BOOKS

Cartoonist Chester Brown drawn to Louis Riel's story

In the 10 years since the publication of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, Chester Brown's illustrated take on the Métis leader's life has gone from a comic-strip curiosity to a bona fide bestseller.

Author of groundbreaking comic-strip biography marks 10th anniversary with appearance in Winnipeg

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)

Like a lot of Canadians outside of Manitoba, Chester Brown knew little about Louis Riel.

On a trip to Winnipeg in the mid-'90s, the acclaimed cartoonist and some of his American friends were discussing history when the topic turned to Riel.

Being the only Canadian in the bunch, Brown was asked to explain why Riel was such a significant figure.

“I drew a blank. I knew almost nothing,” laughed Brown.

The 10th anniversary edition includes never-before-seen sketches and panels. (Chester Brown )
Acknowledging his ignorance, the cartoonist decided to research the
Métis leader and soon realized just how fascinating and complicated a character he was.

“I thought: this is a great story,” said Brown. “I think this would make a really good graphic novel.”

That’s how Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography was born.

And in the 10 years since the publication of the book, Brown’s illustrated take on Riel’s life has gone from a comic-strip curiosity to a bonafide bestseller.

Initially released as a series of individual strips, it has since been collected into a thick graphic novel you can find at nearly any Canadian book seller.

“When the first issue was published, I walked into a store in Toronto and the comic shop owner said to me, ‘What are you thinking, Chester?’” said Brown.

In a rare appearance, Brown will speak and sign books at McNally Robinson on Tuesday, Oct. 22. (Drawn & Quarterly)
Since then, the novel has been heralded as a game-changer for Canadian cartoonists. The first edition of the book sold out in under two months and is often credited with helping literary graphic novels find a place in mainstream book shops.

Asked why graphic novels have found broader acceptance, Brown said people have realized that comics can be a potent storytelling medium.

“It’s a marriage of both literature and visual art."

In honour of Riel’s 169th birthday and the 10th anniversary of the book’s publication, Brown has released an expanded version that includes rare, never-before-seen panels.

​In one of only two Canadian appearances to celebrate its release, Brown will appear atMcNally Robinson on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. The evening is presented in collaboration with Le Muséede St. Boniface and will be hosted by University of Winnipeg professor Candida Rifkind.

Curious to check out the novel? Check out a sneak preview: 

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