From the Archives: Chester Brown (2011)

I have a very extensive catalogue of old articles that I think are worth revisiting. Here’s one of them. (This article originally appeared in The Georgia Straight.)

Chester Brown must have known what he was getting himself into. In creating Paying for It, the Toronto-based cartoonist was setting himself up for criticism, not just of his work but of himself and his chosen lifestyle. The graphic novel, published this month by Drawn & Quarterly, documents Brown’s interactions with prostitutes over the course of a decade or so. It also includes notes and appendices in which the author lays out his arguments in favour of the decriminalization of selling sex, and against the notion of romantic love in general.

The book, as you might imagine, has engendered a bit of controversy. Reviewing Paying for It in the Chicago Reader, Noah Berlatsky called Brown’s drawings of the prostitutes “dehumanizing”, and characterized the artist’s libertarian view of sex-as-commodity as “an expression of the individual autonomously pursuing pleasure” and a “soul-crushing sexual ethic”.

“People are taking issue with certain things in there,” Brown admits, speaking to the Straight over the phone from his home. “I certainly think someone who is brighter and more articulate than I am could have expressed things in a better way, but the book came out as well as it could given my limited abilities. No, I wouldn’t change anything.”

As for “dehumanizing” his subjects—Berlatsky pointed out that Brown never shows their faces, “turning them into expressionless ciphers”—the cartoonist had his reasons for drawing the sex workers he visited as uniformly black-haired enigmas. Specifically, he was protecting their identities.

“Yes, I left things out, particularly when it came to matters that might reveal the identities of the prostitutes I saw,” Brown says. “In the very first scene, the first time I see one, in a brothel, she asks me that question about what I do for a living, and I answer that I’m a cartoonist, and that I write and draw comic books. And then she started talking about comic books in her life, and it was very interesting, but that could have been revealing. She had particular experiences with comic books, and maybe she’s talked about those with other people, and so, yeah, I omitted that entirely from that conversation, as if she hadn’t told me any of that stuff. And at every encounter there were things like that, that I left out—things that could have revealed something about a particular woman that might have identified her.”

Brown, on the other hand, made a habit of being as open about his own identity as possible in his dealings with prostitutes. He started out using the pseudonym “Steve McDougal” but quickly dropped it, partly because of his relative notoriety—his comic-book biography of the 19th-century Métis leader Louis Riel won the author several awards and was lauded by Time magazine—but mostly because he simply had nothing to hide. “I had been talking with one of the women about what I did [for a living], and she had expressed an interest in seeing something by me, so I brought her one of the comic-book issues, from when Louis Riel was serialized as a comic book,” Brown recalls. “And when she saw my name on that, I explained that I’d been using a fake name. And after that point, I realized that johns who are married might have good reason for using fake names, but I’d been open with all of my friends and most of my family about seeing prostitutes, so it wasn’t any kind of big secret in my life.”

Brown was, in fact, “out of the closet” with his friends right from the beginning, and in Paying for It, he shows himself in conversation with fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth, railing against romantic love and “possessive monogamy”. Ironically—and here is where Drawn & Quarterly would probably like me to warn you of a possible spoiler—it was through his venture into the world of paid sex that Brown found love, or something like it. His relationship with “Denise” began as one between client and contractor but has since become monogamous. Mind you, each of their sexual encounters still concludes with a monetary transaction, and things aren’t progressing the way they would in a standard romance. Brown is okay with that, and so is “Denise”.

“In boyfriend-girlfriend relationships,” says Brown, “usually there’s this pressure: ‘Let’s move things to the next step. We should move in together and after that there should be a proposal,’ or whatever. There seem to be these steps, and there’s nothing like that in this relationship, where it feels like we’re supposed to be moving it in a certain direction. The relationship is the way it is, and we both seem to be happy with it the way it is.”

Brown wouldn’t change a thing, in other words, and the same is true for his inevitably controversial book. Well, mostly true. Upon further reflection, Brown allows that he might do one thing differently if given the chance. “There’s a scene in the book where Seth intimates that I’m going through a midlife crisis, and I totally deny it,” he says. “My thinking about that has changed a little bit, in that I think I probably was going through what many men experience as a midlife crisis; it just didn’t feel that way to me because I didn’t experience it as a crisis. A lot of guys might hit middle age and start wanting to have sex with younger women, and might actually do it. If they’re in a relationship—if they’re married, say—they would probably experience that as a negative thing and be down on themselves. They could experience it as a crisis. But because I wasn’t in that type of relationship, it didn’t feel like a negative thing to me. If I was doing it over, I would at least address that in the notes, and say: ‘There might have been something to what Seth was saying.’”

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