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Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Chester Brown -- One of the best and most unique graphic novels of 2003 -- or any year, for that matter -- was Louis Riel. Chester Brown's insightful biography of one of Canada's most iconoclastic historical figures was also a huge leap forward for Brown, and for comics as an artform. This particular Five Questions originated as an interview for the radio station I work at, and can be heard through the station's website. My thanks to Chester Brown and Drawn and Quarterly's Peggy Burns for helping arrange this interview, and special thanks to Broken Frontier's Chris Hunter for transcribing the audio.

Many of your earlier works focused primarily on stories from your own life, autobiographical stories. What did you learn from autobiographical cartooning and what caused you to shift gears into this latest mode?

I learned that when you do stories about your own life, the people around you get mad at you for depicting them wrong. So, doing someone else's life is safer...they tend to think that I've gotten certain details wrong and don't like the clothes I have them wearing or the opinions I have them proclaiming or whatever...

Louis Riel is a key figure in Canadian history, but most Americans, I don't think, will be too familiar with him. Can you tell me a little about what attracted you to him as a subject?

Well, when I began the project, politically, I was an anarchist, and so I was attracted to the story of someone who had tried to, or who had led two rebellions against the Canadian government. That was probably the primary attraction, although, also I've had an interest in issues about mental health and schizophrenia. My mother was a schizophrenic and so the whole part of the story that dealt with Riel's own craziness and his incarceration in a mental institution, that part appealed to me, too. I felt that I'd be able to do something interesting with that. He considered himself a prophet. He called himself the "Prophet Of The New World" and he basically tried to setup his own new religion. And that had people thinking he was crazy.

You had to compress certain events and characters in telling this story...tell me why that was necessary and what kind of judgment calls you found yourself making in the process.

It was necessary because I wanted to limit myself to about two hundred pages and comics need more space than prose does. You know, in prose, you can describe something quickly in a sentence, but if you're to depict what happens in that sentence, it might take a page or more. So, to really tell a biography fully, you'd need maybe, like, a thousand pages to tell it rather than the two hundred that I gave myself, but I wanted to limit myself to around two hundred pages because I knew that it would take a while to do even that much because comics are kind of time consuming; it took me about five years to do the project as it was and if I'd have done a thousand pages, it would have been that much longer, so, yeah, I needed to kind of compress events and combine characters and all that kind of stuff...

The book was originally serialized in pamphlet form as a series of ten comic books before, ultimately, being collected in this hardcover graphic novel. Since the book holds together so well as a single lengthy work, how do you feel about serializing it? Would you follow that format again?

I originally wrote out a script for the book beforehand and I thought it was going to work well as just a single work and I didn't really want to serialize it in comic book form. That was done at my publisher's suggestion because it did help finance the project as it went along, but, probably my next work I'm not going to serialize beforehand, I'm just going to release it as a graphic novel and that'll be the first that the public sees of it.

This project took a long time to do and it may be some time before your next graphic novel appears...how does a cartoonist support himself in these periods, when you're working on these really lengthy works and you don't have regular work appearing on a regular basis in the meantime?

I do get royalties from my older books, the money still does come in from that and sometimes from unusual sources, like foreign editons and that kind of thing. And, also, while doing the book, I did get a grant from the Canadian government, so that helped, too. I think this might have been the first graphic novel that did get a grant from the Canada Council For The Arts, but it kind of opened a door there because now they have an official category in their grant system for graphic novels.

Learn more about Chester Brown at the Drawn and Quarterly website.



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