Category Archives: Biographical

Exhibit of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel at Art Gallery of Ontario

Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog - http://artmatters.ca
Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog – http://artmatters.ca

By Sam Noir
December 18, 2013
Toronto

Something significant and radical has occurred in the Georgia Ridley Salon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  Original comics artwork has steadily gained acceptance within the hallowed institutions of mainstream galleries and museums, but never in as bold a curatorial manner as this.

A stark black and white, inked, portrait of Louis Riel sticks out like a sore thumb. Surrounded by stacks of period specific, painted, (colour) artwork, in a setting that recreates the viewing context of a period spanning Canadian Confederation and the First World War.

A portrait of Riel would never have found its way into any English Canada salon of that time.  A crusader for Métis rights, and charismatic leader of the 1869-1870 “Red River Rebellion”, Riel was branded a “traitor” by the federal government, and viewed as such in the province of Ontario, and particularly the city Toronto.  How fitting then, that he should end up here of all places, today.

This decidedly contemporary juxtaposition provokes conversation, and challenges our traditional narrative as Canadians.  The portrait incidentally, is the original cover art for the tenth anniversary edition of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography.

portrait

Riel remains controversial figure, and difficult to place within Canadian history.  He’s a powerful symbol of Native and French Canadian rebellion against centralized English-speaking government powers.  However, we now live in a society where Multiculturalism is espoused, and Bilingualism is national policy.  Chester Brown’s graphic biography is a reflection of this current cultural paradigm, particularly since Riel is now viewed as a “Father of Manitoba”, in spite of his defeats.  It is notable that the Canada Council, a government run funding agency for the arts, provided support to Brown in the creation of this work.

Tucked away in a small alcove in a corner of the salon, original artwork from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel graphic novel is displayed, revealing Brown’s process.  Each frame showcases what are essentially small individual panels of the same dimensions, on separate small pieces of paper, a half dozen of each which were eventually grouped together to form a “page” of artwork.  Imagine each of these panels to be a frame of film.  In film editing terms, this allowed Brown the ability to “non linear edit” as he crafts the story… adding or deleting panels and moments from any point in the chosen narrative as he goes along creating the work as a whole.

We also need to note that Brown calls his biography a comic strip.  Drawing from a more traditionally populist format, and defining itself away from the more literary pretentious term, graphic novel or even the more common place name of comic book.   Both terms which come with a degree of cultural baggage in the current landscape.

During the process of creating this work, Brown adapted a large stylistic influence from cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie.  In fact, there are examples out there showing how Brown redrew panels he created earlier in the process to keep this aesthetic choice consistent.  The choice of Gray is interesting in that Gray is largely considered a political artist himself during a tumultuous period of American history.   Recall that the original Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip was a politically charged reaction to the changing times of the depression-era nineteen thirties – a fact largely forgotten in the shadow of the Broadway musical and cinematic adaptation that has taken popular root in its cultural stead.

Gray could originally be defined as a Republican during the pre-Depression years at the start of Little Orphan Annie (most historians cite the name of his character “Daddy” Warbucks as a suggestion about where the character’s initial fortunes came from), but many argue that the views expressed by his characters in later years were libertarian in nature.  Brown became politicized during the creation of Louis Riel, and has run as a candidate for the Libertarian Party of Canada in the riding of Trinity-Spadina since the 2008 federal election.

The spine of Brown’s Louis Riel rests on the side of democratic process, with the elected leadership of the largely mixed francophone/aboriginal Red River Settlement majority (Métis), battling against the tyranny of an oppressive English Canada asserting its agenda and the machinations of The Hudson’s Bay Company, hoping to profit from this transfer of power and land rights.  Though Riel’s methods and actions may not always be viewed sympathetically, you can understand his motivations of fairness.  Particularly as the elected leader of the provisional government, negotiating its place in the developing country of Canada – and as an member of Canadian Parliament, elected multiple times, but never having sat in the House of Commons for fear of arrest.

