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Chester Brown’s Louis Riel

Written by Tom Hart
Chester Brown’s commercial career began in 1986 with Yummy Fur, a series of comic pamphlets featuring his ongoing story, Ed The Happy Clown. Originally begun as a series of unrelated humorous comic pieces, Brown tied these individual strips together and continued it as a single, sprawling scatological adventure narrative involving pigmies and pigmy hunters, vampires, angels, saints, extra-dimensional travel, Frankenstein, and an other-world Ronald Reagan attached to the main character’s genitals. It was a black comedy, an understated monster epic, and vivid probing of a single creator’s subconscious through the perversions of many genres. Ed the Happy Clown which was published as a graphic novel in 1989 and went on to win several awards.Brown balanced these profane stories with straightforward interpretations of the Christian Gospels of Luke and then later, Mark. In these Gospels, Brown explored his own Catholicism and connection to Christ by portraying these stories in blackly comedic styles (peasants and disciples who pick their noses exuberantly, a filthy and furious John the Baptist, and an at turns, arrogant and compassionate Christ.) The rendering of these Bible stories began sometime in the middle of his work on Ed the Happy Clown and continued for 10 years or more.Brown followed Ed the Happy Clown with a series of smaller autobiographical stories, even drawing at least one story, “Showing Helder” about drawing an autobiographical story. The understated ness of Ed the Happy Clown became much more noticeable in these strips, and this became a main stylistic attribute of Brown’s later work, including 1992’s graphic novel, The Playboy, an autobiographical look at the author’s childhood and adolescent relationship with Playboy magazine.

Brown followed The Playboy with 1994’s I Never Liked You, a low key telling of a series of autobiographical adolescent incidents that together reveal and describe a character inclined to keep his distance, stay remote from friends and family, and resist attempts to draw him into a common shared emotional world. Brown believes this graphic novel to be his best work.

Brown began Underwater shortly after, a fantasy about two children growing up told from the point of view of the children. With the limited language skills that children possess, the entirety of the text of Underwater was in near-gibberish. Underwater was slow-moving but fascinating to Brown’s fans. However, he aborted this project before finishing.

In 1998, Brown’s publisher assembled a book collecting his shorter pieces: The Little Man: Short Strips, 1980-1995. Also in 1998, Brown began work on Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, which was finally completed in mid-2003 and collected as a critically acclaimed graphic novel later that year.

Louis Riel is a figure, like America’s John Brown, whose fervor and dedication to a cause earned him countless supporters and enemies alike. He was the leader during the mid- 1800’s of the Metis, those inhabitants of the valley of Red River in what is now Manitoba, who were of mixed French and Indian blood.

In 1869, he established an interim government of Manitoba and negotiated rights with Canada. He was later exiled with a price on his head from the Canadian government. Almost 10 years later, the residents of Manitoba persuaded him back and voted him into the Canadian Parliament three times, though he could never take his seat.

A figure of intense controversy, both now and then, he was executed by the Canadian Government in 1885. His memory today stirs mixed responses ?people see him as either “martyr or madman”- and his legacy remains in continued investigation.

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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Students and teachers are advised to refer to Brown’s notes on pages 245-267 for necessary discussion material.

1. Is Louis Riel a biography? A piece of historical fiction? A documentary? Discuss why you think so. What other category might this work fit into?

2. Pick three instances in which Brown added or subtracted characters, or moved character to times or places where they did not really exist in reality . What benefit did this manipulation serve? Why did Brown choose to do this?

3. How do think the current inhabitants of Manitoba feel about Louis Riel? Why? Can you imagine the citizens of Manitoba having another opinion?

4. Is Riel a man who accepts the inevitable, or does he struggle against it? Does he believe in fate? What do you think his main motivations as leader of Manitoba are? Is he “martyr or madman” as the book copy asks? Does he cross a line from one to another?

5. Sometimes the actions of one person change a story’s trajectory forever. Do you think the sentencing of Thomas Scott (page 69) was fair? If he had to do it over again, do you think Riel would try him again? Why or why not? Are there any other characters whose single action might have changed the outcome of this story completely?

