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A Chester Brown Notebook

Libertarianism. I find Chester’s libertarianism much more off putting than his habit of paying for sex. Of course, it’s possible for a non-libertarian to make common cause with aspects of the libertarian agenda. The political blogger Will Wilkinson (a sometimes cartoonist) has been trying to encourage an alliance between American progressive leftists and libertarians on a few key issues. In my experience there are many practical political matters (the war on drugs, foreign policy, copyright issues) where Chester and I are in agreement. My main objections to libertarianism are theoretical: I don’t think government regulations are inherently evil (at least not if the government is democratically elected). Nor do I think that private property should be considered an absolute good. And in any case you can't have genuinely secure property rights without a strong state, so the dichotomy libertarians set up between the state and capitalism makes little sense to me. At the heart of libertarianism is an unwillingness to acknowledge that humans are social creatures and hence many of the important decisions we have to make (environmental problems, for example) are perforce collective in nature (and ideally should be made democratically). Emotionally, libertarianism is easy to understand and sympathize with as a desire to maximize the zone of our autonomy but civically and morally libertarianism is a disaster. 

A Strange Dualism. I was taken aback by Chester’s statement that “Your body is your property. Just as you own property like books and clothes, you own your body.” This seems like a wildly dualistic and strangely alienated way to think. We don’t OWN our bodies, we ARE our bodies. Our bodies are inextricable from who we are (which makes the argument against unnecessary external regulations of bodily acts stronger, rather that weaker). If my body hurts then I hurt, if my body is healthy then I am healthy. To think about ourselves as being so separated from our bodies that we can own them like we own a car or a shirt reinforces a long and regrettable tradition (rooted in Platonic philosophy and Pauline theology) of alienating the physical from the spiritual.

Sex As Trade. Growing out of Chester's libertarianism is this statement on page 274, "It's also worth pointing out that, aside from rape (which is about taking without giving anything), sex is always about trade. 'I want to give you physical pleasure because I want physical pleasure in return', or, 'I'll have sex with you because I want affection', or, 'You can fuck me for 200 dollars.' It's all trade." Now, I'm willing to allow that sex is often about trade and perhaps even mostly about trade but sex is not exclusively about trade. At least in my experience, sex involves giving pleasure, sharing pleasure, and exploring pleasure as well as trading pleasure. That's to say, it is possible for someone, whether male or female, to engage in sex largely for the satisfaction of giving pleasure, without necessarily having the expectation of reciprocal pleasure. You can get pleasure from giving pleasure. If you are sharing pleasure or exploring pleasure, then the identity of the person you are having sex with is a crucial part of the experience, which isn't necessarily the case if you are trading pleasure. Which is another way of saying that there are perhaps more gradations to sexual experience than Chester's theory allows for. Perhaps relatedly, there doesn't seem to be a lot of room for cuddling or foreplay in Chester's version of sex, at least to judge from Paying for It.

Money For Nothing, Chicks For Free. I was amused by Chester's vision of a sexual utopia where paid-sex is not only normalized but nearly a universal practice. Leave it to a libertarian to turn into a cash-making enterprise one of the few great pleasures in life that people can enjoy -- and mostly do enjoy -- for free.

The Uses of Radicalism. Despite my objections to libertarianism, there is something quite useful about the forceful bluntness of Chester’s arguments. Every successful social movement needs a Malcolm X as well as a Martin Luther King, Jr., radical agitators like ACT-UP as well as the more suave lobby groups like the Human Rights Campaign. The function of radicals like Malcolm X or ACT UP is to scare the bejesus out of powers-that-be, so they’ll be more willing to negotiate with "responsible" reformers like King or the Human Rights Campaign. I’m sure that Chester isn’t being strategic in his radicalism. He's very honest and without guile. But on a practical level his radicalism is very effective for moving the debate forward. Paying for It is not just a brave book, it is also a necessary one.

Trusting the Tale. “Never trust the teller,” D.H. Lawrence famously advised. “Trust the tale.” Chester’s designed the cover for Lady Chatterly’s Lover but he’s not really a Lawrence fan. Still, the words of the novelist are worth bearing in mind because there are occasional disjunctions between Chester’s polemical intent and his storyteller’s instincts. The narrative portions of Paying for It present a very nuanced view of prostitution and at least on some occasions the sex Chester has seems slightly tawdry and alienating. (Although as I'm sure Chester will add, rightly enough, that free sex can also be tawdry and alienating). Acting as a cross-talking chorus, Chester’s friends present important dissenting voices, as on occasion do the working women. “Edith” in particular makes some good arguments against Chester’s anti-romantic ideas. Thanks to these divergent voices and the ambiguity of Chester's own actions, Paying for It is a complex and polyphonic work of art, not just a single-minded didactic Ditkovian tract.

