Having unsuccessfully approached Marvel, DC Comics and the RAW anthology, Chester Brown decided to join the then-blooming self-publishing crowd in the early 80s. When the first issue of Yummy Fur is released in 1983, he has no idea he is about to start a body of work that will influence all his generation and the next. Along the course of the periodical, he will alternate between eclectic and ambitious projects (Ed The Happy Clown, Underwater, an adaptation of the Scripturs) and masterful autobiography pieces (The Playboy, I Never Liked You). Third head of the Triumvirate formed with Seth and Joe Matt, Chester Brown soon develops an austere esthetic aiming at stripping his works of all melodramatic elements. He finds in cartoonist Harold Gray’s style a model that he imitates in his biography of Louis Riel, who led the Métis people over two resistance movements against the Canadian government at the end of the XIXth century. Himself a resistant to the conventions of an often moribund form of expression, Chester Brown is an emblematic figure of alternative comics.
Nicolas Verstappen : Aged twelve, you started with strips about your family (reminding of Doug Wright’s Family). Do you think it was already a need of working on autobiography or more a way of finding materials as you had a hard time on making fictional plots at that time ?
Chester Brown : I wouldn’t say that those Doug-Wright-like strips had actual plots. They were short gaga-strips. And there was certainly no desire then to express any sort of autobiographical truth. Dough Wright’s strips gave me a formulaic template that looked easy to imitate. At that age I also did gag-strips that were fictional.
NV : You worked on the “Gospels” to “figure things out” about your faith. Do you think it’s the same idea that led you to work on your autobiographies ? Was it to figure things about your sexuality, your relationships to woman ?
CB : No. Autobiography looked like the most fun genre at the point in time.
NV : Joe Matt was also an influence on your work as he participated to your interest in autobiography. Do you feel like your respective works are nourishing each other progression ?
CB : Joe’s work certainly influenced me when I was doing autobiographical strips. I can’t say that’s the case these days (I don’t think there’s any Joe Matt influence in Louis Riel) but I continue to enjoy Joe’s stuff. He’s one of the best cartoonists out there.
NV : We can see in The Little Man collection that you take advises from Seth. I’ve read it was the same for Louis Riel. How does work your “professional” relationship ?
CB : We don’t have a professional relationship ; we’re friends. I get him to read most of my work prior to publication. He made several suggestions for Louis Riel. I followed some of those suggestions, and the result is a better book, I think.
NV : You dedicate your book The Playboy to Seth for “his example as an artist”. His achievement is an inspiration for you ?
CB : Seth’s work was heavily influencing me at the time that I drew The Playboy, although it’s probably not obvious. These days my biggest influence is Harold Gray’s work.
NV : Was working with Harold Gray’s style for Louis Riel a way to confront yourself to his techniques, to understand what you’re finding so fascinating in his work ?
CB : No, I simply found his drawing-style to be so beautiful that I wanted to try to capture what I found appealing in his work in my own. To my eyes, I failed completely in that attempt.
NV : In The Comics Journal #162, you said that autobiography helped to “keep out that melodramatic stuff”. Is using more graphical restraints in Louis Riel a way to keep the melodramatic stuff out ?
CB : Yes, from limiting my use of close-ups to keeping every panel the same size.
NV : Did you thought since the beginning of Louis Riel that the last panel (before the epilogue) would be missing or did it came during the writing ?
CB : It was an accident. I was laying out the panels for the last issue of Louis Riel in its serialized form and I realized that for the last page, because I hadn’t counted correctly, I had only five panels instead of six, but I also realized that the mistake worked, so I kept it.
NV : How come you started to draw each panel on a separate piece of paper ? Is it to give you more freedom when you do a page composition, to try different ways those panels could fit before a “definitive” version ? Is it to avoid an imbalance between your panels, to have each panel being complete and strong by itself ?
CB : I didn’t like drawing on large sheets of board. Reaching up to draw the highest part of the page made my arm tired. A side-benefit of doing each panel separately is that it makes it easy to restructure a story.