6. Look at the sequence on page 136-137. How does the lighting Brown chooses in this sequence affect our reading of this conversation and the characters involved? Can you find other stylistic choices Brown makes in depicting action or conversation? Why did he make such choices?

7. In his youth, Riel studied to be a priest. Where does his religious devotion reveal itself in his actions? How does it affect the story? Does Brown’s interest in Catholicism effect how he tells this story?

8. Look at the sequence on pages 112-114. What benefit foes keeping Riel’s face obscured provide? Does this sequence remind us or resonate with other sequences in the book? What is the effect of that?

9. Brown’s work has often been called “understated” or “dispassionate.” Can you identify three instances or sequences where Brown deliberately plays down a dramatic moment, or makes a sequence less dramatic on paper than he claims it happened in history? What effect does that have on the story?

10. Can you think of other plays, movies or books that have altered facts for dramatic effect? Is it more respectful of the audience, the producers or the material to do so? Does making something more dramatic mean making it more simplistic?

11. Is Louis Riel primarily a book about a person, a town, a people, a province, or a country? Could you tell the story of one without the others? Could you describe the character of one with the others?

12. Brown’s claims to have drawn visual inspiration from Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray. Look at the attached page from Little Orhan Annie. Compare and contrast the artwork of both. What is each creator successful at communicating? Go to the library for more Annie material and compare it with Louis Riel at length. Are there similar philosophies in the two works? Is the similar artwork styles serving similar purposes or differing purposes? Why do you think so?


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STUDIO EXERCISE

Historical Fiction Project
Boston Tea Party!

INSTRUCTIONS:

PART 1 – CREATION

Objective: in groups of 3-5, work together to create (writing and drawing) a 10-12 panel comic strip story depicting some or all of the historical scene below. Use dialogue, drawings, and captions to make a dramatic story that keeps a reader’s interest.

-Use the cards you have been handed to create each panel.

-Refer to the drawing cheat sheet for hints on drawing certain images.

-Use as many facts in the right column as you deem necessary.

-You may use your one “reporter” card at any point (but only one point) in the narrative. To do this, create a card fthat eatures a cartoon “reporter” and use it to describe any information or action that would be better served by a reporter’s voice, rather than drawn images. This card may be anachronistic.

-Tell only the parts of the scene you deem appropriate or interesting, and pace your story over the 10-12 panels. You perhaps won’t cover the entire scene. Choose your beginning and ending point wisely. YOU MAY, FOR INSTANCE, CHOOSE ONLY TO DEPICT:

      – Mr Hewes dressing and preparing
      (does he have a wife or family he is with?)
      – The arrival of everyone on the ships
      – The throwing, celebrating, chaos, etc
      – The episode with Captain O’ Connor
    – The morning after

– Any of the passages in the fact column (the afternoon meeting, the meeting with British Admiral Montague, etc.)

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PART 2 – EDITING AND RECREATION

Gather together all stories, pin on wall or spread on table and discuss. Combine into one single narrative by selecting panels from each group’s story. Do we need to omit details that don’t serve the larger new narrative? Are there big gaps? Do we need to bridge those gaps or do they work as is? How is the story improved? Or is the impact lessened by combining the multiple stories? How many new stories can we create this way?

Add one or two more “reporter” cards anywhere. Does this help the flow of the story?

Refer to Louis Riel by Chester Brown for a professional example of this method:
Brown, Chester, Louis Riel; 2004, Drawn and Quarterly, Montreal Canada. www.drawnandquarterly.com.

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Historical Fiction Project
Boston Tea Party!
Source Material

From the eyewitness account of George Hewes:

It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.

When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three parties, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time…

We were immediately ordered… to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging.

We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.

In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded bv British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.

We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division, whom I have mentioned. There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.

During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets.

One Captain O’Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf nine each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke…

The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable.

Citation: “The Boston Tea Party, 1773,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2002).