In the first of a planned two-volume graphic history of the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec), Chris Oliveros, cartoonist and founder of renowned publishing house Drawn & Quarterly, brings to life the many personalities whose actions served as preamble to the October Crisis. Are You Willing to Die for the Cause? takes its title from a paper questionnaire circulated at early gatherings of what became the independence movement in Quebec. It’s at those early gatherings in basements and diners, initially about workers’ rights, that Oliveros’s history begins, almost a decade before the events of October 1970.
Though heavily researched and faithful to the facts, Oliveros deploys a fictional narrative device, framing the action via a series of interviews with and about key figures in the early days of militant Quebec separatism. Purporting to be the materials for a lost 1975 CBC documentary, this inventive framing, presented in a compelling conversational style, effectively enlivens the historical exposition necessary for this complex subject. Through fictional interviews, we meet a cast of dozens: from central figures such as Pierre Vallières, who once worked for future prime minister Pierre Trudeau and later recruited teenagers to deliver FLQ bombs, to compelling incidental figures such as Jeanne Schoeters, a housewife implicated as an accomplice to her husband for the dynamite he stored in their kitchen. This is ground-level history, unpacked one person, one moment at a time.
Oliveros delivers an account of the FLQ’s early days that’s full of verve and variety. We see a desperate political movement characterized by disagreement and confusion around both tactics and goals. And though Are You Willing to Die for the Cause? does not make light of the violence it recounts, neither does it minimize the many ironic or bizarre moments of bungled plans and inept operations. As we see the pipe dreams of alliances with Che Guevara, the anxious transport of literal ticking time bombs via unreliable public transit, the disastrous attempt to rob a gun store at gunpoint, what emerges is not the portrait of an organized movement or a cabal, but rather one of a heterogenous group of disenfranchised people grasping violently at straws. More than once, injury and death result from accidents and bumbling. There is an unusual poignancy to these events even as they border on the absurd. Yes, this is an accurate account of a key historical moment, but Oliveros shows us just how much stranger than fiction the truth sometimes can be.
The visual style is clear and polished. Are You Willing to Die for the Cause? has a restrained palette that evokes the mid-20th century, and just the right level of cartoony abstraction to provide a lively plasticity. Oliveros’s penchant for classic cartooning tropes – think clouds and stars surrounding a fighting clump of men, or bold, full-colour sound effects such as “BLAM” or “PAF” – also contributes to the period feel, even as it heightens the manic strangeness of some passages. The graphic history is supported with an extensive appendix that offers notes on the people, places, and events depicted in the work, and occasionally explains choices made around emphasis or omissions in the narrative.
Are You Willing to Die for the Cause? is a surprising and involving look at a convoluted, fascinating era in Canadian history.