NV : In the design of the hard cover edition, we can find inside the end-papers twelve silent panels. How did you come with that ? Was it envisioned as some kind of a “trailer” ?
CB : I did the same thing in The Little Man. It’s traditional to put some sort of imagery in the end-papers and giving a kind of condensed comic-strip preview of the book’s contents seemed natural.
NV : You didn’t copy all Harold Gray’s techniques (no long interior monologue for instance) but you kept those “oval, open eyes”. In his America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists, Richard Marshall says : “One critic suggested that expressionless eyes obliged readers to provide their own emotions in different story situations. But in fact, Gray infused the circlets with subtle expression and made much of little. In a larger sense the famous eyes were symbols of the bleak space they observed and in which Gray placed his characters in a spirit of foredoom”. What would be your opinion about that (for my part I think it works perfectly with Louis Riel’s preoccupations or visions of and the perfidy in John A. MacDonald eyes) ?
CB : Drawing blank eyes is another way of pulling back from melodramatic excess. Fully-drawn eyes can convey too much emotional information. But Marshall is right that even those blank circles can be used to express some degree of emotion.
NV : Was the use of “oval, open eyes” already a « Harold Gray » influence in Underwater ?
CB : Very much so.
NV : There’s also some linguistic economy in Louis Riel. You summed up Thomas Scott’s insults by crosses. Was it linked to your habit not using any (like in The Playboy ) or linked to an economy of coarse language and violence (or both) ? You seem to avoid everything that’s not strictly useful (which is the quality of the greatest artists to my opinion).
CB : I couldn’t get the right tone for Scott’s insults. When I wrote dumb insults, they didn’t have enough impact to justify the Métis’s anger at him, but when I tried to write more intelligent insults for him, they made him seem too clever. He would have become too appealing as a character. So in the end I opted for leaving the insults to the reader’s imagination.
NV : On the other hand, you’re using words as “tabernac” or words without “h” when the French-speaking people are talking in English. Is it a way to keep all this sounds natural, a compromise between great economy and realism ?
CB : I wasn’t sure how far to go in trying to reproduce a French accent. I’m not fond of the difficulty that writing in a dialect can give to the reader, but on the other hand I wanted to give some indication that the French Métis weren’t completely at ease speaking English. This was particularly necessary in the trial-scene in Part Four where Riel is on trial for his life but is at a linguistic disadvantage in defending himself. The compromise I made was to drop the letter H when Francophones speak English.
NV : Another imposing comic-strip biography (with a lot of square panels and endnotes) came out during your Louis Riel work. Would you relate your book to From Hell or point out fundamental differences ?
CB : From Hell is a wonderful book, a masterpiece. It is subtitled “A Melodrama” and it clearly sets out to get more of an emotional response from the reader than my book does. While I try to avoid melodrama in my own work, I don’t necessarily dislike it the work of others. Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie was very melodramatic.
NV : At first, I thought that there was a strong thematic difference in Louis Riel with your previous books. But you said in The Comics Journal #163 : “I create out of two emotions mainly. Outrage [at abuses of power by people in authority] and guilt”. The outrage was there but I didn’t find the guilt as inThe Playboyor I never liked you. Later, I understood that the guilt was there, in Louis Riel participation to Thomas Scott’s death leading even to schizophrenia”. What led you to the Riel character at first : his fight against a government or his psychological instability (or both) ?
CB : The first book that I read about him, I read because of his fight against the Canadian government, because I was an anarchist at the time. Mind you, Riel himself was not an anarchist. His personal political views were, for the most part, conservative.
NV : You ‘were’ an anarchist. So you changed from political views ?
CB : I’m no longer an anarchist. I considered myself to be one for about five or six years, then I moved over to libertarianism in 2000.
NV : Does it have some influence on your artistic work ?
CB : even if I was still an anarchist, it would have no bearing on my creative process. Anarchism is a political ideology, not an artistic one. Sure I place restraints on myself. Every artist does. But I think I allow myself more freedom than most cartoonists do.
