Friday, June 11, 2004

Three Northern Tales

Louis Riel, A Comic-Strip Biography, by Chester Brown, Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 2003

Paul Has A Summer Job, by Michel Rabagliati, Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 2003

Blankets, by Craig Thompson, Top Shelf Productions, 2003

The three novels herein reviewed all take place in either Canada or a northern American state (Wisconsin and Michigan), yet they are all three as different as you might imagine. Two are coming of age stories, though very dissimilar, while one is a historical biography of a man unknown to probably most Americans (even those living up north).

Chester Brown in his cartoonish style decides to give a fair portrayal of Louis Riel, a native born Métis (half-Indian, half-French ethnic group) who becomes essentially the founder of Manitoba. In 1869, the Canadian government bought 7 million acres of land from the Hudson’s Bay Company with the intention of setting up an English speaking, English-friendly province on the site of the Red River Settlement. This was an effort to stave off the inhabitants of the region setting up their own Quebec style community more partial to those of French descent.

Needless to say, this didn’t set well with the predominantly Métis population, who struggled to set up their own provisional government before Ottawa could impose one on them. In the beginning, Riel is reasonable, strives to do things peacefully and within a legal framework, and is elected the President (by a council made up of equal numbers of French and English representatives). But the English and the Canadian government rebel against this, drag their heels on implementation, and otherwise gum up the works. This leads to outright rebellion of Riel and the other Métis peoples of the area.

The strain of repeated battles, repeated setbacks, a price being put on his head by the Canadian government, and his own fragile psyche, Riel cracks and begins to believe that he is a messianic figure sent by God to lead the Métis to freedom. Despite his outlaw status and the bounty out for him, Riel is elected to the Canadian Parliament twice.

The story is fairly grippingly well told, though Brown has a weakness for the kind of footnotes you’d see in a children’s text and little boxes of names with arrows pointing at the characters the names belong to. He is a bit of a puritan with language, rendering “Bastards” as “Dastards” and outright obscenity with XXXXXs. His cartoon-like illustrations are at first rather arresting, though the effect is short-lived. Near the story’s end, after Riel’s capture, his trial is rendered as a series of back and forth panels of no action, just Riel or any other witness sitting in court juxtaposed with a solicitor asking a question. For the entire court sequence, Brown has drawn maybe twenty panels that he rotates over the course of thirty six-panel pages.

However, for all its flaws graphically, Louis Riel is an eye-opening text. Americans as a whole know very little about the history behind other countries, even ones that border us. For example, how many of my readers could name the president of Mexico right now or the Prime Minister of Canada? Indeed, how many could explain Canada’s somewhat complex relationship with England and their parliamentary system of governance?

Riel was not a name that was familiar to me, nor the history of Manitoba. I actually judged a book by its cover, finding Drawn and Quarterly’s handsome hardbound volume of this quite appealing. The illustrations, as I’ve said, are for the most part visually quite lovely with each character delineated well. Often in an illustrated work with a large cast (Riel has about thirty major characters) some people are hard to recall as they are drawn so similarly and are not introduced by name (“Well, hello, Monsieur Riel, good of you to come…”). Brown has made each character’s appearance quite distinctive from Riel’s outlandish hair to Prime Minster John A. Macdonald’s long honker of a nose.

The stories told in our two remaining volumes are of a more personal history for their authors, one being fairly straightforward autobiography the other that style of semi-autobiography where one can see the author through the protagonist.

Michel Rabagliati’s Paul Has a Summer Job is his second Paul book and it tells the story of a younger Paul than his debut, Paul in the Country. Fed up with his job in a printing press, high school dropout, Paul is invited by a friend to come out to be a counselor at a summer camp for disadvantaged youth. Paul is a deeply angry young man and his work with the kids and his blossoming romance with another counselor prove to be a pivotal point in his life. At least, that’s how the story presents itself.

In an epilogue-ish last part of the novel, a grown up Paul and his wife and daughter go to a party of one of his wife’s friends. The host’s lavish mansion is situated not far from the site of the camp and Paul sneaks out to see his old stomping ground. He discovers a few slight traces and one minor treasure there that supposedly make him realize how to be a better person. Better than he’s been apparently. Paul has grumped the whole way to the party, has sulked once he got there, and has bitched and moaned for apparently his entire life, save for that early period as a camp counselor.

