is top notch when it comes to comic reviews. What I’d rather focus on is the difficulties inherent in taking biography and attempt to present it in narrative form. Both history and narrative have their own difficulties but I have to say I believe their multiplied when trying to do both at the same time. If nothing else, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel deserves to be respected and studied for its level of ambition.
Louis Riel, as the title suggests, is the biographical story of the titular Canadian hero told as a comic strip. That’s one of the reasons I decided to read the book (I borrowed it from a friend, thanks!). The other reason is that I have an interest in reading more comics by Canadian creators. It’s not something I always follow through with and sometimes when I do, I’m disappointed with the comic or the book in question. If that wasn’t enough, I’m easily distracted when buying books and I don’t always make it home with what I initially intended to buy. Other times, it’s just not in my budget to buy all the books I would want (I borrowed this comic from a friend, thanks!). All of those reasons explain why I’m only reading Louis Riel now when it’s something that’s been on my radar since I first started to read comics.
Despite being such an ambitious project, Brown met his ambition head on and completed a book that can be confidently classified both as a comic book (or comic strip as Brown seems to prefer calling it) and history book. Furthermore, the finished product is good as a comic and good as a history book. When considering both aspects together, Louis Riel is rather fantastic. It is a bit unfortunate that the combination of comic and history is also the book’s primary weakness. I think part of this is that some of the history doesn’t suit itself well to narrative interpretation. I’m thinking primarily of the fourth part which is essentially a simplified transcript of the court proceedings after Riel turned himself in to the Canadian government. It could also be that because this is a biography, Brown tells the story to the end, by which I mean the end of Riel’s life. The structure of Riel’s life, or any other famous historical figure’s life, doesn’t necessarily present itself to a solid narrative structure. Again, I’m thinking of the fourth part which takes up a considerable amount of pages, and it is essentially an epilogue. The thrill, the political intrigue, the rebellion, the action, the multitude of interesting characters, most of those elements no longer play a part by the beginning of the fourth part of the comic.
The best thing Brown did with Louis Riel was to include his extensive bibliography, index and notes sections at the end of the book. It was as enjoyable and interesting to me to read the footnotes than it was to read the actual comment. In the Notes, Brown presents different and often conflicting sources. He goes one step further and details some of the thought process he had on how to translate the story and the history he found in his sources to the comic strip. Sometimes this required some interpretation on his part and other times he did a bit of streamlining in order to simplify the comic and avoid negatively affecting the narrative flow of things. On one or two occasions, he even admits to having invented something in order to explain some history. What makes it so good is that Brown presents it in an unapologetic way. He changed some stuff or he made a decision to include or exclude things based on what he was trying to accomplish, which is telling the story of Louis Riel as a comic strip. Combined with a heavy (and required) reliance on a variety of sources, these additional sections go a long way into giving Louis Riel some depth and weight as a comic but also make it an important work in cartooning history.
As a comic, Louis Riel works rather well. As I started to mention above, the only part I can truly complain about is the fourth part. The narrative loses its momentum by committing to the biographical portion of the work. Another element that played with the pacing of the comic strip was the strict adherence to the six panel grid. It’s unrelenting. Every single page (with exception to the pages of maps) is composed of six panels (two columns of three panels or, if you prefer, three rows of two panels) all of identical shape and size. If that wasn’t enough, the action is not developed on a per page basis. Instead, it’s built on a panel basis. One page can be composed of Riel speaking with someone at Fort Garry for two thirds of a page and one third of John A. Macdonald talking to someone in Ottawa. The resulting effect is one of constant forward momentum. The reader has nearly no time to breathe or, for that matter, to stop and think about what he’s reading.
In the book’s Foreword, Brown mentions that the art for Louis Riel was based on the style of Harold Gray from Little Orphan Annie fame. I rather like the art. It has a simple, somewhat objective but with a fair amount of caricature, look to it. I think it’s a great choice because it forces the reader to focus on the events and not on action by the characters even though Brown demonstrates on more than one occasion that he and his art style are up to the task for those scenes as well.
Louis Riel is a fascinating little comic. I say little because for such an audacious biographical comic, it easily could have been much longer. It’s pretty surprising that Brown does so many so well. I’m thinking particularly to his attention to detail, his ability to streamline things for the purpose of narrative clarity as well as the inclusion of the bibliography, index and notes. Louis Riel isn’t flawless though, nor is it a masterpiece of comic storytelling. There are a number of areas in which it doesn’t quite succeed but I do believe it’s an important comics work, surely one to be proud of.