NV : You allow yourself a lot of freedom in an unfinished project calledUnderwater. It is one of you’re most audacious work. Do you think it was too audacious and how did you get that idea of telling a kind of evolution of language from its beginning ?
CB : I bit more than I could chew. And since I was telling a story from a child’s point-of-view, it seemed natural to make the gradual understanding of language a part of what was going on.
NV : How did you work on Underwater dialogs ? Did you first write a lexicon of that imaginary language ?
CB : It’s really just a code. Simple letter substitution.
NV : Another unfinished project is your Gospels adaptation. Will you come back to it ? Can we expect a new face of Jesus in Luke and John ?
CB : I’ll probably finish Matthew, but I won’t bother doing Luke or John. There are other subjects that interest me more now.
NV : In a lot of adaptations of the New Testament I’ve read, the parables were drawn. Why did you decide not to draw them and keep only the text ?
CB : I was going to handle the parables differently in Matthew and Luke. In Luke, the parables are more concrete, more story-like, so I was going to depict them when I adapted Luke.
NV : Jesus’ face changed during your adaptation. He went “bald on the top” (with “long hair”). It’s also your physical description at that time. Was it meant to get a closer physiognomy ?
CB : Drawing Jesus bald in my adaptation of Matthew was an easy way to distinguish him from my depiction of Jesus in Mark. If I remember correctly, I began to draw Jesus bald before I myself began balding.
NV : Another question about artistic freedom. You have re-drawn the beginning of Louis Riel for the graphic novel format and also re-arranged panels for The Playboy graphic novel. Do you have the feeling that prepublication gives you an area of relative freedom where you can try things and then fulfil them in a “definitive version” ?
CB : Not really. I always try to get it right the first time. But if I’m not happy with the initial result, why not try and fix a work if it’s being reprinted.
NV : Speaking of “definitive version”, why will you change the black background from The Playboyinto white ? Is it linked to “clarification” again ? Is it to restore the black and white balance inside the panels that was altered by the black pages ?
CB : I like austerity. The white background looks more austere to me.
NV : Was it meant since the beginning of The Playboy that the “angel/demon” incarnation of you would disappear progressively ? Or was it through the making that you found out that this external narrator was unnecessary ?
CB : The latter. I didn’t write a script for the story before beginning it, so my handling of the narrator developed and changed as I created the piece.
NV : I see in The Playboy a “crime story” subtext (with a “body” to hide, witnesses and Hitchcockian paranoia). Is it something you’re aware of or is it only my imagination ? For me, the “mixing” of genres works perfectly there.
CB : Ha-ha. An amusing comparison that makes sense. But I didn’t intend that parallel.
NV : If we look at your books from the “writing” viewpoint, we can see that you started with improvisation (Ed), then you wrote some sequences mixed with improvisation (The Playboy, I Never Liked You), then adapted or summed up (The Gospels, My mom was a schizophrenic) then went back shortly to improvisation (Underwater) and finally jumped into History and biography (Louis Riel). We can see there that there’s a strong evolution in your narrative work. Do you have an idea of what will be the next step ?
CB : The was very little improvisation in I Never Liked You. It was quite planned out, even if I didn’t write a full script. Anyway, what’s next for me/ right now I’m working on slightly revising Ed The Happy Clown. After that I intend to do another autobiographical graphic-novel. And, after that, another historical graphic-novel. This one set in Toronto.
[Interview conducted through mail in July 2004 for the sixth XeroXed leaflet.]
- Harold Gray (1894-1968) was an American newspaper artist and cartoonist. His best-known work is Little Orphan Annie.
- The Comics Journal #162, “Seth – Brown – Matt”, October 1993, p.52.
- I think the critic is Coulton Waugh. “Coulton Waugh argued that Gray’s trademark use of empty ovals for his characters’ eyes led the reader to supply the expressions for himself, and thus the meanings are « clearer and more forceful than if the eye details were completely drawn »” from The Encyclopedia of American Comics, Denis Wepman, Promised Land Productions, 1990.
- The first title of The Playboy should have been “Fuck” in reference of the word that Chester Brown’s friends were trying to force him to tell.