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Inductee: Chester Brown

Courtesy Drawn and Quarterly
Courtesy Drawn and Quarterly

Reason for Induction:
For ink-stained supremacy in the fields of words and pictures

Citation:
In the early pages of Brown’s first collection of comics, 1989’s Ed the Happy Clown, Ed — a most unhappy clown — looks inside his pants to find the talking head of Ronald Reagan attached to the end of his penis. The plot grows stranger from there.

Brown, born and raised in Châteauguay, Quebec, is Canada’s contribution to an elite cadre of cartoonists — think Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and Daniel Clowes — who have elevated their craft from bubble-gum diversion to fresh-look literature. His work eschews the rippling muscles of Marvel’s saturated superheroes for spartan, pallid sketches that evoke the legacy of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie.

Brown began telling his clown stories in 1983, first presenting them in a series called Yummy Fur. He turned autobiographical in 1992, creating two graphic novels about his misadventures with suburban adolescence. The Playboy details a binge-and-purge passion for centerfolds (“Chester managed to avoid the temptation of buying last month’s Playboy but this month — well here he comes again with something hidden under his shirt”); I Never Liked You mixes scenes from Brown’s strained relationships with girlfriends and school bullies with a sudden, staggering subplot about his mother’s schizophrenia. Her deathbed portraits are ugly and pure, inked by a pen that must have weighed a million pounds.

Brown revisited the loss of his mother in 1995, attempting to distill the sum of psychology’s thinking about schizophrenia into a six-page series titled My Mom Was a Schizophrenic. The comic is a calculated, searching indictment of the disease’s diagnosis — and the ideal warm-up for Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, the cartoonist’s 2003 masterwork. Brown spent five years researching the latter project, a 272-page study of the Métis leader’s struggle for his life, mind and people. The book presents Riel as a sensitive, conflicted man ruled by a Mel Gibsonian obsession with God. Brown, who in the novel, pins Riel’s death on a drunken, Machiavellian scheme hatched by Sir John A. MacDonald, uses extensive endnotes to clarify his narrative’s arm’s-length relationship with accepted history. Some have called Riel the greatest graphic novel ever. Those people are correct.

Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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