How Louis Riel became Canada's first-ever bestselling graphic novel

Chester Brown: "I didn't see him as either a hero or a villain"

Louis Riel by Chester Brown

On this day in 2004, CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel talked to Chester Brown about his recently released graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. (Chester Brown)



The Harry Somers opera Louis Riel is the main attraction in the Canadian Opera Company's 2016/17 season, and as CBC Music pointed out when the news was first announced last week, the Spring 2016 production will mark the first time in 40 years that the piece has found a place on the COC's programme. On this day in 2004, however, CBC was talking about a very different biography of the Métis leader, a man who went from heretic to hero in the Canadian history books. 

Louis Riel Sketches

Sketches from the 10th anniversary edition of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. (Chester Brown )

Chester Brown was Eleanor Wachtel's guest on Jan. 20, 2004. Since 1999, the Toronto cartoonist had been publishing the serialized story of Louis Riel, leader of the Red River Rebellion of 1869, and the collection had recently been compiled as a book — a collection that became a sensation, the first graphic novel to appear on Canada's bestseller list.

In 2013, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the book, CBC Manitoba called Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography "a game-changer for Canadian cartoonists," and in this archival radio interview from CBC's The Arts Today, Brown tells Wachtel the origins of it all. 

As for how he sees the story's subject, Riel himself, Brown had this to say:

"I didn't see him as either a hero or a villain. He certainly had heroic qualities but I saw him as more in the middle. Someone who was trying to do the best for his people but still was flawed and made mistakes."

Visit the CBC Digital Archives for more throwbacks like this one.

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