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.
“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 bona fide 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.
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 at McNally Robinson on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. The evening is presented in collaboration with Le Musée de St. Boniface and will be hosted by University of Winnipeg professor Candida Rifkind.
Curious to check out the novel? Check out a sneak preview: