Although I’m certain I would have been exposed to Louis Riel during my time in school, I have no recollection of learning about the man until I read Bastards & Boneheads earlier this year and his story blew my mind. While author Will Ferguson wrote a compelling summary of his life in Bastards & Boneheads, I spotted Chester Brown’s comic strip biography and decided to check it out.
Brown’s artwork here is tremendous in its simplicity. In the foreword, the author notes that many assumed his style was influenced by Hergé, the artist behind The Adventures of Tintin. While that’s a valid comparison, he says it was Little Orphan Annie that provided the inspiration – and it shows. I thought it was the perfect fit to represent both the time and the subject matter. The layouts are clean and clear with about nine panels per page to tell the Metis story.
Riel’s life is a strange one as it more or less exists in two parts. The first being his leadership of what would become Winnipeg, the Red River Settlement, and the establishment of Manitoba. Brown details the trials and tribulations of Riel’s role in the battle between French and English Canada as both battle for control of the fledgling province. Brown showcases Riel’s quest for a peaceful resolution and a hope that both the anglo and francophones can come together to fight for their rights against what they felt was a tyrannical Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald.
The second part concerns his return to Canada following his complete mental breakdown. Having spent time in a Montreal insane asylum, Riel believes himself to be a prophet sent from God and his ensuing actions lead to increased hostility between both the Metis of Manitoba and the Canadian government. That’s not to say the aggression was his fault – the existing population of Manitoba clearly got the short end of the stick – but it was a big departure from what he seemingly stood for before.