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Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald is not painted in a flattering light, and his decisions shown here have far reaching implications.  A political creature, choosing the expediency of arms over the complications of keeping his promises to Riel and the provisional government of Manitoba; a far cry from the Father of Canadian Confederation we learned about in our history books.  More devious still were his manipulations around the negotiations with the Métis in Saskatchewan to incite rebellion, and justify the mounting expenses in construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad across Canada, by sending in troops.

Whereas his sympathies undoubtedly lie with Riel and the Métis, in the story he’s chosen to tell, Brown has selected moments that highlight a certain degree of ironic, even dark, humour to Riel’s story. Reminding us that this book is designed to entertain as much as it is to inform. Far from being a comprehensive volume on the life of Riel, Brown’s selection of vignettes within the allotted pages is equally fascinating.

Brown’s exploration of Riel’s years following Red River, institutionalized and gripped by “Divine Madness” is not surprising to those familiar with his earlier autobiographical work.  Where his mother’s schizophrenia was not overtly stated, but often a strong subtext in the depiction Brown’s developing years.  These visions and religious fervour haunt Riel, and follow him through the Métis uprising in Saskatchewan, leading up to his surrender to the Canadian authorities, and to the end of his life.  The closing chapter, leading us to the final moments of Riel’s execution, depicts the courtroom where the question of his sanity is laid before those who knew and encountered him.

In some parts of the chronology, the narrative jumps years at a time, quickly through different characters and settings between panels on the same page.  However, when Brown chooses to slow down the pace, utilizing what has commonly become known as “decompressed storytelling”, the quiet results are compelling and moving.  Individual “moments” paced out in panels of the same size, six to a page stretching across multiple pages.  Similar to Watchmen, which functioned similarly using a nine panel per page grid structure.  With no variation in size and placement of panels, the panels become a singular viewing portal… a “window” into the world of Louis Riel.

The final sequence in Part One of the story, depicting Louis Riel alone in Fort Garry, and then leaving the Red River Settlement, stretches across a luxurious four pages.  Dwelling on mundane, yet affecting moments of Riel rising from bed and eating a solitary meal, before being warned of the English troops descending upon him.  Unlike the end of a traditional American cowboy movie, in this Canadian “Western”, Riel does not head triumphantly into the horizon and the sunset, but towards the reader, who is looking down above him as he walks in the rain.

You can view these particular pages of original art for yourself, showcased in the salon’s alcove at the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 2014.

Honours bestowed on Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography include 2 Harvey Awards, and its placement as a semifinalist in CBC’s prestigious Canada Reads program.  It was the first Canadian Graphic Novel to become a best-seller, and on its heels has spawned a renaissance in the genre of graphic novel/comic book biography and similar non fiction illustrated work.

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During an earlier regeneration, the author of this article found himself living as an academic. He held three degrees from Queen’s University in Fine Art, Art History and Film Studies in a death-like vice grip, describing himself at the time as an Installation Artist, Pop Culture Junkie and Film Maker. 

Sam Noir is currently a rabble rouser, and maker of comix and toys.  He claims Toronto, Canada–the most culturally diverse city on the whole damn planet–as his home.

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Battle of the Graphic Biographies: Hill and Wang

Continuing on with my theme “Battle of the Graphic Biographies” begun earlier this year Che Guevera, this month I’ve had a couple different titles at Hill & Wang take each other on– all a part of their Novel Graphics series. I, somewhat arbitrarily, began reading these books in chronological order: Trotsky, J. Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, Reagan. My interest is obviously to provide some aesthetic feedback, but more to point out political strengths and weaknesses of the titles.

