Comic Books and Louis Riel: A Review

Chester Brown’s LouisRiel: a Comic-Strip Biography is an introduction to the life of Métis leader, Louis Riel, and his role in the rebellions of 1869 and 1885. This book stands out in a few different ways. First, while there are other published Canadian history comic books (Scott Chantler’s Two Generals and Paul Keery’s Canada at War: A Graphic History of World War Two for example,) the list is quite short. Additionally, it differs from even most comic books because Brown actually provides quite extensive end notes, an index, and a bibliography, making it a novel mixture of both entertainment and more traditional history methods. Despite the criticisms I have of the book, Louis Riel is a worthwhile read.

Structurally, Louis Riel is divided into four chronological parts, with six frames per page. The first section of the book deals with the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to the government in 1869 and resulting Red River rebellion in the same year, ending with the self-exile of Riel into the United States . The second section chronicles Riel’s return to Canada after promises were not kept and the Métis were losing land to new settlers. This section also introduced the visions that Riel experienced that led to hospitalizations and his belief that he was a prophet. The third is about the 1885 rebellion. The last section begins with Riel’s trial by the Canadian government and ends with his execution. Altogether, the book is 241 pages.

One of the biggest strengths of this comic book is Brown’s ability to communicate effectively with his readers. He is able to make a complicated story accessible to a wide audience of a large age range. He communicates through three main ways: maps, dialogue, and pictures. First, at the beginning and end of each section are maps and short explanations of what happened in between each section. The maps are drawn very clearly and are easy to understand, making them an invaluable part of the book. Brown employs a simple legend, partitioning the land with polka dots and lines to illustrate differences in land ownership.  Its readability would be especially beneficial for younger audiences and any readers entirely unfamiliar with Canada’s expanding borders in the nineteenth century.

Secondly, Brown employs modern and direct dialogue. The genre, with its limited space, calls for each statement to be succinct and to the point. The dialogue is easy to read, informal, yet communicates his ideas well. For example, he uses informal and modern words like 'handy'. He also finds a way to differentiate between English and French well. Anything said in French is simply enclosed in the symbols < and >. French speakers also have a French accent when speaking English.

Notice the eyes and smirk
Thirdly, because this is a comic book, the illustrations of the book are just as significant as the written content. Aesthetically, his drawings are reminiscent of the Tintin comics by Herge, which is acknowledged by Brown himself. However, he does state that his main inspiration was from Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Either way, Brown’s drawing style is simple yet effective. He flows easily from close-ups, reaction shots, to panoramas. He also uses his drawings to further his argument effectively because the way Brown chooses to actually draw the characters is very telling of his bias. In other words one can guess whether each character will be a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ based simply on appearance alone. One good example of this is the portrayal of John A. MacDonald. MacDonald is not a sympathetic figure in this narrative, and can be characterized as manipulative, power-hungry, and dismissive of the Métis. Therefore, MacDonald even looks like a villain. His eyes form a sneaky leer in most of the frames, and his mouth is usually curved up into a devious smirk. Yet, he still looks like the John A. MacDonald that most Canadians would recognize. Part of this is humorously done through Brown’s drawing of MacDonald’s distinctive nose, which is exaggerated in the comic-series. Brown has achieved a good balance by both drawing a recognizable character, but also manipulating him as he sees fit.

However, the very fact that he clearly arranges the people involved into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is problematic. Louis Riel is an undoubtedly controversial figure, whose image and value have never drawn a consensus from Canadians. More recent opinions of the Métis leader have been generally good, especially for Manitobans, French, and First Nations groups. In Manitoba, Riel is sometimes called one of the fathers of confederation, since the negotiations brought on by the 1869 rebellion led to the creation of the province. Additionally, he is called a hero because of his resistance against the oppressive English majority. On the other hand, there are those who believe that Riel was a traitor, a madman, or both.

