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Louis Riel
posted April 14, 2006


Creator: Chester Brown
Publishing Information: Drawn and Quarterly, softcover, 296 pages, 2006, $17.95
Ordering Numbers: 1894937899 (ISBN)

Chester Brown's Louis Riel has certainly become one of the handful of must-have graphic novels released in the last ten years. More than any of his peers, Brown employs narrative and storytelling strategies that seem to come straight from some unknown place. A cartoonist that used to place panels on the page like most people hang pictures, Louis Riel settles into a six-panel grid that almost never lets go. In an era where comics' treatment of historical figure exaggerates the mythic and fantastic, Brown sometimes declines to portray dramatic moments in favor of inexplicable instances of dark wit.

Louis Riel invites return visits, with multiple interpretations possible on everything from how Brown portrays the government to a extended rumination on fate to the role of the otherworldly vision in self-identity and decision-making. On my reading of this affordable, beautiful and dense paperback the Harold Gray influences loomed larges. Gray was a master of space, and turned Little Orphan Annie into a symphony of psychological needling depending on whether the characters spent most of their time inside or outside, how they employed what was available to them and how those choices related to a sense of the wider world. Brown achives much of that same effect here, but his work is even wilder for not having Gray's tendency to play to front row in staged setting. His view careers overhead, or plunges into a wood. I think the value each artist communicates feel roughly the same, too. Gray's strip came alive when the characters hit the road or otherwise entered into the great outdoors; there's not only the use of space as an ideal in Riel but there's occasional discussion of land and air and space as well. Riel's darkest moment comes when he's locked into an asylum cell, and here Brown stabs his reader with Riel's fear and discomfit by having bodies crowd out of the borders, or by simply showing a closed door. His end comes after climbing out a window.

Louis Riel lies beyond my ability to nail down in a single essay, but I think I prefer it that way. As befits an historical figure that has become emblematic of multiple causes and feelings, Chester Brown has given us a book that never says the same thing twice.