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Heidi MacDonald Offline

Registered: 04/18/99
Posts: 1465
Loc: New York, New York

One of the most respected indie cartoonists of the last 20 years, Chester Brown has made perhaps his most impressive mark yet with LOUIS RIEL (ree-AHL), a comics biography of a still-controversial Canadian rebel. But it's only the latest in a remarkable string of hits, starting with ED, THE HAPPY CLOWN, a lurid, surreal excursion into sexual dysfunction and political satire; THE PLAYBOY, a frank examination of the author's adolescent interest in pin-ups; and I NEVER LIKED YOU, a devastatingly understated autobiographical tale which juxtaposes Brown's emerging sexuality with his mother's mental disintegration.

Brown chats about all this in the following interview, but be forewarned, he can be a man of few words who lets hiw work do the talking; with work so eloquent, who can blame him?

THE PULSE: You stated that that Little Orphan Annie was the model that inspired you for LOUIS RIEL. How did that begin?

BROWN: My interest? I guess my Little Orphan Annie interest began in the early 80s and I loved Gray's stuff immediately. So it's influence on me over the years has grown as I've seen more and more of the work. Fantagraphics reprinted various years and I finally got a hold of the ARF collections, at some point.

THE PULSE: What about his style attracted you to it.

BROWN: It was the sense of restraint, both the visual restraint and emotional restraint.

THE PULSE: With LOUIS RIEL you were working with the 6 panel grid. I noticed there were always big mob scenes and you were constantly showing guys riding across the Canadian tundra on horses, all reduced to tiny little figures. Did you ever feel unduly restrained by it?

BROWN: No, not at all. I just accepted what I was going to do from the very beginning. There might have been one or two instances where I felt it but for the most part it was comfortable.

THE PULSE: Have you EVER done a double page spread?

BROWN: There are a couple of full page spreads in UNDERWATER [ed note: this series ran for 11 issues from 1994-1997 but was never finished.] There was more open storytelling in there.

THE PULSE: What happened to UNDERWATER?

BROWN: I ended it. It wasn't working out. I was thinking in terms of putting it on hiatus and getting back to it when I figured out what I wanted to do with it. It was this big, big story and I wanted to do in around 20 to 30 issues and by the time I got to issue 11 or so I could see that it was going to take a lot longer than 20 or 30 issues to do, so that I would end up changing the story somehow. It was piece done. I really should have fully scripted it before I started out, as I did with LOUIS RIEL.

THE PULSE: UNDERWATER was the story of language, correct?

BROWN: Um…that was part of it.

THE PULSE: Do you feel comfortable talking about what the story was? It did perplex a lot of people, as I'm sure you know.

BROWN: I still might want to finish it so I'd rather not say! [Laughter}

THE PULSE: How has the reception to LOUIS RIEL been in Canada? He is a well-known figure in Canadian history so how has a cartoon biography been received?

BROWN: For the most part very well. About all the reviews been positive. The closest to a bad review was from Maggie Siggins who herself wrote a biography of him which I mentioned quite a bit. She liked the book but took exception to the fact that she didn't feel that I portrayed Riel as the heroic figure he should be portrayed as. Other than that the reception has been good. Although you may remember my former girlfriend, Sook Yin, who works for the CBC. They're having a contest for the worst Canadian ever. And someone has nominated me because they feel I portrayed Sir John A. MacDonald as too much of a villain.

THE PULSE: Were you aware you were stepping into a potential hornets' nest here?

BROWN: Oh yes. Louis Riel and the story are still contentious here.

THE PULSE: But on the other hand you were used to it, because you had already learned that nothing beats the controversy of doing comics about your own friends!

BROWN: [laughs] Well, yeah. Whenever you're dealing with real life there are going to be different viewpoints.

THE PULSE: Now the next thing you're working on is the director's cut of ED, THE HAPPY CLOWN. What are you changing?

BROWN: A new ending. Taking out a bit here adding a bit there. General tinkering.

THE PULSE: But you’ve tinkered with it before. How many version of it are there?

BROWN: The original serialized version and then the two previous book versions. This will make four versions.

THE PULSE: Why do you keep changing it?

BROWN: I'm never happy with it. I hope this time I'll feel better about it.

THE PULSE: It's funny you say that It was obviously the first big story you had done.

BROWN: Yeah.

THE PULSE: For those who don't remember, it starts with a man who can't stop shitting and a clown who finds he has Ronald Reagan's head grafted onto the end of his penis. This was pretty wild stuff in the 80s…and I imagine it's still pretty wild stuff. But its probably the furthest out of your major works. It's kind of this full fantasy surrealism that you've never really gotten back to.

BROWN: Yeah, but UNDERWATER also had surreal elements, although not as much.

THE PULSE: Do you think that's why you keep tinkering with it, because it's so different from the direction your work has evolved into?

BROWN: Maybe. I probably should accept that it's early work and it was drawn a certain way.

