By Linda White
Special to the Toronto Sun
As a teen, Chester Brown dreamed of becoming a comic book artist, drawing the superheroes and villains that fascinated him. Fast forward three decades and Pow! He's a legend among the alternative comics crowd and was nominated for his industry's award for the comic book biography of a Canadian revolutionary.
Self-portrait of Canadian comic book artist Chester Brown
The Toronto resident devoted five years to the creation of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. Its subject, the Metis leader executed for treason at the hands of the Canadian government in 1885, is ironically remembered as a hero to some and a villain to others.
Brown's career path was set in 1972, when a community newspaper published a comic strip created by the 12-year-old boy living in Chateauquay, Que.
"I don't remember opening the paper and seeing my comic strip, but I do remember getting comments from people and feeling proud," says Brown, 43.
He took a commercial arts program at Dawson College in nearby Montreal, but dropped out after a year. "It wasn't leading me to a career in comics," Brown says.
He moved to Toronto at age 19, working in a photo lab during the day and honing his cartooning skills at night and on weekends.
"I discovered other sorts of comics, particularly underground comics that tended to focus on sex, drugs and politics -- subject matter that was more grown up than superheroes," Brown says.
His influences included Robert Crumb, credited with helping found underground comics in the late 1960s.
Brown began submitting comic strips to publishers across the U.S. "I received lots of rejection letters, but people were encouraging me. They said I had a talent and that I should keep working."
In 1983, he decided to self-publish his work in photocopied pamphlets under the title Yummy Fur, which dealt candidly with adult themes.
"I was trying to think of an absurd name that would mean nothing but would serve as a catch-all so I wouldn't be tied into one concept," Brown says.
He sold Yummy Fur on consignment at independent stores, was eventually approached by the Toronto-based comic book publisher Vortex Comics and became a full-time cartoonist.
In the pages of Yummy Fur, Brown serialized (published regularly in short installments) the strange adventures of Ed the Happy Clown. It was published as a graphic novel in 1989 and earned several awards.
Signed with comics
In 1991, Brown signed with Drawn & Quarterly, a new comic book company based in Montreal. It released such autobiographical works as The Playboy, I Never Liked You and a short comic strip called My Mother Was a Schizophrenic.
The latter involved some medical research, a process Brown enjoyed. As he read Maggie Siggins' Riel: A Life of Revolution, he decided to combine his interest in research with cartooning.
"Tackling history and biography is not new to comics, but it hasn't been done a lot," Brown says. He has enjoyed the success of Riel, first published in 10 issues and nominated for an Eisner Award, the industry's Oscar equivalent.
Its 276 pages are now bound in hardcover, available in independent stores that gave Brown his start, as well as large chain stores. After months of cross-country promotional work, Brown is back at the drawing board, doing what he does best.
"This is the job I wanted when I was 12 years old. I'm not getting rich from it, but I'm making enough that I don't have to do anything else. Every day, I get up and draw and write."
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