Keeping It 'Riel'

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Chester Brown lives the dream. Making comix on his own terms since 1986, the 44-year-old Canadian has bucked his fans' expectations more times than a crazy lover, and managed to make a living doing it. Now, with the publication of his graphic novel, "Louis Riel," he not only has a hit, but also the accolades of the industry.

A brief history: Brown's first series, "Yummy Fur" appeared during a surge in the popularity of black and white, independent comix. Collected as the howlingly funny and surreal graphic novel "Ed the Happy Clown," those early issues were canonized as a highlight of 80s graphic literature. Then Brown did something unexpected: He radically changed the format of "Yummy Fur," using it for an autobiographical exploration whose nakedness caused many fans to cringe and slink away. Still, Brown soon found himself leading an "autobio" trend in the medium. Never one to stick to trends, after an aborted fictional project that featured dialogue written in gibberish, Brown turned to "Louis Riel," yet another audience-challenging work. "Riel" is Brown's interpretive biography of Louis Riel, a real-life 19th-century French-Indian mystic who defied the Canadian government's annexation of what became Manitoba. Crystallizing many of Brown's themes of religion, anti-authoritarianism and madness, "Riel" has become a critical and commercial hit, selling out of its first printing in two months. This past weekend, the 2004 Eisner Awards have nominated it for both "Best Graphic Album — Reprint" and "Best Publication Design." Chester Brown spoke with TIME.comix by phone from his home/studio in Toronto.

Chester Brown by Chester Brown

How did you end up doing comics?

Early on, it seemed like people responded to my talents as an artist and — perhaps arrogantly — I considered myself the best artist of the kids around me. Being an artist was probably the main career choice I was thinking of as a kid, but if I was thinking of it in any terms, it would have been more as a painter or something like that. I was reading comics at an early age, and I started thinking about cartoons at a certain point. I remember picking up superhero comics consciously around age 12 or 13, specifically because I was thinking that maybe this would be a good career move. Then I got into the whole superhero scene. I assumed, in my teen years, that I was going to be a superhero artist when I grew up. When I graduated from high school, I went down to New York to visit Marvel and DC and the editors there were encouraging. They said I had talent but that I should come back in a year. So I went to art school in the interim. I went for a year, and then quit and went back down to New York and was rejected again, although again encouragingly so. But that was around the time I was losing interest in superhero comics anyway. I started self-publishing mini-comix in 1983. Then, in 1986 Vortex comics approached me to start publishing "Yummy Fur." I quit the day job I had at that point, working in a photo reproduction place. In 1988, the black and white boom was over so I got a part-time job that I had for a year. Since then I've lived exclusively off my comics.

I'm guessing you live rather frugally?

Oh yeah. Very frugally.

How did you decide to do the story of Louis Riel?

I was looking to do something non-fiction because I had done a strip, "My Mom Was a Schizophrenic" [which examined the historical diagnosis of schizophrenia and those who disagree with its classification as a disease.] I really enjoyed the process of doing that strip, despite its subject matter. To do it I'd had to do a lot of research and reading and I figured I'd like to do that again. Also, in the last couple of years I've had an interest in history and politics. I was reading various historical books and I read Maggie Siggin's Louis Riel biography ["Riel: A Life of Revolution"] and it seemed like a good, dramatic story that would translate well into comic-strip form.

Why the story of Louis Riel specifically?

The whole schizophrenia angle interested me. When I first started working on it, I thought I would play up that angle more than I ended up doing. The religious aspect of the story was also a draw.

How did you go about constructing "Louis Riel"? Was there a script, or did you work on it chapter by chapter?

There was a complete script for it. It was done in pretty much the same manner that can be seen in the American Splendor movie. I would take a piece of paper and divide it into six panels, write the dialogue and indicate with stick figures where the characters were supposed to be positioned. Then I went back and did the finished book.

Your depiction of Riel cast no aspersions on his state of mind. Do you think he was insane?

Louis Riel has a vision

That's another way that I relate to Riel. I consider myself a religious person and so I think that his visions were in some sense true. I don't know that he interpreted them correctly but I think he had real experiences and I don't therefore think that he was crazy or insane in the way that most people would understand those terms.

The look of "Louis Riel" was something of a departure from your previous work.

Harold Gray [the original creator of "Little Orphan Annie"] was a big visual influence on the book, including blank eyeballs, de-emphasized emotional reactions the overall size of the figures. I initially started out drawing Riel with a big head and a smaller body then by the end of the book I was drawing him with a big body and a small head with massive hands. That's very much the way Gray drew his heroic figures. That's what the basic size of Daddy Warbucks was. That was why I had to re-draw the early scenes [for the collection] to make the Riel at the end of the book match the one at the beginning.

Even your layouts, which in the past had an organic feel to them, became very strict in their arrangement of six panels per page.

The Harold Gray influence had me wanting to go back to the very traditional square panels. I love his approach to storytelling. It's not a flashy storytelling style. It's more restrained and austere. Also his politics to some degree I relate to. I consider myself a right-winger and Gray was certainly one.

I find that surprising. I read the book as a rather liberal damnation of authority. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald is portrayed as a drunk whose primary concern is preventing Riel and his people from establishing representation in Parliament.

I come from that right-wing tradition that believes in limiting the size of government — keeping it small. So anything that makes government look big and inefficient or something that should be kept in control — that's good in my view.

What's next?

I'm working on putting together a new edition of "Ed the Happy Clown."

Wasn't there already a "definitive version?"

This is the even more delimitative version of the book. I didn't want to put that as the subtitle of the second edition. Vortex [the original publisher] did it for marketing reasons. There will be yet another ending to the book along with some editing to the work and a few redrawn panels. Just trying to improve it overall. It will probably have a different title this time around. One of the reasons why it should be re-released is because it has been optioned to be made into a film, although that goes back ten years or so. But the director seems to think that there's a really strong possibility that it could be made soon. So we want the book out there just in case there is a film version. The director is planning on titling the film "Yummy Fur" so we are probably planning on changing the title of the book to "Yummy Fur" to match the film.

During the run of your original "Yummy Fur" series you had an occasional back-up feature where you adapted the Gospels. Will that ever be completed?

I'm planning on finishing the Gospels at some point.

Did you see "The Passion of the Christ?"

Yes. It was okay. I thought I was going to be bored but Gibson managed to keep it interesting. I was neither deeply moved nor offended.

A lot of people are excited about the future of comix. What do you think?

I certainly think that this is the most exciting time in terms of the work coming out. There has never been better work being published. I think it's possible that we're going to continue in that direction. I hope so. It might be just be a matter of other artists seeing the possibilities of what's being done now and being attracted to the medium because of that. CONSUMER ALERT: Chester Brown's publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, is having a big sale on nearly all their books, including "Louis Riel." Go to their website to find sale items.