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My first note is that each book appears to be politically tailored for the audience most likely to pick it up—the biographies speak more or less favorably of the people they spotlight.  But my questions going in are, “Do I better understand the person I’m reading about?” “Am I hearing of their life in their own words–while seeing an interpretation of events from a 3rd person?” “Is this historically/politically accurate?”

trotsky bio

Title: TROTSKY: A Graphic Biography
Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary
Published: 2009

I had serious suspicions about this one, going in. Whereas the other book covers are more or less realistic, Trotsky’s is purely mythological. We see him astride a horse as some kind of atheist St. George–all the while he sits underneath, naked on a pile of human skulls. These images come from two very different interpretations of Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution–both over-zealous and emotional, both incorrect. While I appreciate the re-visiting of historical cartoons and illustrations, it seems necessary for me to make note of the the point that both graphics were commissioned by opposing governments during one of the most highly polarized moments of the 20th Century: the rise of the Russian Revolution.

The cover of 'TROTSKY (The Graphic Biography)' took inspiration from these political cartoons of the time. On the left, Viktor Deni, an author working for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1918, depicts Trotsky as St. George, slaying the dragon of "counterrevolution". On the right, Polish government anti-communist poster to counter Bolshevik propaganda from Russia during the Polish-Russian war 1920, showing People's Commissar for the Army Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky). Large caption reads: "Bolshevik freedom."
The cover of ‘TROTSKY (The Graphic Biography)’ took inspiration from these political cartoons of the time. On the left, Viktor Deni, an author working for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1918, depicts Trotsky as St. George, slaying the dragon of “counterrevolution”. On the right, Polish government anti-communist poster to counter Bolshevik propaganda from Russia during the Polish-Russian war 1920, showing People’s Commissar for the Army Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Leon Trotsky). Large caption reads: “Bolshevik freedom.”

I think anyone who sees a book of 100 pages claiming to tell the life of Leon Trotsky is pretty much kidding themselves. Once into the story, you might be able to tell why: this man was a mover and shaker of continents, social structures and financial systems in a way that practically boggles the mind. In a time before television, let alone the internet and social media, Trotsky was world-famous for his ideas and his conviction to carry them to fruition.

This book, albeit abridging-ly, details his early years as a landowner’s son in modern-day Ukraine, a student activist and intellectual, his political development, his multiple exiles by the Russian Czar. It’s a whirlwind. In fact, it’s a struggle just to get all of these points down, without even going into what made Trotsky’s ideas so intriguing/dangerous, let alone his various roles in the the Revolution. Despite the obvious limitations, I believe Rick Geary does a stand-up job trying to pull together an epic biography that at least attempts to discuss serious politics.  Geary’s style lends itself well to the time period: a bit cold and minimalistic–but not cartoony. The line-work reminds me of borsch and cold, dry winters. In a good way.

I can’t really blame this book for what it isn’t–it’s not an in-depth biography of the Russian Revolutionary, in any sense. It’s not a clear history of the Russian Revolution either. But it will give you a crash course that may peak your interest, and lead you to other works about one of the most interesting men of modern times.

* * * * * *

malcolm x

Title: Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography
Writer: Andrew Helfer
Illustrator: Randy DuBurke
Published:  2006

Like Trotsky, Malcolm X is one of those four-letter words of the 20th Century. People alternately love and cherish or hate and fear everything that the man stood for. It really is a testament to the power of their ideas and the charisma with which they disseminated them.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Malcolm’s story has been told in epic fashion many times: there is the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Spike Lee’s “X” with Denzel Washington was an immediate classic. Once these essential biographies have been consumed, you believe that you know the man’s story. However this graphic biography, in fact, delivers additional information that even someone familiar with Malcolm’s story will find new and enlightening. Scenes I found most interesting included the details of his time as a hustler on the East Coast–as well as his final days in conversation with Nation of Island leader, Elijah Mohammed, whose candid remarks about women are better displayed here than anywhere else that I’ve read.

Malcolm’s entire life is characterized by a seemingly endless sense of change and evolution. In the end, the man who seemed tireless in his conviction, his self-confidence, was also likely his harshest critic. He went from being a pimp and a hustler to a raging animal in prison, a Nation of Islam preacher and black segregationist to working with whites when and where he could. And where we led, people followed. Because of his constant evolution, it is difficult for critics to demonize him. His radicalism has also made it pretty much impossible to water down his message–as has been done with Martin Luther King.

