Canadian Book Review Annual | Canadian Book Review Annual | February 16, 2006
D&Q artists reviewed in the CANADIAN BOOK REVIEW ANNUAL
Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2003. 272p. illus. biblio. index. $34.95. ISBN 1–896597–63–7. CCIP. DDC 741.5'971.
Was Louis Riel a madman or a messiah? The story of this charismatic Metis leader continues to vex Canadians more than 120 years after his death. His struggle with the fledgling and ambitious Canadian government inspired a Metis nation — the part Native, part white, mostly French-speaking Catholics who were held in contempt, if not outright hostility, by English Canadians. While hundreds of books have been written about Louis Riel, only a handful of comic strips have attempted to tell his story in a graphic form. Chester Brown’s exquisite and compelling version fills that gap.
Brown points out that for the sake of brevity he skipped long periods of time and ignored some aspects of Riel’s life. However, these judicious omissions only add to the superb narrative. Although it is evident where Brown’s sympathies lie, he doesn’t create one-dimensional portraits of any of the characters. His depiction of Sir John A. Macdonald shows a flawed politician who was willing to do almost anything to unite the country and who justified his actions with the belief that he was acting for the greater glory of Canada and the country’s future. Riel is portrayed as someone who was charismatic, passionate, conflicted, and obstinate. Both players acted in accordance with their inner values and vision.
Brown’s storytelling and exquisite drawing make Louis Riel a jam-packed action adventure story that both teens and adults will enjoy. An added bonus is the unusual inclusion of a short index, extensive notes, and a list of recommended reading.
Gallant, John. Bannock Beans and Black Tea: Memories of a Prince Edward Island Childhood in the Great Depression. Illustrated by Seth. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2004. 168p. $24.95. ISBN 1–896597–78–5. CCIP. DDC 971.7'7.
A lifetime of bitterness and resentment poison this slim collection of memories of a childhood in Prince Edward Island during the 1930s.
The spokesperson — the author’s father — grew up in extreme poverty. The basics of life, such as food, clothing, shoes, and adequate heat in the home, were missing. He left school after Grade 2 because he did not have shoes to wear or enough to eat. When he was able to obtain work in a fish processing plant, he had to wear his grandmother’s Victorian high-button boots to work.
The book is a litany of constantly scrambling for food or to earn a few cents by gathering wild berries, fishing, or doing odd jobs. He blames his father for the family’s destitute state and expresses his resentment toward the village priest, from whom he had to beg a dollar to save the family from starvation.
The book is an eye-opener in that few readers today realize the depth of poverty that existed in Canada at the time. But it is too narrow in scope to be either local history or even a family history. While not a social history, either, it makes some very strong comments on life in Eastern Canada during the Great Depression.
Mayerovitch, Harry. Way to Go. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2004. 96p. illus. $12.95pa. ISBN 1–896597–82–3pa. CCIP. DDC 741.5'971.
This entertaining collection of drawings by Harry Mayerovitch, a Renaissance man who has worked as an architect, teacher, graphic designer, town planner, cartoonist, and painter for the last seven decades, is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Other One,” explores the intriguing subject of shadows. They can’t exist without us; they confirm our physical existence; they can appear menacing at times by being larger than the person they are attached to; and they can startle their owner when they appear unexpectedly. Mayerovitch playfully draws on these contradictions by sketching shadows that are defiant or contradictory. For example, one man’s shadow is actually a woman, another is a judge condemning the defendant, and another is an appalled shadow of a proudly naked man. These drawings are delightful; they show how all human beings are multiples and how one never knows what lurks in the shadows of their own psyche.
Section 2, “Pot Pour Rire,” is a set of random drawings. Many of them are surreal and feature two-headed men and removed body parts. Others include a perfectly contented polygamist hugging his four wives while their facial expressions reflect their placement in line, and an angry bull looking at Picasso’s painting of it.
The final section, “Way to Go,” encourages the reader to exit this mortal coil in style. These drawings show caskets that reflect the occupiers’ personality, such as a cat with eight coffins in front of him, a beauty queen with a huge sash jauntily hanging around her curvaceous casket, a coffin as a bar, and a magician sawing his coffin in half.
Mayerovitch’s drawings are simple, witty, and effective. This collection reveals an artist who is not afraid to explore all aspects of life.
Doucet, Julie. My New York Diary. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2004. 110p. illus. $21.95pa. ISBN 1–896597–83–1pa. CCIP. DDC 741.5'971.
Julie Doucet, creator of Dirty Plotte, has laid bare her most intimate and painful moments in My New York Diary. The autobiographical graphic novel is infused with grim realism from its opening story, “My First Time,” in which the Catholic schoolgirl loses her virginity to an aging hippie. From there the reader follows Doucet to art school, where Julie dates a pitiful suicidal artist, then on to New York, where she lives with another pathetic and emotionally needy boyfriend.
Her move from Montreal to New York unnerves Julie. Her apartment is infested with cockroaches, and she spends her days and nights doing drugs, binge drinking, worrying about her work, and having alarmingly intense epileptic seizures. At the same time, she is gaining recognition and success in the comics world (Art Spiegelman makes a cameo appearance and congratulates her on her work) while her boyfriend, who is also a cartoonist, languishes. His envy of Julie’s success is palpable, yet as time passes he becomes more and more reliant on her. Julie realizes that she needs to get out of New York and secretly plans her escape while trying to deal with an increasingly needy and unstable partner.
Though all this sounds grim, Doucet brings humour and hope to her story. She deals with the hassles of being female in a humane, bittersweet, and hopelessly honest way. All of the characters have been drawn with bubbleheads, making them appear cute even when they aren’t acting cute. Each panel is heavy with detail and contains unexpectedly funny or touching backgrounds.
Rabagliati, Michel. Paul Has a Summer Job. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2003. 140p. illus. $26.95pa. ISBN 1–896597–54–8pa. CCIP. DDC 741.5'971.
This charming graphic novel captures one young man’s passage into adulthood over the course of a summer. Paul is a typical teenager — he resists doing things he doesn’t like (e.g., school work), and is passionate about things he does like (e.g., art). When Paul is kicked off a school art project he spearheaded because of his less-than-stellar grades, he resentfully quits school to find a job in the “real world.” He quickly finds work in a printer’s shop, but soon becomes disillusioned with the life of a working stiff.
Paul is rescued from his burgeoning depression by a friend who offers him a summer job as a camp counsellor. Despite thinking he is psychologically and physically ill-equipped for the job, Paul eagerly accepts and heads out to the Quebec woods. However, this is no ordinary summer camp — it is run by a footloose Catholic priest for underprivileged kids. From living in primitive conditions and digging latrines to fighting his teammate, Paul’s first few weeks are difficult. Eventually he finds small successes in mastering mountain climbing, connecting with the kids and his co-counsellors (by showing his sensitive side), and falling in love.
Even though the novel takes place in 1979, readers will be engrossed by the author’s simple, yet quirky and effective, storyline. There isn’t a single false note in this graphic novel — the story is nostalgic, but not sentimental. The characters, including both the camp counsellors and the kids, and their relationships with each other are richly drawn. Rabagliati gracefully and effortlessly portrays Paul’s tentative steps into adulthood.