Critical Round Up: Max Bledstein on the Reception of Chester Brown's Louis Riel
The Critical Reception of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel
By Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography has been well-received by critics since its initial release as a collected work in 2003, following the initial publication of the comic in ten serialized issues released from 1999-2003 (Bell 165). Vice calls Louis Riel “thorough and obsessive,” praising the “more than 272 pages of stunning Chester Brown drawings” (“Tidbits”). Publisher’s Weekly joins the praise, proclaiming Louis Riel “a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever” (“Nonfiction Book Review”). The CBC explains that Brown’s work “transforms history into legend” (“The Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10”). Christopher Shulgan also notes Louis Riel’s deft treatment of historical events, referring to it as “a story that entertains as well as informs.”
More specifically, critics have praised Brown’s ability to capture the complexity and evasiveness of Canadian history. Phillip Hawes explains that the disparity between depictions of events in the comic and in the footnotes make the text “a self-critical work,” arguing that the “act of adapting history becomes as engaging a subject as Riel himself.” Alyson E. King praises Brown’s approach, since it leaves “room in the text for the reader to interpret—the ambiguity in some aspects of the presentation opens a door…to talk about interpretations; and to analyze the choices made by the author in his presentation of Riel, the Métis, and the Canadians” (215). Andrew Lesk links the text’s ambiguity specifically to the nature of Canadian history, as Brown “sketches the vast category that is ‘Riel’ as an allegory of how the ongoing construction of Canadian nationalism, so often tightly connected to the historical remaking of Riel, cannot be finalized” (64).
By contrast, others have been more critical of Brown’s approach to history. Dennis Duffy writes, “It does strike me as a bit slippery to invoke history’s trademark without actually delivering the product” (447). In a feminist critique, Samantha Cutrara reproaches Brown for failing to properly credit women for their role in the events represented in the comic. Cutrara argues that Brown conveys an ”old, outdated story of male power and male action that does not challenge the conventional ways we understand and read history. Taken together, the text and graphics in Louis Riel accentuate a tradition in history writing that marginalizes and excludes the existence of women from ever being part of the past” (124).
But other critics counter Cutrara and Duffy’s critiques by accounting for Brown’s subjectivity and his self-awareness of it, particularly within the visual style of the comic. As Dave Howard notes, “you feel the artist’s hand on the page” through the artwork. Montserrat Terrones writes of Brown, “His drawings reflect his attitudes toward the Métis people, showing them…well-dressed and sitting around a table smoking cigars and drinking. More than words, Brown’s visuals reveal his political message” (299). Andrew D. Arnold acknowledges the presence of Brown’s authorial voice through the drawings of characters, which are “deliberately cartoonish—sometimes absurdly so.” According to Ross Langager, the caricatures of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and Thomas Scott are the “visual focal points of Brown’s critique of governmental (and, by extension, colonial) power in Louis Riel” (60). Thus, Brown’s art, like his use of footnotes, draws attention to the constructed nature of his telling of history.
Without contradicting Brown’s overt subjectivity, the visuals of Louis Riel also convey a disaffected style. The disaffectedness, as inspired by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, corresponds with the “flatness and isolation of the region” represented, according to Jeet Heer. Maya Hajdu notes a further detaching effect through Brown’s lack of close-ups, which “seems to mirror the distance and perspective of encountering historical events.” The “perspective” captures panels in which “details are kept to a minimum,” as Ben Lander writes, in order to “emphasize the tone of panels” when more details do appear (117).
The visuals also play a crucial role in understanding Brown’s approach to one of Louis Riel’s key themes: language. Throughout most of the text, brackets indicate when French is being spoken, which Amanda Murphy claims “indicates the linguistic divide more clearly than narrative alone could” (470). The use of brackets also sets up their conspicuous absence during Thomas Scott’s execution (73-4), as Tim Lanzendorfer highlights. Lanzendorfer argues that the representational shift puts the anglophone reader in Scott’s shoes: “Like Scott, we have to make do with untranslated French; like Scott, we are essentially deprived of a fuller contextualization of the scene” (33). This shift becomes particularly complicated when considered in conjunction with the scene of Louis’s religious epiphany (106-7), which Lanzendorfer argues puts the reader in Louis’s perspective, since his voyage through space and the commands he hears from a French speaking god appear to be inside of Louis’s head (30).
Through the shifts in perspective, Brown further complicates his depiction of Riel in a manner befitting a complex historical figure. As Anabelle Bernard Fournier explains, even though “the book is definitely sympathetic to Riel,” he remains “a human being with flaws” as opposed to an uncomplicated hero. Matthias Wivel notes the contradictions within the portrayal of Riel, calling him “a righteous champion both of earthly and spiritual values and an unstable, detached, and ultimately dangerous fundamentalist,” a tension Wivel argues is “central to Brown’s story.” As a result, John Bell writes, Brown is able to “avoid simple conclusions regarding issues such as the legitimacy of Riel’s sense of mission, his true motives, and his achievements” (166). Rather than “ask us to make illusory bonds of identification,” Stephanie Boluk claims, Brown’s refusal to pick sides “achieves a new kind of authenticity” (93).
Thus, Brown uses his idiosyncratic approach to narrative, history, and art to compose a biography of Louis Riel worthy of the man and his legacy. As I have discussed, critics have found a variety of issues to ponder and argue over in Louis Riel, and undoubtedly will for years to come.