Friday, March 19, 2010

Reading Riel #2: One Cover and Two Maps

This is the second in a series of posts about Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.  Click here to see all of the posts in this series.

Now that I've gotten the introduction to this series of posts out of the way, let's dig in to the real meat of this book: the cover!

That's the cover to the 2006 softcover collection over there.  I've got a few thoughts about it.  First, it's a nice, striking image, simple yet dynamic.  Second, it's the first time we see Riel, and it presents him in a somewhat ambiguous light: is he defiantly facing the oncoming storm, or do I detect a bit of fear or concern in his posture?  And his cloak and scarf are swept back behind him by the wind, looking almost like the cape of a superhero.  Third, this might be a preview of the setting for this story.  It's going to be outdoors in the wilderness, and cold.  Canada, baby.  Fourth, there is some heavy symbolism going on here.  A storm's a-brewin', and Riel has nowhere to hide from it. Trouble is on its way, and although he sees it coming, he might not be completely prepared for it.  He's also alone on a rocky mountaintop.  This does not bode well for our hero.  One final thought: the hardcover version is black-and-white, while my softcover version adds that nice golden color.  I like the color (especially the very subtle difference in shade between Riel and the mountain-top), which really makes the image pop.  The color is also used on the spine for the title and author, set against that dark gray background, which really helps the book catch the eye when it's on your shelf.  Smart design choice.

All right, I think I'm ready to open the book.  And in case I didn't know that this book was a critical darling, the first thing I see are five pages chock-full of glowing quotes from various publications, along with the following statements: NOMINATED FOR EISNER, IGNATZ, AND LIBRIS AWARDS.  WINNER OF TWO HARVEY AWARDS: BEST WRITER AND BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM OF PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED WORK.  Yup, I can say now that I have HIGH expectations for this book.

We also get a page listing Brown's other books: Ed the Happy Clown (1989), The Playboy (1992), I Never Liked You (1994), and The Little Man (1998).  If you've read any of these, I'd be happy to hear your opinion of them in the comments.  Also, since Louis Riel ended its serialization back in 2003, I wonder what Brown has been working on recently.  Anyone know?

Next comes a foreword, written and hand-lettered by Chester Brown.  I like the decision to hand letter the foreword.  Nice move for a book that is both a serious literary work AND a comic.  Brown notes that the book includes both an index and a bibliography (again: serious work here, don't you forget it).

He also gives us two keys to the book, one about the story and one about the art.  First, he tells us that he isn't going to deal with Riel's entire life, but has instead "mostly concentrated on Riel's antagonistic relationship with the Canadian government . . . ."  Sounds like a smart decision, since trying to construct a dramatic narrative out of a person's life is always a difficult task.  Focusing on a particularly important conflict will give a nice arc to the story.  The second key is that while he loves Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin), his "main visual inspiration" was Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie:

(click to enlarge)

Interesting, and certainly something to keep in mind as I write about the book.  Maybe I'll spend a future post going into how the art in Louis Riel draws from Little Orphan Annie.

And after the forward comes two maps!  I admit it, I'm a sucker for maps.  If you asked me to choose between two books that I had never heard of, and one had maps in the front and one didn't, the one with the maps has a definite edge.

The first map is of Northern North America in 1869, and shows how the land was divided up into "Land that Britain claims to own," "Rupert's Land -- which the Hudson's Bay Company claims to own," "Canada," and "The United States of America."  It also includes a caption that gives a little history of Rupert's Land.  It's nuts to realize that a fur-trading company used to control a huge swath of what is now Canada.  What, doesn't Canada have spices or particularly nice silk?  Finally, the map points out that the location of the "Red River Settlement," the U.S. city of Pembina, and the Canadian cities of Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.

What's particularly interesting about this map is that it helps to set up what I expect are some of the conflicts in the story.  First, it's clear that who controls the land is going to be important.  There is a lot of land here that is not listed as "Britain's land" or "Hudson's Bay land," but only land that those two entities claim to own.  My guess is that those claims will be disputed.  It also shows us the distance between the main Canadian cities and the Red River Settlement.  Since I already know Riel was out on the western frontier of Canada and rebelled against the Canadian government, it's neat to see this issue depicted spatially.  Of course he's going to  rebel -- he's way out there on the frontier!  How could they hope to control that area back in 1869?  And don't they know that "he who controls the furs controls the universe"?

Here's map 2:

(click to enlarge)

This map isn't as detailed as I would normally like, but, like the first map, it's helping to set up a major conflict in the book: there are English parishes and French parishes in the Red River Settlement, and I'm thinking that those two groups didn't get along so well.  There also the little line of a river winding down to the U.S.A. and Pembria, and a "Stone Fort."  Perhaps, significant?  Just maybe...

Thus, in addition to orienting us by showing us where the action is going to happen, Brown has already given us a lot of information about the sort of political and social problems that the book will be dealing with, and in the space of only two pages, simply by using hand-drawn maps and captions.  These two pages are a nice example of the power of the comic book medium to effectively and efficiently communicate ideas.

NEXT: Onward to Part One of the book!

FURTHER READING: Here is the Wikipedia entry for Chester Brown.  Did you know that "in September 2008, Brown entered politics as the Libertarian Party of Canada's candidate for the riding of Trinity-Spadina in the 2008 federal election."  What's a "riding," you ask?  A Canadian electoral district, silly!  (No, I didn't know either.)

BUY IT: From Drawn & Quarterly here or from Amazon here: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography


  1. We might also see the "lone man on the mountain facing dark clouds" cover as a religious image (which perhaps I only see having read the book already). Like Moses going up to the mountain.

    I read recently (if memory serves) that Brown is working on an autobio book about his relationship with prostitutes? Thought someone may pop up to correct that.

    I'd highly recommend some of his earlier work. I'm not a big fan of the absurdist Ed, but the autobiographical I Never Liked You and The Playboy are quite good (if you like the genre) and highly influence from a historical perspective.

    I think you'll find that the Harold Gray influence is quite obvious (that is, if you've read any of his work), though Brown has the kind of room to work that Gray never really did. Brown can't make more use of repetition and pacing.

    I'm hoping to find time to read along.

  2. One thing I always forget about this book is how well drawn it is.
    Whenever I think back to it I always imagine Chester Brown with shakier lines, probably because I pick up The Little Man so often and it's filled with a lot of early work.
    I Never Liked You is one of my favourite comics of all time.
    And so is Louis Riel.
    Chester Brown is special because he somehow brings himself into all kinds of different stories.
    It can be about evil toilet paper, little boy's penises, teen angst, historical figures or an argument against matter what it is you take one look or read a couple lines and say..."oh, this is Chester Brown"

    That's why he's one of my favourites.