Noted Canadian graphic artist Brown here mines his country's less distinguished history to tell the captivating story of Lous Reil, a late 19th-century Metis (mixed French and Indian) leader. The story begins in the 1860s, a time when only a small portion of present-day Canada was actually known by that name, the middle third of present-day Canada (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) was claimed as the property of the British Hudson Bay Company, and the Western third of present-day Canada was claimed by Britain. In the middle of the Hudson Bay Company land, about 50 miles north of the Minnesota border, a loose cluster of English and French parishes known as the Red River Settlement was home to several thousand settlers. When the Canadian government struck a deal with the Hudson Bay Company to purchase their land, it upset the Red River locals. These settlers, many of whom were of mixed French and Indian blood, and some of whom had been there for generations, were concerned (and rightly so) that they would loose their land under this arrangement. They embarked on a course of self-rule that put them in a state of rebellion against the Canadian government, and the educated, bilingual Louis Reil emerged as their leader. Brown does an admirable job of retelling the fairly complex story of the settlers' 16 year struggle to stave off rule from Ottawa. There's a lot of to-and-fro, as Reil and other key figures move around a lot, including trips to Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, DC, and London. There are also some major time shifts that make the story a bit choppy, but there's no doubt that history comes alive in Brown's hands. Despite dropping out of sight for years at a time, Reil remains the figurehead of the "rebels" (mostly Metis, but also some disgruntled Irish Fenians), even as he descends into bouts of religious madness and is committed to a mental institution by his friends. The final portion of the book becomes tragic, as the Canadian government sends troops to crush the rebellion, and Reil resists all advice to wage a guerrilla war which might have made things quite difficult for the government. His reticence to use "Indian tactics" results in a total rout of the Metis, and he is captured and hung after a show trial. There's are strong themes of cultural and economic imperialism, capitalism, and racism that will interest those interested in the less heroic side of North American history. For example, one plot point shows how politicians schemed with the rail barons to send troops by rail as a way of raising public support for railroad funding. The artwork is fantastic, contained in a formal grid of six square panels per page. It will strike many as old-fashioned in its sparse, 2-dimensional style (which Brown attributes to the influence of Little Orphan Annie). The panels are expertly balanced and calm, showing a mastery of tone and mood. And as with all works published by Drawn & Quarterly, it's beautifully produced, with top-notch printing on a rich cream stock and great two-tone printed cloth cover. One minor quibble I have is with the use of the word "biography" in the title. Given that Brown's excellent annotations to the story make it clear that he's changed a great number of details from the historical record, it seems somewhat misleading to subtitle it this way. It is a fictional account based on real history, but not entirely faithful to it, and so might be better termed "A Historical Fiction" or "A Fictional Biography". No one would ever write a prose biography and have footnotes indicating that they had changed details. Still, it's an extensively researched work, and a great place to start learning the story of a Canadian folk hero.
Brown retells the history of Louis Riel using his unique drawing skills. Each of the characters are given blank eyes and expressionless faces, as well as enormous hands and small heads - deliberate choices by the artist.
The story is a bit dusty for most of the book. This law was passed which meant this border changed which meant this happened which meant people had to move until this law was passed, blah blah. Unless you're really into 19th century Canadian history regarding the Metis people you'll gloss over these sections. Maps are included to show the shifting borders.
What's interesting is when Louis Riel loses his mind and believes he's a prophet from God. There are some brilliant sections like the siege or when Louis and his men are held captive. There's quite a comedic scene with one of the racist prisoners shouting expletives (you just see "XXX" in the caption baloon) and coupled with his blank face and cavernous mouth it made me laugh.
"Louis Riel" shows a more confident storyteller in Brown and his drawing style has developed since "I Never Liked You". It's a good, thorough read and reminded me of Rick Geary's work which is also brilliant.