Chester Brown, cartoonist (born 16 May 1960 in Montréal, QC). The author of unflinching autobiographical comics, as well as a “comic-strip biography” of Métis leader Louis Riel, Chester Brown is one of the world’s premier cartoonists.

Early Life

Brown has made his adolescence in Châteauguay, an anglophone suburb of Montréal, the subject of several comics. I Never Liked You (1994), in particular, documents the quotidian circumstances of his middle-class upbringing — attending church and high school, developing diffident crushes, watching television — as well as his mother’s gradually deteriorating health. During his youth, Brown also had his first comics published in the local paper — inspired by Doug Wright’s comics, the strip focused on Brown’s own family — and became an avid reader of superhero and horror comics. After graduating high school, Brown travelled to the offices of Marvel and DC Comics in New York, but finding no work, returned to Montréal to study commercial art at Dawson College.

Mini-Comics

In 1983, a few years after he moved to Toronto, Brown began a series of mini-comics — short, under-sized, black-and-white comic books — which he called Yummy Fur, and which he published and distributed himself. Influenced by Brown’s reading about surrealism, the series initially served as a catch-all for various absurd stories dredged up from the depths of the artist’s subconscious. Yummy Fur began publication as a fully-fledged comic book in 1986, when Toronto’s Vortex Comics debuted a new version of the series, which would become one of the leading titles of the alternative comics movement, along with such works as Dan Clowes’ Eightball and the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets. In this incarnation, Yummy Fur began to focus primarily on Brown’s unvarnished adaptations of the Gospels (which remain uncollected) and the meandering, sometimes shocking travails of a hapless clown named Ed. Before the Ed serial had concluded, its first several chapters were collected as Ed the Happy Clown in 1989 (Brown revised the book several times before arriving at its latest version in 2012).

Autobiography

Increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the Ed stories, and inspired by Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor as well as autobiographical comics by Montréal’s Joe Matt and Julie Doucet, Brown left the Ed feature incomplete in 1990 and turned instead to the circumstances of his own life for subject matter. The autobiographical stories and serials he published in Yummy Fur were later collected in The Playboy (1992), I Never Liked You (1994), and The Little Man: Short Strips 1980–1995 (1998), which collectively were cited as among the best comics of the 20th century by The Comics Journal. In a style that combines a distanced perspective with brusque and unabashed detail, these stories examined Brown’s dust-ups with roommates, his history with pornography, and his painfully aloof teenage years. The artist’s move into autobiography also coincided with a change of publisher. Brown signed with Montréal’s upstart Drawn & Quarterly in 1991, where Doucet, Matt, and Brown’s friend Seth were also publishing comics drawn from their own lives.

Underwater and Louis Riel

Brown brought Yummy Fur to a close in 1994, and began Underwater. The series continued the artist’s Gospel stories, but also provided a venue for a new fictional project: an account of a young twin’s early childhood, told using a stream-of-consciousness approach and an invented dialect. Brown would abandon both the Gospels and this new story in 1997, but not before publishing “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic” as a back-up feature in one issue. A polemic against psychiatry and the way it stigmatizes some behaviours as “mental illness,” the short strip funnels Brown’s autobiographical impulses into a more argumentative, fact-based direction.

Brown pursued this essayistic method of sifting through information and interpreting historical fact in his next series, 1999’s Louis Riel. A “comic-strip biography” of the Métis leader, derived partly from Maggie Siggins’ book on Riel as well as a raft of other sources, Brown’s series focused on Riel’s role in the Red River and North-West Resistances, as well as his mental instability and eventual trial and execution. Brown tells his version of the story with a mixture of cartoonish distortion, recalling Harold Gray’s highly politicized comic strip Little Orphan Annie, and arms-length objectivity, drained of any effect. Upon its completion and collection in 2003, Louis Riel became a non-fiction best-seller in Canada — the first graphic novel to do so — and would go on to earn many other distinctions and plaudits (see Graphic Novels Entering the Literary Main Stream). The National Post named it one of the top 10 Canadian books of its decade, and the Toronto Star one of the 10 most important books of the decade. An exhibit of Brown’s original art from Riel was mounted at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2014.

Politics and Paying For It

Over the course of his research for Louis Riel, Brown became interested in what purpose government should serve with respect to private property, and his politics gradually transformed from anarchist to libertarian. He ran as the Libertarian Party of Canada’s candidate in the Trinity-Spadina riding in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections.

Brown’s next cartooning project directly addressed a pressing political topic. Brown released Paying for It (2011), subtitled “a comic strip memoir about being a john,” in the wake of the Ontario Superior Court’s controversial decision that declared Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional. Through dialogues conducted with friends in the book, as well as extensive handwritten appendices and dispassionate depictions of his experiences with sex workers, Brown mounts an argument for decriminalizing prostitution.

Awards

Brown is also one of the founders of the Doug Wright Awards, which recognize excellence in Canadian cartooning. He has won multiple comics industry awards, including the Harvey and Ignatz, in addition to having been nominated for the Eisner Awards and shortlisted for prizes at France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival.

See also Comic Books in English Canada; Cartoons and Comic Strips.