CBC Digital Archives

A Riel comic book hero

From the wholesome wartime heroics of Johnny Canuck to the exploits of a three-foot-tall aardvark named Cerebus, Canadian comics are anything but dull. Though comics got their start south of the border, Canada has become home to an eclectic roster of cartoon talent from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated strips of Lynn Johnston, to the world-renowned comic art of Seth and the multi-media phenomenon of Todd Mcfarlane's Spawn. The CBC Digital Archives takes an in-depth look at the history of our homegrown comic strips, comic books and graphic novels.

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The story of Métis leader Louis Riel has been told and retold many times on television, on stage, in books and even in comics. But few were prepared for what would happen when respected Toronto cartoonist Chester Brown lent his unique skills to what he dubbed "a comic strip biography" of the iconic leader. In this CBC Radio interview, Brown describes the process behind his best-selling book and his surprising inspiration.
• Chester William David Brown was born on May 16, 1960, in Montreal and grew up in the nearby suburb of Châteauguay. His first published comic - a take-off of a strip Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright - appeared in a local paper when he was just 12.
• When he was 19, he moved to Toronto, got a day job and drew experimental comics in his free time. In 1983, he began publishing and selling a photocopied comic called Yummy Fur on downtown street corners.

• In 1986, a Toronto-based comic book publisher began publishing Yummy Fur as a full-sized comic series prompting Brown to quit his job and take up cartooning full-time.
• His darkly surreal story, Ed the Happy Clown, was serialized in the comic, and was eventually published as his first graphic novel in 1989. The book, which featured vampires, werewolves, villainous pygmies as well as sex, and violence, provoked both enthusiastic praise and fierce outrage.

• To watch a report that includes critical reactions to Brown's book, go to our clip: Sex, violence and the modern comic book.
• in 1991 Brown moved Yummy Fur to Drawn and Quarterly Publications, a new comic publisher based in Montreal. The following year The Playboy, Brown's second graphic novel debuted.
The Playboy (which was originally titled F--k) and Brown's follow-up, I Never Liked You, are considered landmarks in autobiographical comics.

• In 1994, Brown ended his series Yummy Fur and started to work on an ambitious new series called Underwater that was supposed to depict life from the point of view of an infant.
• The first few issues featured an incomprehensible language and sold poorly. He ended the series at issue #11.
• In 1998, Brown began writing a comic based on the life and legend of Métis leader Louis Riel. Based on extensive research, the first black and white issue was published by D&Q in June 1999.

• The series took five years to research, nearly four years to complete and was published as a hardcover graphic novel in 2003.
• Replete with detailed notes and boasting a crisp, dramatic style, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography received critical acclaim and quickly climbed the bestsellers lists.
• CBC Arts Online called the book his "masterpiece" and Publisher's Weekly hailed it as "a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever." As of July 2006, Riel has sold more than 20,000 copies in its original hardcover.

• Brown claims to have known very little about Louis Riel before an encounter in a bookstore 1995.
• He told the website Read Yourself Raw, that he saw a Riel biography on a shelf and thought "This guy's supposed to have been a significant figure in our history - I really should know something about him."
• Brown has cited Harold Gray, the cartoonist behind Little Orphan Annie, as his inspiration for the art in Riel.
Medium: Radio
Program: The Arts Tonight
Broadcast Date: Jan. 25, 2005
Guest(s): Chester Brown
Host: Eleanor Wachtel
Duration: 11:17
Detail from cover of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown, Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal.

Last updated: October 25, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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