The Boston Phoenix | Mike Miliard | December 17, 2003
Boston Phoenix Reviews Louis Riel & Acme Novelty Datebook
From the Boston weekly the Phoenix, reviewer Mike Milliard takes an in-depth look at this year's graphic novels including Chester Brown's LOUIS RIEL and Chris Ware's ACME NOVELTY DATEBOOK.
"For a more intimate look at Ware’s thought processes and raw emotion, flip through the Acme Novelty Datebook: Sketches and Diary Pages in Facsimile, 1986-1995 (Drawn & Quarterly; $39.95). It is, quite literally, his sketchbook. Reproducing the febrile scribblings and manic marginalia he churned out between the ages of 19 and 28, the book leaves no doubt why Ware is one of the best artists of his generation. First, he draws anything. Sad sacks sitting in diners, household appliances, austere architecture, grotesque cartoon characters whom he subjects to gruesome demises. And he seems at home with any medium: pen and ink, gouache, watercolor, crayon, marker, colored pencil — sometimes all on the same page. Most important, he has an intuitive grasp of the vernacular of comic books. Showing the influence of Dick Tracy, Krazy Kat, and Robert Crumb, he’s synthesized them all in his own inimitable style. (And after page 28, you’ll never again look at Nancy and Sluggo the same way.)
After the neurotic, fastidious precision of Jimmy Corrigan and Quimby, it’s a surprise to see the messy, try-anything quality of these pages. No coincidence that some look like Technicolor guts were spilled on the paper; Ware’s sketchbook doubles as a diary, a window on his hang-ups and insecurities — from his troubles with women (see several self-loathing, sexually explicit cartoons) to his sadness over the death of his grandmother to his insecurities about making art. It feels voyeuristic, in a way, but it’s so visually stimulating that it’s hard to put down. As one fan wrote on Amazon.com, Ware "seems unafraid to show us his most private moments of self-doubt and insecurity. It was surprising to me that someone this talented could be such a harsh critic of his own work."
Another new title from Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly comes from Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography ($24.95) is exactly what it says it is: the starkly told story (originally serialized over 10 issues into a book) of a crucial figure in Canada’s history — yet one whom most Americans have probably never heard of. It’s a credit to Brown’s plainspoken artistry and flair for narrative that it’s a page-turner till the end.
Riel was a Métis (of mixed French and native blood) who lived in the Red River Settlement, north of Minnesota — which at that time (the mid-19th century) was not yet a part of Canada, but governed by the Hudson Bay Trading Company. To protect against further French influence in Canada, the government tried to foist an English Protestant governor on the province (soon to be Manitoba). But the Métis, resentful of this impingement on their land, turned to Riel as their leader. His journey from seminarian to community leader to member of Parliament to treasonous revolutionary to condemned man is one that Brown tells slowly and deliberately, in plain square panels and a spare understated style (influenced by the subtle caricatures of Hergé’s Tintin and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). His clean line and keen eye for mise en scène are perfectly suited to this bleak cipher of a story. Riel meant different things to different people. Beloved by his Métis, despised by the Protestant ascendancy, a mystic convinced he was spoken to by God and the chosen savior of his people, he was a singular and enigmatic figure. Brown makes you care. And he’s an honest historian; wherever a story’s facts are tweaked for the sake of narrative, he makes note of it. Indeed, it’s a rare comic book that comes with end notes, an index, and a bibliography."