Little Orphan Louis
By Jeet Heer
National Post (November 6, 2003).

Louis Riel is one of the most resonant names in Canadian history; Little Orphan Annie is an icon of American popular culture. Although both Riel and Orphan Annie are famous, few people would discuss these renowned figures in the same breath. It is part of the peculiar genius of Chester Brown's new book Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn and Quarterly) that it fuses together a historical subject with a pop cultural approach, using the visual language of an Orphan Annie adventure to dramatize a pivotal events in our nation's past.

"My main artistic influence was Harold Gray, who wrote and drew Little Orphan Annie," Brown noted at a recent Toronto reading. Explaining how he developed his stylized iconic image of Riel, Brown simply observed that "Gray tended to draw his heroic figures with large bodies and smallish heads." Like Orphan Annie her mentor "Daddy" Warbucks, Brown's Riel peers at the world through blank eye-balls, his small face floating uneasily atop the bulky mass of his body.

Born in Montreal in 1960, Chester Brown, like many of the best contemporary cartoonists, discovered his own style by carefully paying attention to the achievements of an earlier generation of artists. As a youth Brown read superhero comics, but as an adult he wanted to do stories that were more personal and introspective. He found that that visual vocabulary of most comic books (filled with melodramatic camera angles, jaggedly shaped panels and exclamatory action) was too blunt and melodramatic for his mature ambitions.

When he was twenty-one, Brown found a rich source of artistic guidance when he picked up two small volumes from Dover Publications that reprinted the early adventures of Little Orphan Annie. As portrayed by creator Harold Gray from 1924 to 1968, Orphan Annie lived in a dark and brooding world, where violence and danger were often incipient possibilities but only rarely and briefly portrayed.

"The storytelling style is very restrained," Brown says of Harold Gray's work. "There aren't those extreme close-ups of people's faces that most cartoonists use today. I liked the emotional restraint in the imagery." In emulating and absorbing Gray's work, Brown discovered that this "restrained" style was flexible and could be used for a variety of narratives.

Throughout his career, Brown had always experimented in an impressive array of storytelling genres. His first major narrative, Ed the Happy Clown (1989), was a surrealistic nightmare story, filled with images of cannibalism and demonic violence. Yet at the same time, perhaps in ironic counterpoint, Brown was also working on a quiet, meditative re-telling of the Gospel of Mark.

More recently, Brown has taken an autobiographical and essayistic turn: in perhaps his finest book, I Never Like You (1994), Brown uses a fine clinical detachment to examine to his teenage years in the 1970s as a high school student in anglophile Quebec. Brown's mother, who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic during those years, is a minor character in this book. In a subsequent comic strip essay, Brown explicitly takes up a cudgel against society's treatment of those labeled crazy.

Despite the medley of stories he has told, a few recurrent themes keep popping up in Brown's work. He is obsessed with messianic figures that straddle the borderline between visionary genius and insanity. The pervasive influence of religion as a shaper of our inner lives can be seen in most of Brown's work. A strong individualist, Brown is fascinated by the intrusion of large institutions (the church, the state, medical authorities) into private realms.

All these themes surface again in Brown's rendition of the Riel story. During the two rebellions he instigated in 1869-1870 and 1885, Riel became a nodal point for many of the sharpest controversies in Canadian society. Born to the mixed society of the Metis, which combined elements of French-Canadian and Native cultures, Riel believed that his people were being encroached on by a ham-fisted federal government. In fighting for breathing space for his people, Riel opened up wounds that still haven't healed. In the fierce arguments that surround Riel's name we see the fissures that divide Natives from settlers, the French from the English, Catholics from Protestants, and the West from the East.

Some historians have portrayed Riel as a lunatic, a religious fanatic driven messianic fantasies. Others have emphasized Riel as a victim, noting that the rebellions were provoked by the haughty (and perhaps devious) hand of John A. Macdonald, who pushed the Metis to the breaking point. In dramatizing Riel's story, Brown strikes a rare balance, giving weight to both Riel's spacey religious visions but also the more earth-bound complaints of the Metis.

Aside from the balanced approach that Brown takes, what is noticeable about this "comic-strip biography" is the powerful simplicity of the art. At first glace, Brown's art seems skimpy and sparse: usually six tightly demarcated panels per page inside which are line drawings mainly focused on head shots or characters moving against a background as bare as a theatrical stage.

When you read Brown's work, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this visual frugality is evidence of an intensely concentrated storytelling ability. Each panel only gives us enough to move the story forward and convey essential information about the character's mood or situation. Free from unnecessary distractions, our eyes start to squeeze as much as we can from each drawing, so that seeing becomes a form of close reading. This merging of seeing and reading is perhaps the quintessential comic book experience. Few artists know how to distill this experience as effectively as Brown.

In the heightened simplicity of Brown's art, the influence of Harold Gray can always be felt hovering near. Flashy illustrators, who liked to showboat their mastery of detailed drawings, have often sniffed at Gray's art. Yet, aside from Brown, a few thoughtful comic strips readers have always known that Gray's seemingly crude and austere panels actually displayed a formidable artistry.

In 1948, a teenage boy named John Updike wrote a fan letter to Harold Gray. Although Updike was years away from being the best-selling and celebrated author, his young words were written with force and conviction.   "Your draughtmanship is beyond reproach," Updike wrote. "The drawing is simple and clear, but extremely effective. You could tell just be looking at the faces who is the trouble maker and who isn't, without any dialogue. The facial features, the big, blunt fingered hands, the way you handle light and shadows are all excellently done." Everything Updike wrote about Gray, right down to the sharp detail about the "big, blunt fingered hands", applies equally well to Chester Brown's Louis Riel.