THE PULSE: Is there anything more specific you can talk about in changing elements you didn't work?

BROWN: (pause) I don't want to give too much away.

THE PULSE: You're so close mouthed, Chester! You always were. You just don't like talking about your work!


THE PULSE: I remember a long time ago after Ed came you said you were inspired by what Joe Matt was doing and you were going to try autobio comics next. And that sort of touched of the entire wave of indie comics that were autobio. Do you ever think there's just too much of that?

BROWN: Well, no. I certainly see autobio comics that I don't think worked too well. But there are people doing good work in the genre, certainly.

THE PULSE: I understand that after you finish the new ED THE HAPPY CLOWN You're going back to autobiography and, as opposed to all that other stuff, this will be the real tell all.

BROWN: Yes it's about my sex life.


BROWN: Because it's interesting.

THE PULSE: To play devil's advocate how do you make it interesting to other people?

BROWN: I think I have a different take on sex and sexual attraction, certain ideas that I don't think are part of the mainstream. Do you know who Rene Girard is?


BROWN: He's a French literary critic who has a lot of theories about the origins of desire and I think he's right about a lot of things. This explores some of his theories.

THE PULSE: Any clue what the theories might be?

BROWN: Let's see…can I be close mouthed again?

THE PULSE: I'm just going to google it and find out!

BROWN: Yeah everyone can do it, everyone should go out and look up Rene Girard.

Ed. Note: Everyone can Google Rene Girard but you are likely to get passages like this: "mimetic desire, sacrificial crisis, ignorance necessary for the efficiency of the victimary mechanism." Basically, in a horribly simplified version, Girard believes that all human desire is based on imitation – you don't want a banana because it tastes good; you want it because someone else does. This competitive desire, in Girard's theory, is the basis for all war and human conflict, and can only be allayed through the mechanism of a "scapegoat": a sacrificial figure whose death brings things back to an even keel.]

THE PULSE: Okay, fair enough. I'm fascinated by the dichotomy of how on the paper you will put any number of "disgusting" and revealing things about your own sex life, no holds barred, but preferring not to speak about it. How difficult is it to keep going on revealing stuff about your life?

BROWN: Not difficult at all! It's the difference between dealing with another person and just sitting in a room by yourself with sheets of paper. It's very different.

THE PULSE: Are you currently in a relationship?


THE PULSE: So you put out this book and everybody reads it, do you worry that it will scare away women?

BROWN: I'm hoping it will! I'm not anxious to get into another relationship.

Q Dude, are you going all Dave Sim on us?

BROWN: Well, I don't think women are intellectually inferior to men. But I like being alone.

THE PULSE: You've said in a few interviews that you don’t want to do "pamphlets" any more.

BROWN: I didn't want to publish LOUIS RIEL in pamphlet form. As I said it was scripted out first, and it was conceived as a work that should be a novel. It was supposed to be read in one sitting. I didn't want to break it up, but Chris [Oliveros, D&Q publisher] said you really should try it. And he convinced me to do it. Now he doesn’t think that the comics pamphlets are selling all that well, and I'm fine.

THE PULSE: Do you have a title yet? Or how long it will take?

BROWN: No title. And when I started working in RIEL it was four or five years, and I hope the next one won't take that long. But we'll see.

THE PULSE: As the graphic novel becomes more accepted and Chris makes a move away from the serialized comics, in some ways it an ideal situation for a creative person but economically it's a more difficult model.

BROWN: Yeah, fortunately I do live in Canada and I got a Canada Arts Council grant for RIEL and I hope I'll be able to get one for this work too.

THE PULSE: Would they be as interested in the sex life of cartoonist Chester Brown as historical figure Louis Riel?

BROWN: I don't know, but they are more open to graphic novels than they were when I started RIEL. They actually have on their form a separate category for it. In the "writer" section they have short stories, novelists, and poets and then they have graphic novels now too.

THE PULSE: How do you feel about the state of the indie comics scene? You've gone from young rebel to old master?

BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah. I don't know. I know at least for Drawn & Quarterly they are trying to move from the comic book specialty market to the general bookstore market. It's a difficult time for them and Fantagraphics too. But the industry seems to have settled down.

THE PULSE: Do you read many comics much these days?

BROWN: Not that often.


BROWN: Yeah. It was okay. It had beautiful beautiful drawings.

THE PULSE: Have your read Jeffrey Brown's stuff?

BROWN: Oh yeah, he's great!

THE PULSE: I knew you'd like him! Do you ever go to conventions any more?

BROWN: Here in Toronto, but I haven't traveled to a con in six years or so I think it was before I started RIEL. I haven't had time since then. I would prefer to be home and work.

THE PULSE: Any other cartoonists you enjoy?

BROWN: The usual guys, Ware, Clowes…

THE PULSE: Do you feel any need to keep up with the next generation?

