I saw Hellboy last night. I liked it. How's that for a high-powered movie review?
I also finished reading Louis Riel last night. I have kind of mixed feelings about it. Everyone is touting it as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Amazon reviews describe it as "a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever"; "an ingenious comic and a major achievement"; "one of the hippest comics going and will be a controversial must-have in 2003." Tim O'Neil gives a thorough accounting of it here (and scan down to August 2).
But I thought it was kind of.. um... boring. Mediocre, one-dimensional art didn't help. But the bigger problem was that Chester Brown races through the history so quickly that I never really felt a strong attachment to any of the characters, nor did I really feel any dramatic urgency. The politics were kind of interesting, but it mostly took place at the surface level - or, another way of putting it, it was a nice historians description of what happened, but I failed to see much of an analysis, an interpretation, or an explanation.. the kinds of things political scientists look for, I suppose. I was also underwhelmed by the portrayal of Riel's religious metamorphosis, which to my eyes failed to deliver any real sense of the mystery of a claimed prophet, or how such a religious mission might affect one's approach to politics.
So, I find myself troubled by this disconnect between the critical consensus and my own lukewarm reaction. I'm a political science professor, damn it - I should be the natural audience for a graphic novel offering an unconventional graphic novel political history which "concerns imperialism, empire, nationalism and the chaos that results". But it just didn't do much for me. Anyone else out there have a different opinion of Louis Riel? Should it be on that Comic Book Politics syllabus anyway?
UPDATE: Ralph Luker rises to the defense of historians against my cheap political scientist shots: "The Political Scientist's hegemonic claims on analysis, interpretation, and explanation and the dismissal of history as surface narrative are, ah, superficial and offensive."
Read that way, I have to agree with Ralph that this was a superficial and offensive description of the work of historians. I have read many fine works by historians, many indeed. The point I was trying to make, in my clumsy political scientist's way, was that Brown's Louis Riel read to me as *bad* history, of the superficial narrative variety. I didn't mean to suggest that historians (as a discipline) don't engage in analysis, interpretation, and so forth - the good ones do, obviously (and the bad ones go to the best-seller lists....). And god knows there are a lot of political scientists whose work is stultifyingly superficial, detached from reality, or stunningly misinformed. Perhaps the good Ralph and I can agree that a quality presentation of the Riel story, whether done by an historian or a political scientist, would offer both a gripping narrative and some analysis, at least implict, of the underlying forces and structures at play.
Interestingly, I just read this story on Chester Brown, where he says this: "I was an anarchist when I began the strip and I knew the story would make the government look bad... But in doing all the research for this book, I learned a lot about general political theory. I came to realize that anarchy is completely unworkable, which I sort of suspected all along." That's a promising start - rethinking his pre-existing political views on the basis of evidence, questioning his original premises. But what I missed was a positive reconstruction once the original analysis had been discarded: if the original theory didn't hold up, then how does he want us to understand the meaning of Riel's rebellion?
The story also says this: "Brown is the first to admit the narrative of Louis Riel should not to be taken as the final word on the subject. In his extensive and reader-friendly footnotes, he points out his own errors, issues that historians quibble over and things he omitted to simplify the narrative flow of his book. "It seemed like the honest way of coming at it, to admit where I might be wrong," he says. "I didn't want to pretend like I had the truth or anything.""
Then there is this exchange in a Time magazine interview: Brown: "I consider myself a right-winger and Gray was certainly one." Time: "I find that surprising. I read the book as a rather liberal damnation of authority. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald is portrayed as a drunk whose primary concern is preventing Riel and his people from establishing representation in Parliament." Brown: "I come from that right-wing tradition that believes in limiting the size of government — keeping it small. So anything that makes government look big and inefficient or something that should be kept in control — that's good in my view."
I have to admit that I am feeling more sympathetic towards Brown, and I'm willing to be convinced that there is a deeper and more textured political analysis here than met my eye.. but it doesn't change my original, lukewarm response to the graphic novel itself. So there we are.