Chester Brown’s Louis Riel

Last week a fun outing with a child to a bookstore led to a windfall.  I hadn’t expected to find a book for myself but as I browsed through graphic novels I saw a title that grabbed me. “Louis Riel” it said.


Louis Riel is Chester Brown’s graphic novel that first appeared in 2003 in hard-cover, released in paperback in 2006, and reprinted many times since.  I’m no graphic novel junkie, even if I do remember Maus both in its initial incarnation and via the AGO as fine art in an Art Spiegelman retrospective just over two years ago.

I find that Louis Riel reminds me of Maus in several ways.

We’re in the presence of an important story and vital issues.  With Maus it’s multi-generational anti-semitism and the Holocaust.  For Riel we’re looking at the history of Canada, sifting for truth amid so many lies, especially surrounding aboriginals and Metis, while telling the story of an important and iconic figure.

At one time the style would have been off-putting. The thought that serious stories could be told through something resembling a children’s comic book was at one time thought of as subversive and revolutionary.  But when history has failed, when culture breaks down, such objections lose any meaning.  High culture can be implicated in these struggles.  I can’t forget that the Wagner who wrote the powerful opera Götterdämmerung that still resonates in my head from Thursday night was Hitler’s favourite.  Opera has often been recruited to legitimize a regime and/or its policies.  The 17th century French court composers were elevated by their King in exchange for proclaiming his divinity in staged allegorical tableaus.  Last night in Toronto Consort’s meticulous First Encounters we were spared any of those pompous sounds, hearing something resembling popular music instead.  The inter-marriage of those cultures –especially the French voyageurs & the native women they impregnated—leads to a place not unlike where we end up at the beginning of the story of Louis Riel, another tale that had utopian possibilities –in the founding of a new province and the quest for responsible government for the inhabitants– that lead to something tragic at least for the protagonist, if not for an entire people.

Last night we only had a hint of what was to follow, namely broken promises and disrespect.  John A Macdonald is very much the same in the book as what we get in Harry Somers’ operatic treatment of the same material.  Brown draws Macdonald with a comically enlarged nose perhaps from his love of drink.  In Mavor Moore’s libretto, Macdonald gets many of the funniest lines of the opera, a witty politician who is not quite as dark as what Brown creates: but perhaps those are two sides of the same cryptic coin.

As we’re in the realm of myth the ideas and the features of this, one of our founding fathers, tend to be larger than life.

I don’t think I was clear in explaining what I meant by “utopian”. The depiction of harmony between the races & cultures last night seized a magical instant that was to be lost.  I’m reminded of Warrack’s Abraham that similarly probes the founding patriarch of three religions in a time before they diverged.  In both cases there’s the hint of the prelapsarian harmony, an Eden that was lost.

But in Brown’s novel you can see it coming, possibly because we know the story so well, that the natives and Métis go in with good faith only to be cheated by the Macdonalds and their henchmen.  I would recommend Brown’s graphic novel to anyone expecting to see the opera Louis Riel this spring either in Toronto or Ottawa. While the treatment of the story isn’t precisely the same, there are lots of similarities.  Yet the media –graphic novel vs   opera –must diverge because one is internal and can be sampled, while the other is performed in three languages.

Soon I’ll be going to see Kent Monkman’s show at the University College Art Centre, steeling myself for some heart-breaking images.  In a time when the media are full of the atrocities & lies of the great & powerful, one can hide in a world of kitties and puppies and cuteness for only so long.

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