Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Chester Brown at the AGO

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Chester Brown

The Art Gallery of Ontario's permanent collection is a chockablock with masterpieces and breathtaking works in every medium you'd expect — and now some you might not. The gallery is looking forward as well as back, incorporating fresh additions like their current David Bowie-centric exhibit, and most recently, an exhibit dedicated to top Canadian graphic novelist and cartoonist Chester Brown: Chester Brown and Louis Riel.

Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn & Quarterly), which tells the story of the life of the controversial rebel leader, is one of the most successful graphic novels ever published in Canada. Winning multiple Harvey Awards and drawing widespread critical acclaim, the book was a surprise hit and has been a fan favourite since its publication ten years ago.

Curator Andrew Hunter has created an intimate and fascinating installation of original art from Louis Riel, selected by Brown. Copies of the book are placed on a bench in front of the main pieces, where gallery guests can peruse the finished product after seeing the hand-drawn cells in their original form.

Open Book sat down with Brown at the AGO to talk about the book, the exhibit and his upcoming lecture at the gallery on November 13, which will run as part of the McCready Lecture on Canadian Art series.

Grace O'Connell for Open Book:

How are you feeling about the tenth anniversary of the book?

Chester Brown:

It doesn't feel like it's been that long… It's great that it's ten years later and the book is still getting the kind of attention it is… of course I'm delighted.

GO:

How did you feel when the AGO approached you?

CB:

I was really excited. The AGO hasn't done a whole lot with cartoonists. They've did an exhibition a few years ago with my friend Seth. I think institutions like this should be doing things of this nature. If I can say so, I think it looks great, the original art, framed like that… And I'm especially happy to be here at the same time as David Bowie, because I'm a huge Bowie fan.

GO:

It looks beautiful. I wanted to ask you about your process. I heard you work panel by panel is that true?

CB:

I do. That's why each of the panels is framed separately, underneath the mat are separate pieces of watercolour paper. Most cartoonists of course if they are doing a page, they would do the whole page on one sheet. At the beginning, I worked that way too but I found it annoying having to reach up to the top of the page… it was much easier just working in front of me. That's the main reason I developed that style of working. Also, once I started working that way, it seemed to be advantageous for a couple of reasons. It makes the editing process a lot easier.

GO:

What's it like seeing the portrait [of Riel] in this context?

CB:

That was Andrew Hunter's idea, the curator of this exhibit. It's a great idea. With the paintings around it, the colour work around, it really makes it stand out. I was a little bit afraid that a black and white drawing wouldn't work in the context of paintings, but it does.

GO:

What was it that drew you to Riel originally?

CB:

There were lots of reasons. I was interested in history and politics. In my thirtes, I was getting into anarchism, reading up about anarchism, so I was interested in any figure that seemed to resist government. It was around that time as well that Maggie Siggins biography came out, so I thought I need to read this. And while I was reading it, I thought 'This would make a really good graphic novel'. And I was interested in Riel's incarceration in a psychiastric institution, though I didn't go into that as much in the final version as I had thought while I was researching.

GO:

Speaking of politics are you still active with the Libertarian party?

CB:

Yes I attended a meeting of the Ontario Libertarian Party last weekend and they voted me to another three-year term as the Chairman of the Ethics Committee.

GO:

Will you be running again?

CB:

For the federal party, yes.

GO:

It's very different than your work as an artist. Do you take to that more public kind of work naturally?

CB:

I had to get used to it. The first few times I gave any kind of public talk, after I became a cartoonist, I was horrible at it, I was very nervous. But at this point I've done it enough that at least I don't visibly shake anymore.

GO:

What can you tell us about Wednesday's lecture?

CB:

It's going to be a sort of overview of my career. I'm going to start with getting interested in comics in my teenage years and I'm going to show some of those early teenager drawings that no one has seen before — sort of early fanzine stuff that has never been reprinted. And then going into my early career and all the significant books. As well I'll be talking about how my friendships with certain other cartoonists have influenced me and how important that was. Specifically Seth, who will be introducing me, and Joe Matt.

GO:

I have to ask, speaking about those teenage fanzine years, do you come down on a side in the DC vs.Marvel debate?

CB:

I think the stuff I tend to go back to more and re-read is the DC stuff. But I love them all.

GO:

How did you choose specifically what was going to go into the AGO show? Did you work directly with Andrew [Hunter]?

CB:

Well, he asked what I wanted to go in here. I chose my two favourite scenes; the one where he is fleeing Fort Garry and the execution scene at the end of the book. It's probably because in those scenes I deliberately slowed down the pace and I like that more leisurely approach. I had to cover a lot of material in two hundred pages – in certain key scenes, I wanted there to be more space. There are more silent panels.

GO:

I love the silent panels of Riel at his table. You manage to capture his knowledge of what's going on. There's something really heartbreaking about it.

CB:

That's what I wanted.

GO:

What are you working on now?

CB:

Do you know my last book, Paying For It? [GO: Yes, I really enjoyed it.] Well, you may remember at the end of that book, I'm involved with a woman, Denise. I'm still paying for sex. When Paying For It came out, I asked her what she thought about us doing a book together, a kind of sequel, the story from her point of view, her getting into the business, maybe going into our relationship. She thought about it and she said yes. Neither of us have had a lot of time in the last couple of years, but last week we got together for our first writing session and it seemed to go well. I was really excited by the material we were coming up with…. I'm not sure how long it will take us to work out a script, but that's what I'm working on now.

This interview has been edited and condensed


Chester Brown is a Harvey Award-winning Canadian cartoonist. In the 1980s, he gained notice in alternative comics circles for the improvised, surreal, scatological Ed the Happy Clown. He followed this with revealing, confessional autobiographical comics in the early 1990s. His historical-biographical graphic novel of rebel Métis leader Louis Riel was a surprise mainstream success in the early 2000s. In 2011, he released his controversial pro-prostitution polemic, Paying for It. His underground work was initially self-published as a minicomic called Yummy Fur, which was picked up by the Toronto-based independent comics publisher Vortex Comics in 1986, and became a regular black-and-white comic book.

Especially in the 1990s, Brown was strongly associated with fellow Toronto cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt, and the autobiographical comics trend during that period. The three have often depicted one another in their comics, done comics and minicomics together, and appeared in interviews together. Since 2008, Brown has been the Libertarian Party of Canada's candidate for the riding of Trinity-Spadina in Toronto, Canada

For more information about Louis Riel please visit the Drawn & Quarterly website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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