Chester Brown, Closet Romantic? In the light of Paying for It and its questioning of romantic love, it’s interesting to re-read Chester’s 2008 zombie comics (available here as a pdf file). The zombie story has a genuinely sweet romantic undercurrent with a cute young woman and a zombie overcome mutual trepidation to come together as a couple. Of course, romance is a major narrative mode, one that is hard to escape from. But again, this is a case where the storyteller is at odds with the ideologue.

The Sacred and the Profane. I’m a bit befuddled by Chester’s assertion that sex is “sacred.” Part of the problem is that I don’t subscribe to a metaphysics that makes a distinction between the sacred and the profane. I’m uncomfortable describing anything as sacred. To me, sex is extremely enjoyable activity that’s part of the larger package of human relationships. Chester’s sacralizing of sex is intriguing when combined with his assertion that marriage is “evil.” Traditionally, orthodox Christians have taught that non-procreative or non-marital sex is evil, while marriage is a sacrament. Chester has merely inverted this system of values. I think it would better do without talk of the sacred altogether. It’s a very confused language rooted in a metaphysics that we can easily do without. I do understand the temptation to use the term sacred though, as a way of countering traditionalist tendencies to denigrate the importance of sex. I’m sympathetic with the urge to fight these tendencies but think it should be done without borrowing the tattered and cast-off language of theology. Perhaps one way around all this is to simply argue that the ideal society is the one that maximizes the amount of consensual sex adults enjoy.

Brown’s Sex Trilogy. Paying for It can, of course, be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone book. But there are other contexts for reading the book. It can easily be seen as the conclusion (or the most recent chapter) of an autobiographical trilogy that includes The Playboy (1992) and I Never Liked You (1994). Thematically, these three books are closely linked as they trace the subterranean currents of Chester’s sexual and emotional development. It is easy to draw a connection between the younger Brown who read Playboy and had difficulty emotionally expressing himself as a teenager with the older Brown who (spurred on by seeing a Playboy model at a convention) decides that paying for sex is better than romantic entanglements. As against the thematic unity of the trilogy, of course, it’s worth emphasizing the tonal variety of these works: the hectoring narration of The Playboy is nothing like the suppressed wistfulness of I Never Liked You or the clinical detachment of Paying for It.

The Matt/Brown/Seth universe. There’s another way to see Paying for It, as part of an interconnected series of autobiographical and pseudo-autobiographical works created by Brown and his friends Joe Matt and Seth (the erstwhile “Toronto Trio”). As such, Paying for It belongs on the same shelf as Matt’s The Poor Bastard and Spent as well as Seth’s It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken and  his brief strip about Joe Matt. When I was reading Paying For It, some scenes reminded me of Spent in particular, and I was gratified when Chester mentioned in an interview with Sean Rogers that he was deliberately alluding to Matt’s comics. The elegantly distilled art in Paying for It owes something to a similar effect Matt achieved in Spent. What these works give us, taken together, is a multi-sided view of the crucial friendship these cartoonists have formed, a friendship now somewhat attenuated by Matt’s move to Los Angeles and Seth’s move to Guelph.

Autobiography as a Distorted Mirror. When reading autobiographical comics by the former Toronto Trio I’m often reminded of a quip from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.” In the service of a “warts and all” aesthetic, these autobiographical (or pseudo-autobiographical) artists often show themselves to be worse than they are. In real life, at least in my experience, Joe Matt has a winning sweetness to him, fueled by a romantic buoyancy. The darker shades of Joe’s character – his laziness, his miserliness, his unwillingness to move on from his adolescent fixations – are all rendered truly enough, but I wish Matt’s boyish charms also made it into the comics. Similarly, it’s true that Seth has a strong melancholic side, well recorded in his work, but there’s also a part of him that’s smoothly super-social. He can easily hold a dinner table spellbound with his free-flowing conversational cleverness, something that doesn’t come through in his pseudo-autobiographical work (although his wit is well in evidence in Wimbledon Green). With Chester, the real life man has an emotional openness and sentimental side that’s been especially visible since he started seeing “Denise.” You wouldn’t know it from Paying for It but Chester is a good friend to have if you want to discuss a personal problem. As Dustin Harbin has noted on twitter, the real life Chester has a quick and ready smile, but the cartoon Chester is always frowning. I strongly agree with Seth’s assessment that “out of all the men I know, [Chester is] quite possibly the one I think would make the most considerate boyfriend or husband for a woman.”  The chilliness of Paying for It makes sense as an artistic decision but it hides something of Chester’s own warmth of character. As I’ve often joked, Chester is more devoted to his call girl than most men are to their wives. He bubbles over with delight when talking about “Denise” in way that is very endearing. Chester really is a lovely and loveable man, a fact only hinted at in Paying for It.

