Doodling with cartoonist Chester Brown

On Thursday, Nov. 4, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented comic-strip artist Chester Brown. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the course sent the following report to YFile.

Chester Brown has never really considered himself to be a writer. On this cold blustery evening, a lecture hall full of students and fans begged to differ.

Right: Chester Brown’s self-portrait

Brown was invited to the Canadian Writers in Person Series to discuss his work Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. Admittedly a departure from other authors in the series, Brown’s graphic novel is written in the language of the comic strip panel, both image and text. It traces the story of Louis Riel, the 19th century Métis leader who led his people to rebellion on the Canadian frontier.

True to his self-portrait in his other work, I Never Liked You, Brown was reserved and humble in greeting students. His interest in each individual student was characteristic of this shy but generous man. He took the time to autograph each copy of his book with a personalized drawing of Louis Riel.

At the reading, Brown treated students to a glimpse of his development as an artist. Since his early childhood days, he was always considered to be the best artist in his class. When he was 11, his father took him and one of his first comic strips to the newspaper editor in his home town. The result was his first published strip, in a Valentine’s Day edition of the paper. 

Brown dreamed of being an artist for comic book superhero publications produced by Marvel Comics and DC Comics. After high school, a few trips to their head offices in New York resulted in polite rejection: “talented but not ready”. Eventually a kinder editor suggested that his style was more suited to underground comics. While working at a photography store by day, Brown laboured in his spare time to create Yummy Fur Comics. In 1983, after numerous rejection letters, he decided to publish himself by photocopying and stapling eight-page editions selling for 25 cents. “I think I broke even,” he said of the venture.

After picking up notice in comic stores and trade magazines, Brown quit his day job and began publishing with Toronto-based Vortex Comics and later with the Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly. Gradually, his style evolved from the scatological humour of The Toilet Paper Revolt to the touchingly autobiographical I Never Liked You. On an overhead projector, Brown showed students some excerpts from these works and a comic book essay titled My Mom’s a Schizophrenic. His investigation into the perceptions of madness and normality were carried over from this essay into his work on “the madman” Louis Riel.

Reading Maggie Siggins’ Riel: A Life of Revolution inspired him to begin his own five-year project on Riel. He began by writing a script in loose storyboard format, a process that took him 10 months. He then started drawing the book in a visual style inspired by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, known for its characters’ blank pupils. He liked Gray’s understated and ambient approach, composed mostly of medium and long shots, more influenced by theatre than cinema. Brown said that he considers the cinematic flourishes and extreme close-ups in more modern comics to be overdone. He even chose a yellowed paper stock for his book to evoke the sense of the old newsprint comics.

Students were delighted as Brown showed images from each stage of this process, from early scripts, to “deleted scenes”, to the finished project (with speech bubbles blanked out so students couldn’t read ahead). He politely answered student questions after his presentation. Among these was a question about how his recent fame affected his relationship with his peers, fellow Toronto comic book artists Joe Matt and Seth. He demurely downplayed his success and promoted that of his friends. He acknowledged that the comic community here and abroad is fairly tight-knit and that their work influences each other.

More about Chester Brown

Brown is an acclaimed Toronto cartoonist and author of what one critic described as “the finest graphic novels you could hope to find”. His Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003) delivers a cartoon narrative that is entertaining and extensively researched. Brown is also known as a pioneer in the world of underground comics with bizarre and surreal titles. Series like Yummy Fur and Underwater, and I Never Liked You, contain a strong autobiographical component and project a trenchant political and cultural critique, inviting comparisons with the serialized novel associated with Charles Dickens. In 2004 Brown received three prestigious Harvey Awards for his work: Best Writer (Louis Riel), Best Cartoonist (Louis Riel) and Best Graphic Album of previously published works.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Nov. 25, accomplished novelist George Szanto will read from Second Sight.