Tim O'Neil of the excellent When Will the Hurting Stop (one of the best of the comics blogs), generously responded to my Louis Riel query. I reproduce it here in full. All I can say right now in response is that Tim has convinced me that even if my own response was lukewarm, Louis Riel is a work which can manifestly produce sophisticated and textured analysis and responses and is worth pursuing.
"Why am I so damn enamored with Louis Riel? Admittedly, I can see how it might not be some people's piece of cake, especially considering high expectations. Because, let's face it, it's *not* a big multi-textural historical epic in the vein of, say, "From Hell" - which is probably what most people would compare it to. Even given the unique nature of the comics world, its a unique work on top of that. It's something that could only have been created by one person - Chester Brown - and the anomalous nature of the project in the first place is, admittedly, grounds for a great deal of affection on my part.
"So yes, stylistically, the story is told in a very simple manner. But I don't think this reflects a lack of historical acumen on Brown's part. Rather, I think it's important to understand just why he has chosen to tell the story in the manner he has chosen to tell it. (This is something I haven't yet gotten to touch upon in my own posts on the book, as it is going to be a very delicate argument to make). The book could, artistically, be taken as a big-ass homage to Harold Gray (of Annie fame), and in choosing to tell the story with a very limited and restrained visual dialect, he taps into a great deal of the medium's strength. Take his portrayal of Riel: whereas another artist may have chosen a more realistic portrayal of the man, by choosing to portray him as a lumbering, somewhat unknowable cypher, he invites the reader to impute his own understanding of the issues onto Riel's complicated motivation. Here, Brown is smarter than his own prejudices. He admits publically that he holds the modern mental health system in disdain, and yet by keeping the narrative tone dry and allowing no prejudice to seep into his portrayal of Riel's madness (or religious calling, or shamanism, or whatever) he leaves the matter up to the reader to decide for himself. This is Brown's unique historical perspective: he admits freely that the facts relating to Riel's actions support multiple interpretations as to the nature of his character (something that, for instance, Dave Sim would never awknowledge). Most artists are so concerned with the rightness or wrongness of individual interpretations (that's what being an artist is all about, after all) that they could never reach the same level of complexity that Brown does. The historical facts of the case, being such as they are, do not allow much room for interpretation (and Brown freely admits where he does take liberties, such as the matter of McDonald's unknowable motivations) but Riel's character does.
"At its most basic, what Chester Brown tried to accomplish with "Riel" is nothing less than a deep exploration of the metaphysics of character. There are places in the narrative where Brown achieves a crystalline kind of perfection with his storytelling - I'm thinking in particular of certain portions towards the end of the book - and his work comes as close to perfection as any cartoonist I've ever seen. Maybe I'm particularly biased here - I don't know. But your e-mail anticipated some of my coming arguments, and I hope that if you stick with my posts (sorry they're taking so long, but they take quite a bit of deliberation to produce) your questions can be answered in greater detail.
"Thank you for your kind words,
"PS - Re: your discussion of politics in comic form, I have to say I always thought Transmet was vastly overrated, but I realize i am in the minority here (I actually stopped buying it after I stopped enjoying it). He is not a favorite of mine, but have you thought of using He Che Anderson's "King"? It's a controversial work not only for what it says about MLK but for how it uses the comics form (rightly or wrongly). "Stuck Rubber Baby" is a personal favorite of mine, and definitley very cogent in how it applies to the civil/gay rigths movements - but I am biased, I also think that his collection of "Wendell" strips is better from a more overtly political angle (if you've never read them take a look here - lots of stuff about Reagan and AIDS and the like. There's a great many political things to discuss in terms of Crumb's work, but you'd have to go through a great deal of it in order to cull some particularly appropriate pieces, so it might not be worth the trouble..
Aardvark responds to the Comic Book Politics part: I do love "Stuck Rubber Baby" despite my general aversion to the 'thinly veiled autobiography' genre, and that's certainly worth considering. Don't know the He Che Anderson one... thanks for the tip!