Speaking of Joe Matt. I have to say, it's a good thing that it is Chester, rather than Joe Matt, who has become the full-time john. If Joe paid for sex, those poor working gals would never get a tip. Unholy wrangling and haggling would precede every blowjob. (This is the requisite Joe Matt joke every account of the Toronto Trio is required to have).

A Libertarian Tradition? Chester’s affinities with Harold Gray and Steve Ditko are both aesthetic and political. Which leads me to think that it might be useful to try and map out a libertarian tradition in comics. Gray is often described simply as a conservative but in some ways he was a proto-libertarian: he was against censorship, not overly concerned with traditional family values, and indeed once presented a very favorable portrayal of a prostitute (something to warm Chester’s heart). On another occasion, Gray showed Annie befriending a retired burlesque dancer. Perhaps the best way to map out this tradition would be to do an anthology called A Treasury of Libertarian Comics, with stories from Gray (the Eli Eon storyline and the Mrs. Bleating-Hart story), Ditko (Mr. A.), Carl Barks ("Only a Poor Old Duck", etc.) Chester (excerpts from Paying For It and other other works), Peter Bagge, and Paul Pope. Percy Crosby might fit in here as well. More suggestions of libertarian cartoonists would be welcome.

Light and Dark. Look at the corner of Chester’s panels in the indoor scenes. Almost invariably one or more of these corners, usually the top right or top left, is shaded in pitch black. There’s a mildly claustrophobic effect, which is intensified during the sex scenes to form a larger circle of black surrounding the white space around the couple, making it look like the act of coitus is generating an electric halo around them. Perhaps this is connected to Chester’s sense that sex is “sacred.” In any case, this effect, although made uniquely fierce and harsh by Chester, owes something to Gray’s use of outdoor light and indoor darkness in Little Ophan Annie. In Reading the Funnies, Donald Phelps has written observantly about the play of light and darkness in Gray’s work. His words are worth quoting because they apply to Chester’s art as well: “The world in which his little orphan moves, in her charade of nineteenth century Victorian convention, is one of the most wintry imagined by a comic-strip artist; a continuous study in distance, silence, and cold light; light that exhibits much and reveals little. It is light which seems, itself, a mask…. [The light] frames and portrays, and spotlights illusions, like the bewitching aureole which surrounds  Punjab’s menacing abracadabra with his vanishing cloak. Gray’s light seems more often a partner of the darkness than its dispeller.” Another side-effect of Chester'suse of light is that in the sex scenes it looks like we're peeking through a peephole, squinting to catch a glimpse of a couple copulating.

Chester Brown as “Daddy” Warbucks. Filthy minded readers have long suspected that there is a sexual undercurrent to “Daddy” Warbucks’ relationship to Annie. Harvey Kurtzman’s Little Orphan Annie parody in Mad (and later his Little Annie Fanny strip) was based on the conceit of Warbucks as a “sugar daddy” to a sexualized (and adult) orphan. Isn’t Brown, in the relationship he describes with “Denise,” something of Warbucks figure (or at least Warbucks as imagined by Kurtzman). Warbucks left his beloved waif to mostly fend for herself and only intervenes when she needs help. Chester too respects “Denise’s” autonomy and has a hands-off but affectionate relationship, helping her financially when she needs it. Warbucks and Chester are both bald. Of course, there is a difference between Warbuck’s vast wealth and Chester’s more modest income as an alternative cartoonist.

Provoking. Even those who don’t like Paying for It have to admit it’s a provoking book, one that spurs a great deal of serious conversation about important life issues. After we both read the book, my partner and I spent several days talking about it off and on, despite the fact that we already knew the outlines of Chester’s personal history and had many other important things going on in our life (i.e., a newborn!). Due to its radical honesty, Paying for It is a very searching book, one that interrogates the reader during the reading, forcing you to give an account for your own sense of love and sex. In that sense, those who have most forcefully rejected the book, like Matt Seneca, are testifying to its power.