Of all the illustrators of this graphic biography series, I am in love with Randy DuBurke’s style. It is by far my favorite. He illustrates an emotion with what seems be a shadow-heavy photographic realism. Stylized but not cartoony, I even see some graffiti-stylized splatters in the background, that give it an additional grittiness. Given that author and illustrator are two different people in this work, I find their respective trades synching incredibly well.

* * * * * *

hoover bio

Title: J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography
Writer & Illustrator: Rick Geary
Published:  2008

Rick Geary is back after Trotsky with this graphic biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Actually, this book was produced before the Trotsky one, but I’m going in some other kind of chronological order.

Unlike Trotsky and Malcolm X, I had never read a biography of Hoover before, although I was familiar with his role in Communist witch-hunting post-WWII, as well as his hand in the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO counter-intelligence programs. What hadn’t occurred to me was the length of his office. The man was active in government from Emma Goldman… to Ronald Reagan. Think about that. Through half a dozen presidents. He was arguably the country’s most powerful civil servant. His ability to avoid partisan politics and harness the power of government bureaucracy, ironically, reminds me very much of his arch-nemesis Joseph Stalin. These two men dominated their countries with iron fists, using many of the same tactics, for much the same period of time. The key to both of their success was securing and mastering the administrative machinations of their positions.

While I see Rick Geary showing the light and dark of Hoover in this biography, he is at worst portrayed as a bit of a maniac who dabbled in unconstitutional activities for the protection of his dear country–and the all-sacred “American way of life”. We see the mass deportations of immigrant unionists, communists and radicals more as the shuffling of ants from one place to another outside the country–not the same brutal inhumanity with which Trotsky is depicted, sitting on a pile of bones.

Do I wish the comic would take a little more interest in how J. Edgar Hoover was a detriment to the country? The historical precedents of jailing and deporting descent, spying and wire-tapping, infiltration into progressive groups? Yes, in fact I can’t really think of any other singular man who probably committed more damage to democratic movements of the 20th Century than J. Edgar Hoover. But that’s my opinion on the matter–and Geary makes little to no effort to hide the evidence that would lead someone to those conclusions. He includes his very trouble remarks on communists, unions, student activists, black people–alongside the sea of other people that rubbed him the wrong way.

* * * * * *

reagan

Title: Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography
Writer: Andrew Helfer
Illustrator: Steve Buccelleto and Joe Staton
Published:  2008

Of all of the graphic biographies, Ronald Reagan’s seems the most surreal. This is very much a theme of the book itself. Where was the threshold between Reagan the man and Reagan the actor? Reagan the actor and Reagan the politician? The book very much lends itself to the theory that there were no clear lines, even to Reagan himself. Acting was a part of him from a very young age, as were many of his political and moral influences.

Also more than any other comic in the series, this book relies very much on Reagan’s own interpretation of himself and his life–including instances like his student strike in university, which isn’t documented by the school–or his record 77 rescues as a lifeguard, even though there were many instances in those rescues where, hilariously, people apparently didn’t need to be rescued (THAT comic history vignette, I would love to see). More than many other American leaders, Reagan very much controlled what media and the public thought of him. That was his gift as an actor.

While there is some mention of his early days as an FBI informant, as a ‘friendly’ testifier in the mid-century Inquisition of American leftists and progressives, as well as his later involvement in the dismantling of unions, tax cuts for the rich, military intervention in Grenada… the underpinning theme Geary really seems to be driving home is Reagan’s mastery of the spectacle. It wasn’t really anything he did–and he did many things in his life–it was how he won support, how he charged through his competition and adversaries at the crucial moment. It wasn’t what he did so much as how slickly he was able to get away with it.