It is quite clear early on where Brown’s sympathies lie. He portrays Riel as a clear hero, albeit a flawed one.  As a whole, the Métis are depicted as a small group fighting for basic property, language, and representational rights against the manipulative, prejudiced, and oppressive government of John A. MacDonald. It is the classic underdog story with a tragic ending. As stated, while this interpretation of the rebellions is not new in Canadian historiography, it is certainly not at all the only view. The author himself is very aware of this. In his foreword, he clearly states that he finds Maggie Siggins’ Riel: a Life of Revolution to be the “most comprehensive,” and the most helpful to his book, yet also acknowledges that she presents Riel as a hero. By contrast, he suggests Thomas Flanagan’s books, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered and Louis ‘David’ Riel: ‘Prophet of the New World’ for less sympathetic depictions of Riel and the Métis. The problem is that he does not adequately explain why he believes that Siggins is the most comprehensive or the most accurate, which should make the reader question his position. In fact, in an interview done in 2004 (link at the bottom), Brown states that “I set out to make the Canadian government look as bad as possible, because my political stance when I began the project was anarchism – it was supposed to be an anti-government work…” For obvious reasons, this takes away any idea that there was any effort of even trying to be fair.

The big, and perhaps obvious, problem with this is that it presents too simple of a narrative. First, his very political goals might lessen his desire to write anything but a simple narrative and to leave out any messy details. But this also has to with the limited amount of space a comic book allows. Dividing the book into these four sections works to create a seamless story that flows, despite the fact that the 20 years that Brown chooses to illustrate are not sequential.Therefore, the author may argue his position, but must do so in so few words, thus leaving out otherwise important arguments or having to distort others. While the seamless narrative makes the comic more exciting to read, his portrayals of people like Riel and MacDonald strike me as much too simplistic and one dimensional. Again, Brown is aware of his own distortions. In his notes at the end of the book, there are phrases like “This is probably an exaggeration,” “[…]I could live with that level of inaccuracy,” and even “I’m pretty sure I didn’t make this up…but I can’t find the reference right now.”

The over simplicity of his narrative relates to my other grievance with the book. The title itself is misleading at first glance. The term ‘biography’ is used in the very title of the book, yet the author very quickly informs the reader that his work is not a full biographical treatment of Riel. Upon further reading, one quickly realizes that neither is it a complete and comprehensive description of the 1869 and 1885 rebellions. Instead, Brown states that his focus rests mainly on “Riel’s antagonistic relationship with the Canadian government.” This statement is vague enough that one cannot fault him for not doing this. However, this is hardly a biography in the way that most readers will understand the term. Therefore, the use of the word ‘biography’ is unnecessary and may lead some to believe that this book is a comprehensive resource for Riel’s life.

However, I do find that Brown presents a fairly thoughtful interpretation of one of the more controversial aspects of Riel’s life. Riel’s alleged madness and his stint in mental hospitals in the United States is up for much debate. Whether his condition takes away from his suggest heroism, or whether it undermines his actions is a big question after all. For this, Brown does a good job at both portraying his madness and leaving it up to the reader to decide. Of course, this could be because to leave out Riel’s mental illness would be too inaccurate and he had to address it somehow.This is most evident in the fourth section of the book, especially in the cases explaining megalomania, "T'ey sometimes give you reasons which would be reasonable if t'ey were not starting from a false idea" (page 219.) After explaining the condition, Brown does not really try to convince the reader of anything too much.

What is less nuanced, and a good example for the problems that I have discussed, is Brown portrayal of the Thomas Scott scandal. The execution of Thomas Scott was hugely controversial at the time, with some historians suggesting that it was Riel’s biggest mistake. There doesn’t seem to be any other side to Brown’s depiction of this scandal other than that Scott’s execution was well deserved and that Riel was just simply a victim of circumstance. In fact, Scott looks the most non-human compared to the rest of the characters. His distorted features fit well with his dialogue. Scott is not presented as anything other than racist and bloodthirsty, with most of his speech made up of XXXXXXXX with the X symbolizing racism and profanity. Louis Riel, by contrast, is shown as generally sympathetic to Scott but having his hands tied because of the pressure from his peers. The argument, then, is that Scott was evil and deserved to die but that the decision really had nothing to do with Riel anyway.