 Rewarding Exploitation. I’m utterly flummoxed by Seneca’s argument that buying Paying For It rewards the exploitation of sex workers. The degree to which prostitution is exploitation needs to be argued about rather than simply assumed. That debate requires voices like Chester’s (as well as the voices of sex workers and other interested parties). To reject Paying for It outright forecloses an argument without resolving it. To what degree should readers be concerned about the moral life of authors and the possibly squalid behavior that goes into the making of art? Were the buyers of William Burroughs rewarding heroin use? Are the buyers of Alice Munro, John Updike, and Philip Roth rewarding adultery? Did the buyers of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound reward anti-Semitism? Are the buyers of Marvel comics rewarding the past and ongoing exploitation of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many other artists? There are very few worthwhile artists who could survive Senecian moral strictures. (The nice thing about Seneca's moralistic approach is that it means not having to buy many books; you can just read them during your lunch break at the local bookstore.)  Artists use their experiences for fuel and that means consuming the lives of those around them. This creates difficult moral issues about balancing artistic freedom with privacy rights. For an exemplary discussion of these dilemmas, see Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, which gets at complexities that Seneca glosses over. But for the book at hand, I have to say that Chester has been completely considerate in how he used the lives of those implicated in his story. For those people he’s still in touch with, he gave them a chance to look at the manuscript and respond in the notes (Seth being the only one to pen a mild response). For the prostitutes, who would be very difficult if not impossible to track down, he’s protected their identity by not drawing their faces and by suppressing any identifying information. This is all the opposite of exploitation.

 Shed No Tears For Chester. Shortly after the first time Chester tells Joe Matt and Seth about going to a prostitute, Seth says, “To be honest it just seems sad to me. It’s sad that you’re resorting to this, and it’s sad that women are in circumstances that force them to have sex for money.” Seth has moved on from this position and in a note in the appendix argues that “prostitution may not work for every man, but it works for him.” But people who don’t know Chester but hear about his story do on occasion use the word “sad” to describe his lifestyle. Just from personal observation, I have to say this is a grave misjudgment. Chester is far from requiring pity. Indeed, if I had any critique of Chester it is that he’s a bit too cheerful to the point of being self-satisfied and untroubled by the world’s problems.

Headline Correction. I was unhappy with the headline given to the print version of my Globe and Mail column: "My Friend the john: What I learned after he came out of the sex-client closet." The opening ("My Friend the john") is cheesy and the rest is inaccurate. Chester was never in the "sex-client closet." As Paying for It makes clear, he made his sex life known to those around him not long after he first slept with a prostitute. I forget when I first met Chester -- it was either in 2000 or 2001 -- but soon after he mentioned that he paid for sex.

Brown and the Babies. I don’t know what to make of this fact, but quite a few of the reviews of Paying for It have come from people on the cusp of parenthood or just starting parenthood. Paying for It was the last book my partner and I read before she went into labor. Naomi Fry reviewed Paying For It while 39 weeks pregnant. If I remember correctly, Seat T. Collins wrote about the book soon after his wife gave birth.  What’s going on here? Is it a coincidence? Or is Chester the unlikeliest of all fertility gods?


31 Responses to A Chester Brown Notebook

  1. RobClough says:

    This book has inspired a lot of interesting reviews and notes, but this is probably my favorite article to date. (I'm honestly still formulating my feelings on the book, and it will require another reading to do so.

    A couple of points that you touch on…I think you're right to note that Brown is giving up more than romance in seeing escorts, he's giving up the pleasure of simple intimate physical contact–touching, kissing, the sensation of being lost in another person. Although it is possible that he now has this with "Denise" but chose not to depict it. It may well be that this sort of thing simply isn't important to him, that he prefers to more or less get straight to the act without traditional foreplay or simple physical affection. (continued)

  2. RobClough says:

    The problem, which may stem from a libertarian viewpoint in the sense that if **I** feel this way, it must be a universal maxim, is that this sort of physical affection is a mainstay of romantic love. The stereotype is that this is indeed what women prefer/need more than the actual act of sex itself, which is true in some cases but far less often than one would think. Rather than look at his own romantic failures or failed marriages in general and declare them evil, a more interesting question is to ask why they fail. Brown suggests that it's inherent to the structure, but if that were true, why don't all marriages fail or wind up with two unhappy partners. (continued)

  3. RobClough says:

    The answer, I think, goes to what you said about different kinds of pleasure. A successful couple is one that understands what their own sexual/pleasure needs are as well as their partners, and tries to find ways to satisfy those needs. In extreme cases, when one partner's sexual drive has greatly dwindled, this is when a pay-for-sex situation can actually be beneficial. For whatever reason, many people are simply uncomfortable in discussing what their actual needs are.

