Canada's Superhero

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Chester Brown

The Weird World of Chester Brown
Chester Brown scored one of Drawn & Quarterly's biggest and most unexpected hits last year with Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. The 272-page graphic story sold out in Canada and the U.S. within two months. On its way to a third printing, the book has sold 10,600 copies so far. The acclaim marked the mainstream blossoming of one of the medium's most important maverick creators.

Born in Montreal and now living in Toronto, Brown, 44, began self-publishing a small comic-book series in 1983 called Yummy Fur, an absurdly violent, Surrealist farce about Martians, vampires and Ronald Reagan. The collected series was published in 1989 as Ed the Happy Clown, which became one of the top-rated graphic novels of that decade. Brown radically changed direction for his second book, The Playboy (1992), an excruciatingly revelatory memoir of his teenage obsession with pornography that established him as one of the medium's foremost autobiographical authors.

Two years later, Brown again bucked expectations with Underwater, conceived as a years-long project that would trace the entire life of a character, from birth to death. The first several issues had dialogue written in gibberish, as an infant would hear spoken language. Baffled audiences abandoned the series and, after three years and 11 issues, so did Brown, saying that it wasn't working out.

Once more shifting gears, Brown found inspiration for last year's success from Maggie Siggin's 1994 biography, Riel: A Life of Revolution. "I was thinking of doing something historical or biographical anyway, and Riel seemed like a good, dramatic story that would translate well into comic-strip form," says Brown. Louis Riel depicts the life of Canada's ill-fated, métis rebel in a spare, blank-eyeballed style reminiscent of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. Complete with exhaustive footnotes and an index, it has the thoroughness of a history book yet reads with the personalized vision of a novel. Louis Riel coalesces many of the themes that Brown had explored in his earlier works: the relative "truth" of nonfiction, the relationship between madness and religious experience, the dubious intentions of authority.

For the future, Brown plans to return to Ed the Happy Clown. He is writing a new ending and redoing some parts; a movie version has also been optioned. Beyond that, Brown says he has yet another intriguing project in store: a graphic-novel adaptation of the Gospels.

These articles originaly appeared in the Canadian edtion of TIME magazine: June 28, 2004 Vol. 163 No. 26

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