I find the artistic style of this work, shared by Buccelleto and Staton, to be my least favorite of the series. Faces and gestures are bubbly, cartoony, very “Leave It to Beaver”-ish, which works for Reagan but not for me. I feel like anyone who watched television during the last century knows this perspective of Ronald Reagan. So despite my distaste I understand perhaps why they went with it. Maybe, for all that time behind the camera, there really was no other way to see the man. He seemed to understand, at an early age, that public image is its own form of immortality.

* * * * * *

Of all the comics that I read, I enjoyed Malcolm X and J Edgar Hoover the most. Both had wonderful artwork and kept me intrigued with information that was new to me. However I appreciate the set as a whole for its fascinating takes on 4 totally different individuals. I have found much more intricacy in all of the books’ designs than I initially thought would be there.

World War 3 – #44 – The Other Issue

coverWorld War 3 is America’s longest-running radical comics anthology. While I’ve never reviewed an issue for Ad Astra, a lot of radical comic artists (including those I’ve featured here) have graced their pages. This issue took on the idea of “the other” – when ideas and people are perceived as alien, even opposite or in conflict with the given norm.

Issue #44 includes:

“Alien Europe” by Ganzeer – An exploration of cultural differences across time and space. This appears to be based on a lecture, or perhaps just a thought process of the author, but he shows how all culture is, in short, a homogenization of converging cultures.

“Single Lens Reflex” by Sandy Jimenez – Autobiographical piece about gentrification, photography, and class dynamics in artistic interpretation. That description makes it sound stuffy and academic, but it is extremely personal and heartfelt. I think this is an amazing story that is told very well. Sandy Jimenez has a great understanding of memoir narrative–looking back on a feeling that he had over a period of years and identifying how it developed, how he came to understand and overcome it, and what remains. A gem – one of my favourite contributions to the issue.

SLR_page9

“Kemba Smith” by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer – part of a larger book called Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling about the U.S. prison system (available as of April 2013 from The New Press). “Kemba Smith” tells the story of a 24 year old college student with no previous record, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for her connection to her drug-dealing boyfriend.

“Charest, Dehors! Inside Quebec, Out in the Streets” – by Jesse Staniforth and Dan Buller. Great personal account of the massive student protests in Quebec – a story that we’ve yet to fully unravel and appreciate in the rest of Canada/North America in general. Great illustrations from Dan Buller, mostly from photographs from the protests, accompanied with reproductions of some of the protest/street art that appeared over the course of the action.

“Baddawi” – A comic memoir by Palestinian American comic artist Leila Abdul Razzaq, who has illustrated her family history from Israel’s 1948 ethnic cleansing campaign, to her father living as a child in a refugee camp, to her own modern-day self. Making her debut in this issue of WW3, Razzaq focuses on her family, showing  how her grandmother survived Al Naqba at the age of 17, and how her father became the most successful marble tycoon of their family’s refugee camp.

Further notes: Razzaq’s style is very simple. My first impression was that it reminded me of Satrapi’s Persepolis for its simple line work and good use of contrast. But on further inspection I see some interesting and original details–garments with designs that are distinctly Palestinian, imagery of invading soldiers coming out of the ocean. I think Razzaq probably faced/faces the challenge of having content in her stories that is so powerful, it can overshadow or overpower her artwork. It’s a good challenge, and I can’t wait to see how her work develops and evolves with her storytelling.

“A Real Hero” by Tom Keough –  A personal memory of the artist and two friends sticking up for a man who was getting beaten to death by a group of men in the street.

“One Rainy Night” – Peter Kuper’s enactment of a conversation with a once-rich and beautiful woman. This one-page piece is part of a larger body of work entitled, Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City.

“One City, One People, One Planet” – The legendary Seth Tobocman makes some inspiring observations about the human response to Hurricane Sandy.

“Nap Before Noon” by Barrack Rima – translated from Arabic and read right-to-left, tells the story of the authors first trek into Europe as an immigrant.