Portraits from Life

by Andrew Gilstrap


Portraits from Life

(Drawn and Quarterly)

Stranger Than Fiction

The historical record tends to be painted in huge swaths of time and action. Geological time makes the existence of humans look like a mere hiccup, empires and dynasties cast the United States as a mere fledgling idea, and it goes without saying that assassins and kings get more stage time than your ordinary joe. History’s also, as the saying goes, written by the winners. Consequently, a lot gets left out when it comes to history, and even more gets forgotten.

Canadian David Collier likes to root around in the dusty corners of his country’s history, resurrecting lives that virtually no one outside of Canada has ever heard of, and which many Canadians may be unaware of themselves. Much like the work of independent comic book legend Robert Crumb—an obvious and admitted influence on Collier—Collier and his Portraits from Life are linked to one another if by nothing more than the intensity of Collier’s quest for knowledge. Collier’s fascination with his subjects is evident, and he often shows us as much of his own search for information on his subject as he does the subjects themselves. Collier’s artistic style is loose but realistic, giving his stories a journalistic feel. He’s not prone to stylistic quirks—you can probably count the presence of “artsy” visuals on one hand—but his storytelling skills are strong.

“The Ethel Catherwood Story”, told from the standpoint of her first coach, details the life of the world record holder of the women’s high jump and a trailblazing Olympic athlete. Ethel’s story is far more interesting than you might imagine, especially set against a historical backdrop where women were barely allowed to participate in the 1928 Olympic games (right down to the Pope condemning the very idea). Ethel is principled and headstrong, and her story is as much about her difficulties in dealing with sudden and widespread fame (although she’s seldom heard of today, a trait that draws Collier to all of his subjects) as it is about her abilities and beauty.

“Getting Dead” tells the life story of Collier’s grandfather, Richard Collier. By no means as famous as Collier’s other subjects, Richard is nevertheless a man with interesting stories to tell of the army, his travels, and the things he’s seen. This may be where Collier’s point really comes home: that nearly everyone has their own personal history which will probably be lost when they die. Richard tells the same stories over and over, as some think most old people are wont to do, and his family has long since stopped listening; you get the sense that they’ll only appreciate Richard’s stories after it’s too late. It’s a confusing tale in spots, though. Collier begins his story with the 95-year-old Richard on his deathbed and shifts often to a first-person narration delivered by Richard himself. Somewhere along the way, Collier’s memories of his grandfather become intertwined with tales that Richard is telling Collier’s brother during a drive. The shifts in time and place are abrupt and the reader’s only real clue that Richard is speaking is in the panels’ rounded edges.

Portraits from Life‘s centerpiece, however, is probably the set of stories dealing with Grey Owl, an Englishman who successfully convinced the world that he was a Native American. The first part, “Pilgrimage”, tells of Collier’s ill-advised ski trip into the Canadian wilderness to find Grey Owl’s cabin after he has agreed to draw it for a local newspaper. Collier nearly dies in the attempt, presenting hungry wolves, fierce storms, and his own dumb luck equal chances for finishing him off. Ultimately, however, he finds the cabin, draws it, and stops at an inhabited warden’s station on his way back. It’s through conversations with one of the crew there that he learns Grey Owl’s story.

Collier largely sheds the awkward, stylistic problems of “Pilgrimage” in “The Life of Grey Owl,” told primarily as a one-on-one conversation between Collier and a park worker. It details Grey Owl’s life from its beginnings as a harried English lad to a manual laborer in frontier Canada to his successful career as an author and conservationist. It’s a fascinating story, especially the portions dealing with Grey Owl’s courtship and marriage to an Iroquois named Anahareo. The couple’s life together is full of quirks (such as pet beavers who live in a dam within the cabin) and small tragedies (alcoholism and long periods spent apart), and Collier is extremely effective when showing these private moments. In fact, that’s Collier’s strength throughout Portraits from Life—an ability to show us the hidden moments that exist behind the newspaper articles and sketchily remembered accounts of witnesses, to construct a history with more humanity than the mere facts.

In the same way that “The Pilgrimage” and “The Life of Grey Owl” work together to show Collier’s closeness to his subject, Collier uses “Eazy-E” (a quick tale about his early drug experimentation and an anticlimactic visit to a rave) to segue into “Dr. H. Osmond’s First Trip”. Osmond, an advocate of using LSD to treat alcoholism, was responsible for giving Aldous Huxley his first dose of mescaline. Collier tells Osmond’s story as he himself is visiting the mental hospital where Osmond once worked, noting the decline of the doctor’s once-grand surroundings. Again, the transitions can be abrupt as Collier shifts from his own viewpoint to Osmond’s recollection of his first acid trip (this time without even changes in the panels to indicate points of view).

A similar approach to “Milgaard and Me”, a story about a young man who was imprisoned for nearly 25 years on false rape and murder charges, is slightly more effective. Collier travels to Saskatchewan, a town responsible for much misfortune in his life, and traces the evidence trail in Milgaard’s case. It’s a tragic story, and chilling in its own way, as Collier charts public indifference, police stubbornness, and the almost improbable series of coincidences that led to Milgaard’s conviction. As Collier witnesses prostitution and has his car battery stolen, he deftly portrays a town that’s been battling its dark side for decades.

Both Chris Ware, creator of the award-winning of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and the legendary Crumb both tout Collier as a major talent, and it’s evident why. He has a knack for distilling a life down to its most interesting essence, and his choice in subjects is impeccable. More than that, he’s doing us all a service, rescuing these lives from the yellowed pages of archives and placing them once more into the present. With Portraits from Life, he takes the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction and shows just how many entertaining and enthralling stories are walking around amongst us. His subjects might be strictly Canadian, but it’s not hard for any reader to summon up memories of similar crimes or triumphs, or even lives quietly lived, that hold their own against Collier’s subjects from The Great White North.

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