So the question remains whether Brown’s book is ‘good’ history. In many ways, it is not. The limited space leaves out a lot of potentially vital information, simplifying the rebellions down to a story-like action packed narrative, creating a clear dichotomy of good versus evil with Riel as the central figure and hero. These are serious and fair criticisms of the book. Even more generally is the question of whether comic books, with its limited space, are capable of being ‘good’ history. This comic book does make me doubt that comic books will ever be able to deliver history to the public in a balanced, thorough way.

On the other hand, and in my opinion, the very fact that people are reading it is telling of both the potential for comic books and Brown’s ability to engage his reader, making it very difficult to write the book off as not worth reading, or even recommending. As explained earlier, its appeal has much to do with his ability to create an accessible, clear narrative. Brown’s interpretation of Riel has been well received by both critics and the public since its first publication in 2003, landing on the Globe and Mail’s list of 100 best books of the years and Quill and Quire’s list of five best Canadian non-fiction books of the year to name but a few. Perhaps more importantly is that Louis Riel was the first comic book to become a Canadian non-fiction bestseller.  The commercial and critical success of this book is in and of itself indicative that this way of presenting history has enormous potential. Perhaps Canadian history would benefit from more books like these.  

In sum, although it should certainly not be used as a comprehensive resource for Riel’s life or the rebellions, Louis Riel: a Comic-Strip Biography is still worth reading. It both reaches a wide audience and creates an accessible narrative that readers of almost any age can connect with. Brown shows at the very least that history can extend past the world of academia and scholarship and utilize new formats, like the comic book, to reach the wider public in an effective way.  Quite simply, it is just a short, enjoyable afternoon read that will give the reader a fairly good idea of who Riel was and what happened during the rebellions. One just needs to keep in mind that there are always more sides to a story and to always read the end notes. 

http://www.metabunker.dk/?p=3167 (Link to the interview with Brown)

Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. http://www.amazon.ca/Louis-Riel-A-Comic-Strip-Biography/dp/1896597637


  1. I would like to say that comic book is a great resource for the childhood. Children read comic books could ehance their imagination. It is good for the early education of children. I never read any Canadian combic book before, but I really want to try and experience this one.

  2. Zhuoyi, I think you're right in that a comic is a great resource for kids, and I think the genre is a good way to get kids interested in history. A comic can bring history to life in a way that a more abstract school history textbook cannot, and I hope to look into similar-themed ones for my own kids as they get older and want to learn (I hope!) more about history.

  3. I completely agree with you, Zzzzz! I think they're a great way to get kids 'into' Canadian history. I just wish that there were many more available so that kids could potentially see that there are always more sides to a story. Maybe a comic book where Riel is shown as a traitor/crazy person? Then they would have to make up their own mind and parents could talk to kids about arguments, proof, evidence, etc.

  4. Regarding the problems you had with the oversimplification of the story do you see this problem stemming from the way Brown presents the story or is this a flaw of graphic novels in some way?

  5. @nom de plume
    I think it's a bit of both, although I would fault Brown more than graphic novels as a whole. Brown isn't even trying to present a balanced narrative. In that interview, he makes it pretty clear that when he wrote the comic, he was an anarchist and was out to make the government look as bad as possible. That's pretty easy to do with the Louis Riel story, so I think it's mainly him.

    But at the same time, graphic novels are usually pretty short. It would be pretty difficult presenting a really thorough analysis of anything in just pictures and a bit of text.

    But maybe I'm making the mistake of assuming that traditional history books are the be-all, end-all and that books should strive for their accuracy/amount of information. If it's a different genre, maybe it's just trying to make a different point.