BROWN: The truth is Seth keeps up with stuff a lot more. He's the one who pointed out Jeffrey Brown to me, and he's told me about other stuff.

THE PULSE: In another interview you said you mentioned that Joe Matt had moved away and you didn't miss him! [Matt, Brown and Seth often portray each other in their own work – all three lived in Toronto until Matt moved recently and they were good friends.]

BROWN: [laughter] Well it's kind of true. I love Joe and when he was here I would always get together with him. I still talk to him on a regular basis and I enjoy that, but in my day-to-day life I'm not thinking gee, I miss Joe!

THE PULSE: What is your remaining ambition in comics?

BROWN: [looooooooong pause] I was pretty happy with I NEVER LIKED YOU, I was happy with the Riel book, I would like to do something I'm completely satisfied with.

THE PULSE: Do you think any artist can ever be satisfied?

BROWN: I'd like to be more satisfied than I am. And I think I can be.

THE PULSE: What elements dissatisfy you in your work?

BROWN: Drawing is a part of it. It's hard to put what I believe down on paper. It’s not like I hate the work. I do think I'm getting better all the time. In Riel I did what I set to do, and got about 80-85% of what I wanted to do. But I still want to get to 100%.

THE PULSE: Okay, here's the juicy question to end the interview and sell books. Will people ever get tired of sex in comics?

BROWN: I don't think so! People never get tired of sex.

LOUIS RIEL, I NEVER LIKED YOU and THE PLAYBOY are all available now from Drawn & Quarterly, and ED, THE HAPPY CLOWN V4.0 is coming soon.
Oh boy, sleep! That's where I'm a viking!

#328255 - 04/16/04 11:22 AM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
KevinC Offline

Registered: 07/05/99
Posts: 419
Loc: Canada
Great interview!

Until Brown decided to do it, the only comics guys I could've seen wanting to do Riel's life would have been Jack Jackson or Tim Truman. I'm still curious how an American would've seen such a key figure in Canadian history, but I'm very happy with Brown's book.

I think as the years continue, Brown is going to become an even greater talent than he is now. I eagerly look forward to whatever he does next.

#328256 - 04/16/04 11:54 AM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
David Vega Offline

Registered: 02/10/00
Posts: 149
Loc: NYC
I'm a bit confused about Ed the Happy Clown. Will it be a new trade collection, or a new serial? Either way, I'm so there! laugh

#328257 - 04/16/04 11:59 AM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
Heidi MacDonald Offline

Registered: 04/18/99
Posts: 1465
Loc: New York, New York
Originally posted by David Vega:
I'm a bit confused about Ed the Happy Clown. Will it be a new trade collection, or a new serial? Either way, I'm so there! laugh

Sorry, it's a new trade, with some changes from the last trade.
Oh boy, sleep! That's where I'm a viking!

#328258 - 04/16/04 12:06 PM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
Render Man Offline

Registered: 03/25/04
Posts: 31
Loc: USA
Chester Brown is one of my all time faves in comics. Great interview. I havent read Louis Reil book yet. But I just picked up a copy of Yummy Fur #1 for $7, I am so happy! I never thought I'd ever get ahold of that actual issue, but I did.
I too was one of those that found Underwater to be kinda unreadable and boring.
Now this new comic he is deciding to work on, sounds a little scary in the way that I hope it;s a little more interesting than Underwater.

#328259 - 04/16/04 01:29 PM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
stroh Offline

Registered: 12/19/99
Posts: 360
Loc: Baltimore, MD U.S.A.
When is the Louis Riel graphic novel due out?

#328260 - 04/16/04 01:51 PM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
Peg Burns Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 12/09/03
Posts: 18
Loc: Montreal, QC
The LOUIS RIEL graphic novel came out last Fall and quickly became a bona fide bestseller in Canada.

It's currently on sale on our site for 20%!

#328261 - 04/16/04 03:30 PM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
David Vega Offline

Registered: 02/10/00
Posts: 149
Loc: NYC
Originally posted by Heidi MacDonald:

Sorry, it's a new trade, with some changes from the last trade.


Thanks for the clarification.

#328262 - 04/16/04 05:44 PM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
Steve Bunche Offline

Registered: 09/08/03
Posts: 132
Loc: Brooklyn, NY
One more question about the ED THE HAPPY CLOWN trade: will it contain the entire story? The trade that I have from the '90's is missing abbout the final fifth of the whole shebang, and if this is complete — with the hilarious sky-diving Frankenstein sequence — I will drop the cash in a heartbeat!

#328263 - 04/16/04 08:06 PM Re: CHESTER BROWN RESTRAINS HIMSELF
hondo Offline

Registered: 04/30/03
Posts: 318
Loc: Iowa
Chester Brown should be way a star ! His stuff is so good. He's up there with Crumb as far as great autobiographical stories.
- Mark HONDO Brodersen

" Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. "

- Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955), (attributed)

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