Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 81

Louis Riel

by Chester Brown
Genre notes: biography
280 pages
ISBN: 1894937899 (Amazon)

The thing of it is: biographers are every bit as much storytellers as Dickens or Gaiman or Hemmingway or Stoppard. They not only have a responsibility to the historical record, but perhaps more importantly, they are beholden to the attentions of their readers. The occupation of a straight fictionalist almost must be easier—for the simple novelist may take a story in any direction and pace it in a manner that will drive readers to continue until story’s end. The biographer, on the other hand, is more like a film editor who has to craft a compelling story with found material he had no hand in creating. So it’s understandable that biographers might take some license with the truth.

As if truth and history even belong in the same sentence.

Chester Brown, as he unfurls the history of Manitoba’s founding rascal-hero, carefully chooses which directions to have Riel’s story take and which paths the man should tread. Often in his research Brown is confronted with conflicting reports, some from recollections published well and many years after any of the involved incidents. As interesting as Riel’s decisions and circumstances are, it may be still more fascinating to chart Brown’s own choices as to which of these to portray—and how.

Brown is forthright about his biographer’s role in the fabrication of Riel’s historical record—and really, that just makes the work that much more intriguing. Knowing that the author is not bound overly by, quote-unquote, historical fact draws more attention to Brown’s skill as a storyteller. He is unshackled enough that he can tell the story he is going to tell in the way he wishes to tell it. And while there is certainly some subjectivity at work, I can say that at least from my reader’s perch, Louis Riel is an unqualified success.

With its abrupt and overly simplified style, Louis Riel is able to present Riel’s story in a way impossible for a prose novel. Visual space is used to create story beats, punctuating decisions or underscoring the humour in a given situation. Entire conversations, discussions, and arguments occur over two or three panels, with dialogue as spare as Brown’s art. The pacing and storytelling is excellent throughout. Brown attributes the drawing style he employs across the book to his love for Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Hollow, pupil-less eyes float detached in wide-open faces. Brown’s rendering of these historical figures is iconic and indelible.

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