    One last bit on libertarian cartooning regarding Gray. His other major libertarian tendency is something you've noted before in a different context: he was avidly pro-immigration. This is a standard libertarian position.

  4. patford says:

    Jeet do you suppose your opinion of the book is being coloured by your deep affection for Chester?
    The book was a disappointment for me. Going in I already knew the subject matter was something I simply wasn't interested in, but I'm always willing to concede an artist his choice of topics, and judge the work on it's merits.
    In the end the book seemed light weight to me. It almost inevitably would come across that way, because it is limited by it's choice of subject matter to being superficial. The long series of repetitive brief encounters just aren't very interesting, and it's hard to imagine any way in which they could be. It wouldn't be much different if Chester had decided to go around town and sample the wares of a series of street vendors selling hotdogs from push-carts.
    Chester is telling the story well, but the story is so limited there is no way I could imagine making it very interesting.
    Even if Chester wasn't concerned about violating the privacy of the prostitutes in the book, he'd still be limited by the fact that the transactions are brief, and artificial.
    Most readers also have the disadvantage of engaging the story without knowing much of anything about Chester.
    This changes the perspective of how one sees the story. Most specifically in the instance of Chester's long term monogamous relationship with his paid-girlfriend. The introduction of that aspect of the story brings up a host of unanswered questions which makes the reading experience completely different for a reader who doesn't know Chester the way Jeet does. Jeet has a personally informed perspective, and others are in the dark making the reading experience drastically different.
    The casual reader has no idea what the parameters are of Chester's relationship with his paid-girlfriend. It isn't being nosy to wonder if Chester pays her for every moment they are together. Someone (I think Jeet) mentioned that Chester never takes his paid-girlfriend out socially. Are we to assume then that it's because (as pointed out in the comments) she would expect her usual hourly rate if Chester invited her to dinner, and a movie, or over to the house of a friend for a dinner and talk? It's impossible to make sense of the role the paid-girlfriend plays in the story knowing so little about the extent of the relationship.
    The paid relationship with "D" strikes me as ominous. I'm left wondering how Chester would react if a woman he pays for sex one day sends him a dear john letter?

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Rob Clough. Thanks for the kind words. Looking forward to your review.
    @Pat Ford. It's impossible for me to separate my response to the book with my knowledge of Chester, but to the exent I can, I think its a remarkable work of art, largely because it humanizes the experience of being a john. There are tens of millions of me in the world who sleep with prostitutes, so its valuable to find out what the experience is like. I would suggest you re-read the book, perhaps slowly. There are depths there that a first reading doesn't show.
    About Chester's relationship with "Denise": it really isn't our business but he talks about the parameters of the relationship in this excellent interview with Benjamin Walker:

  6. patrick ford says:

    Jeet, Thanks for the link. Chester’s points about the relationship with “D’ at around the 28 min. mark aren’t very convincing. Again what I’m wondering about is how much time he spends with “D.”
    My life has shown we people argue with people they spend a great deal of time with in close quarters. Parents, roommates, co-workers, etc. it has nothing to do with sex. So I’m assuming that Chester sees “D” once or twice a month for an hour?

  7. patrick ford says:

    BTW, Chester’s justification for accepting a Government grant at around the 47 min. mark of the interview is at the absolute end of the rope in terms of being laughable (given that he’s a Libertarian). There may be millions of things as ridiculous, but they’re all at the same 0% level in terms of logic.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    Well, living with people can contribute to arguments. But Chester continued to live with Sook-Yin Lee for years after their breakup and says that it was a happy arrangement. In fact, as he shows in Paying For It, he was initially unhappy at the thought of moving away from Sook-Yin’s place when the time came for him to move out. So Chester’s problem is not that he can’t live with someone; rather its that he doesn’t want a conventional romantic relationship and is much happier with the paying arrangement he currently has.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    Well, I’m not unsympathetic with Chester here. If you are a libertarian living in a welfare state, you’ll have to receive some level of government money at one time or another, just as if you are a socialist living in a capitalist society (i.e. Marx and Engels) you have to find a way to make money. You can’t expect people who live in societies whose basic arrangements they don’t accept to live like hermits. As is now well known, even Ayn Rand had to accept medicare late in life.

