In a review of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, the Globe and Mail argues that the book “is comics history in the making, and with it, history never looked so good.” How things look is an important part of the historical record; optics are everything, and Brown’s novel gives us plenty of optics to get into. The comic treads ground covered by the stylistic cues we have been discussing that mark memoir along with the narrative structure and biographical back-story that defines the superhero genre.
Riel–as he is portrayed by Brown–works on the reader by nesting in the space between the superhero and what we might call the ordinary–a tight space on a good day, just ask Clark when he squeezes into the phone booth to change. The superhero Riel is at once the mythological figure of Canadian history whose heroic, but failed, attempts to lead his people to salvation are the stuff of every Canadian history book; and the chiseled, broad-shouldered, intellectual and political savant who deftly toils against greater powers of evil. Of course, a key part of this interpretation of Riel relies on a reading of Brown’s drawing, which is stark, clean-lined, and crisp when it concerns Riel and his Metis compatriots, but mocking, skewed, and disingenuous when representing English figures such as John A. McDonald and his elongated schnozzola.
Elements of the ordinary, however, frequent the novel. Riel is often let down and betrayed by others, there are few whom he can trust, and he is ultimately faced with a foe who is stronger. Riel is not after-all created by freak scientific accident or a displaced soul possessing extraordinary power sent from another planet to help hapless Red Riverians; he is a “half-breed” like the others. An alien among aliens; an ordinary man among ordinary men. In the beginning, his one power is that he speaks English.
Of course, as it turns out, this power of speech is what sends him down the superheroic and mythological path. Not coincidentally, the characteristics of bilingualism, the ability to occupy both sides of the divide, is akin to the dual identities of the superhero: both mild-mannered and man of steel; unassuming Clark Kent and man in blue tights.
When Riel speaks English in the novel, he is clearly wearing his blue tights. Brown’s decision to depict Riel speaking English by dropping all his Hs accentuates the fact that Riel is not perfectly bilingual, but like all of us, marked by his accent. Though he may look like a white man, he does not talk like one.
Besides having Riel drop all his Hs, Brown also skirts the language barrier that would hinder an understanding of Riel’s words amongst English audiences by having Riel’s French rendered into English in between <>. By erasing Riel’s original French language, Brown, perhaps unwittingly and in good faith, participates in exactly the kind of cultural and political erasure that gives rise to Riel’s rebellion. Moreover, Riel’s awkward English in the book evens the score for McDonald’s nose, giving Riel a flaw instantly recognizable to any English speaker.
In closing, one of the most important facets of Riel’s history, and the graphic narrative itself, is that it ends. While Riel may embody the characteristics of a superhero, he is nonetheless intensely mortal–an ordinary individual. His death serves to illustrate Umberto Eco’s point about the superhero’s “consumability.” Arguing that superheroes cannot interact with big, moral, real-world problems–they have to stick to petty crimes and psychos in make-up–Eco makes a convincing case for the reader’s inability to “consume” the superhero; the superhero never dies because s/he never actually participates in the real world. If Superman were actually to tackle poverty and hunger, he would ultimately become all too real and his limits all too evident. As if to further Eco’s reading, Riel is a superheroic figure who has already been consumed because he belongs to the historical record and his mythology is established through the numerous other re-tellings of his story. Like Superman and the ordinary individual, Riel both lives out the same narrative sequence over and over again, and dies. Unlike our supposed repressed desire to be Superman, by shedding our work-a-day clothing in favour of a blue suit and cape, we do not want to see Riel as a figure of escape. Riel meets his fate and is punished, again and again as the story is re-told. Just like ordinary people who act out, Riel knows that there are consequences to bear; no last minute escape while the villain is “monologuing.”
That Brown knocks off the final frame of the book forces us to ask “what’s in a frame,” and what historical perspective is Brown asserting by suggesting a parallel between the end of Riel’s life and the abruptly terminated formal structure of the page? History and biography are all about making the subject look good. Brown’s portrayal of Riel suggests that “optics are important,” in culture, in politics, in history, in story, and in the graphic narrative. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography seems to take advantage of the graphic medium to tell a story that forces us to rethink how the mythological, superheroic, and the individual are connected to the optics of historiography.