Showing us this older Paul suggests that even if the author is hesitant to admit it, often transformative experiences are less than we might think. They may radically alter our way of viewing certain things, but they rarely turn us into someone else entirely. It seems a shorter trip from the Paul quitting school to the Paul slinking off from the party at the novel’s end than it does from the capable, imaginative, sharing and caring Paul at camp’s end to the adult.

Rabagliati’s art has eschewed realism for a very cartoony style with Paul’s long blond hair being suggested by six or seven wavy lines and his eyebrows a four-line streak over each dot of an eye. These eyes pop comically for effect, turning from little smudgy dots to huge round targets, and, when excited, the characters have lines that shoot from their heads in exclamatory style.

The effect of this somewhat graphic de-humanization is the ability to make the events in the story apply more widely than one person’s experiences. Scott McCloud, in his brilliant and seminal Understanding Comics, discusses this effect in the graphic arts medium. There is a sliding scale of realism to non-realism, from carefully drawn verisimilitude to stick figure anthropomorphism. The less realistic-specific a picture is in its graphics, the more universal it becomes. Everyone can see himself or herself in a smiley face; not everyone can extrapolate his or her own life from the Mona Lisa. Paul’s coming of age at this summer camp is transformed by the subtle nature of his simplistic drawings into every coming of age story.

Craig Thompson’s far more specific (in both graphic and narrative aspects) Blankets demonstrates the precise other side of this coin. Looking at his author photograph at the back of the book one can quite clearly see the illustrations are of him, idealized and de-idealized.

This coming of age story has two intertwined transformations. Craig is a very religious boy from a very religious family. We watch him grow up and experience things that make him question the basic tenets of his upbringing, and at the same time we watch as in adolescence he experiences his first love and his first heartbreak. The bulk of the story by page count is the romance and crash, but the underpinnings are his childhood and his faith.

And this is a bulky story. Top Shelf Productions put Thompson’s work out in hardcover, some feat for a nearly six hundred page work. Some of this is perhaps because of his debut work Good-Bye, Chunky Rice and its winning the 1999 Harvey Award for Best New Talent as well as nominations for the graphic novel’s biggest prize, the Eisner Award, along with the Ignatz, Firecracker, and Eagle Awards.

Not that Blankets isn’t capable of carrying its own weight. The story is profoundly touching and Thompson’s style is mostly toward fairly realistic portrayal with wild veerings off into hallucinations of Jesus and impressionistic renditions of childhood fears. The mix demonstrates a lovely mutabililty inherent in youth.

In one particularly chilling sequence at the novel’s beginning, Craig and his younger brother Phil are wrestling upstairs in the bed they share in their attic room when they should be sleeping. Their father, always portrayed as a giant with an angry squint and vicious mustache, breaks up the fight and drags Phil off to sleep in the attic’s cubbyhole, a small closeted portion of the attic. As his father snaps open an old dusty cot in there, we see the cot, not as a bed, but as his father prying open the mouth of a razor toothed monster while all around demons cavort. The cot opens with a snap, a snap back to reality as just dust and cobwebs fill the cubbyhole. Thompson, in one quick aside to fantasy, captures the horror of childhood.

Thompson’s later renditions of Craig’s romance with his first girlfriend, Raina, is beautifully rendered. One can feel Thompson’s aching, undying love for the girl behind the character in the beautiful way he draws her every inch. There story has its own moments of magical rendition, along with its sorrows. Craig comes out to visit Raina and stays with her family for two weeks. What he sees, as his romance blossoms, is the death of a marriage and the wide ranging psychic wounds it inflicts on Raina and her two adopted, retarded siblings.

As teenagers are wont to do, Craig sneaks from his guest room and sleeps each night with Raina, waking in time to creep back to his own room before anyone else gets up. The morning the alarm clock is neglected, Raina’s dad finds them together in bed. Thompson’s rendition of this is truly heartrendingly inscribed, the gamut of emotions playing across her father’s wordless face a real talent.

Neil Gaiman, in his back cover blurb, might be going a little over the top in his praise, calling Blankets “probably the most important graphic novel since Jimmy Corrigan.” Thompson’s work is neither as ambitious as Ware’s, nor as revolutionary in its use of narrative forms unique to graphic novels. Blankets tells a nearly universal story of love found and love lost, and of the poignant melancholy that persists long after an unhappy childhood has been lived through. And it tells that story, as Gaiman accurately notes, in a manner that is “moving, tender, beautifully drawn, painfully honest.”

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