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Q&A: Chester Brown on the 10th anniversary of Louis Riel

Louis Riel portrait by Chester Brown

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn & Quarterly). In celebration of the award-winning book, which helped popularize historical biographies in graphica form, D&Q has released a special anniversary edition featuring additional artwork and notes.

Tomorrow night, Brown will present the Art Gallery of Ontario’s McCready Lecture on Canadian Art and launch the book’s anniversary edition. The lecture happens in tandem with an AGO “intervention” by curator Andrew Hunter, featuring a series of original drawings from Louis Riel exhibited alongside painted works from 1867 to 1917.

Q&Q spoke to Brown ahead of the sold-out event.

How does it feel to have your work represented in the AGO? I don’t consider myself a gallery artist, but I love it. I would have never expected to have my work end up in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I was a huge Bowie fan when I was a teenager so it’s a thrill to have my work here the same time as his work. Down in the bookstore, they’ve got a display with my books on one side and a whole bunch of Bowie books on the other.

How did the anniversary edition of Louis Riel come to be? It was my publisher Chris Oliveros’ idea. I wasn’t sure if a new edition was justified, although the book has been selling well for the last 10 years. I think I was trying to discourage it because I didn’t want to do the work of preparing for a new edition.

I did shove some work off on the good people at D&Q. There is a section in the back with some pencil drawings and I sent a whole bunch off to D&Q to get their feedback. Really though, it was a matter of digging through old files and artwork.

Do you keep an extensive archive? I tend to keep more now than I used to. There was a time when I used to throw away my preparation drawings. Even for Riel I don’t have all the pencil roughs.

Do you start a project with dialogue or art? For Riel, I’d do six panels for each page and write the dialogue first, or maybe do some sketchy drawings of what I thought should go in there. I wouldn’t necessarily do a drawing for each panel.

Why did you include such meticulous footnotes in the book? Because I didn’t stick to all the facts, I thought it was incumbent on me to admit where I deviated from historical truth, or maybe invented a thing or two, or combined characters. I felt that should be admitted to the reader in some way, and the notes seemed to be the best way to do so.

I like reading notes in other people’s books. Not too many graphic novelists use that device, although Peter Bagge’s new book, Woman Rebel does, and Alan Moore’s From Hell, about Jack the Ripper, has extensive notes.

It’s not that different from a DVD where you have a director’s commentary.

Why did you decide to hand-letter the footnotes? As much as possible, I want my books to feel handcrafted. I drew almost every individual letter. Although it would feel weird hand-lettering the praise at the back of the book.

Does Riel still occupy a place in your imagination? For the most part, my mind is settled about Riel. He was very interesting to me at the time, so I read all these books about him. I still think he’s a fascinating character, but he doesn’t obsess me the way he once did.

Do you become obsessive about your subjects? If you have that drive, it’s going to help you through a project like this. Riel took me five years. You want a project that’s going to sustain your interest for a long time.

Did the book’s success change your process? I think it’s the same for every artist who puts things out into the world for popular consumption. If you have success, you get more freedom to do stuff. If you fail, your publisher is less likely to give you leeway on your next project. It’s a continual process of earning your freedom. I’ve been blessed to have this much creative freedom in my career ““ a lot of cartoonists don’t.

Do you keep notebooks or diaries? I have a notebook and a weird diary. It’s not a real diary, it’s a journal where I log every phone call I make or receive. I heard an interview with someone once who said they did this and I thought it made sense. I don’t know why I like it but it helps keep my life organized.

Do you pay much attention to trends in cartooning? I don’t pay that much attention to trends, but I’m generally aware of what’s going on in the business. The major trend when I started in comics ““ and it still dominates ““ is superheroes, which I’ve ignored all my career.

What are you working on now? At the end of my last book, Paying for It: A Contemporary Defense of the World’s Oldest Profession, I end up in a monogamous relationship with a woman who used to be a prostitute. We’re talking about doing a sequel that would be entirely from her point of view: how she got into the business and our relationship, all from her perspective.

What will you discuss at the McCready lecture? My friendships with other cartoonists and how they’ve influenced how I do things ““ in particular, my friendship with Seth [who will introduce Brown at the event] and Joe Matt. I’ll talk about why I wanted to get into cartooning and show some teenage stuff no one has ever seen before.

This interview has been edited and condensed.