  10. Chris Mautner says:

    “Is Chester the unlikeliest of all fertility gods?”

    Oh dear god I hope not.

  11. patrick ford says:

    Specifically Chester said there was a distinction between giving, and “taking.” In fact he says he would work to abolish the very grants he received if he had political power.
    Clearly Chester doesn’t ascribe to the idea, “It is better to give than to receive.”
    We American’s can only dream of living in a developed nation like Canada. If Chester were living in a Third World country like the United States I wonder if it might affect his political opinions.
    As for Rand the fact that she accepted government assistance to treat an illness brought on by smoking only compounds her hypocrisy.

  12. patrick ford says:

    Jeet, My thought is that Chester saw far less of Sook-Yin after they “broke-up” even though he continued to live in her place. It isn’t a matter of living with a person, it’s being in close contact for many hours at a time, that’s why I mentioned co-workers.
    There isn’t anything in the book which addresses the off the clock “time spent” with Sook-Yin” or “D.” Is Chester seeing Sook-Yin far less than he used to? Is he paying for every hour he spends with “D” in which case he probably sees her a few hours each month?
    Let’s say Joe Matt showed up at Chester’s door and moved in “until he could find a place.”
    How would that go? I’m thinking of the old Joe Matt story where he house sits for friends, and they return to find the cat box filled with “tootsie-rolls” and the house trashed, because Joe has spent the whole time drinking and watching porno. What sounds funny from a distance isn’t so funny up close.

  13. R. Fiore says:

    The thing about Chester, or a thing about Chester, is that he has a weakness for crackpot ideas. The Shakespeare authorship “controversy” is a classic marker for that. I remember when he did his schizophrenia strip I was sorely tempted to take issue with the hippie bullshit notions about mental illness, but I refrained (a) because I would be arguing with his opinions rather than making an aesthetic value judgment, but more importantly (b) I feared that pressing him to defend his ideas might lead him to become obsessed with them, the way Dave Sim has become obsessed with his. Thankfully that doesn’t happen.

    I wouldn’t put libertarianism quite in that category, but it is an ideology that tends to take a reasonable idea and expand it into unreasonability. The thing about libertarianism is that it’s an unpopular belief that’s presented with a high degree of arrogance. The arrogance will lead the majority who don’t agree to counterattack as if it were some powerful force in the world, and the end result has the character of bullying. For all practical purposes, while it’s useful to the right for its knack of coming up with new rationalizations for indifference to suffering, an atheistic ideology of the right is a lead balloon. Harold Gray was not a libertarian. Actually his political thinking was too incoherent to define ideologically, but he was too much of a moralist to be called a libertarian. In the latest volume of the Complete Annie the labor unionists and do-gooders could indeed have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged, but Daddy Warbucks has a highly un-Galtian philanthropic streak. While he wasn’t authoritarian, Gray had this temptation for creating power figures that were so powerful that they made stories impossible — Warbucks, Punjab, the Asp, even God himself.

    In Paying for It Chester doesn’t say that monogamy is evil and prostitution is good, he’s saying that monogamy is evil and prostitution is an alternative. A convenient aspect of this is that it makes a virtue out of necessity, since no woman on earth is going to put up with a romantic partner who frequents prostitutes. (You can imagine a gay couple splitting one, but that might just be stereotypes talking.) Chester ultimately presents a situation with no need of reform. The de facto unofficial official position on prostitution is that it’s against the law, but nobody’s stopping you. The forest that tends to get lost in the trees of Paying for It is that Chester frequents prostitutes regularly for over ten years and never has the least bit of trouble with the authorities over it. The only time officialdom seems to go after it seriously is when it’s done on the streets or when a particular prostitution ring threatens to become a big business. The most significant thing governments have done regarding prostitution over the last 20 years is to create a communications medium that facilitates it.

    Like I said, people don’t want to take yes for an answer on this issue. The social expectation from a memoir like this is that the whoremonger sees the error of his ways, and Chester confounds it. While the business with Denise tends to reflect a hardwired desire to mate for life even if it’s impractical in practice, so long as romance stays on a business basis Chester hasn’t surrendered his principles.

    I like Paying for It well enough, but as for it being the book of the year for my part I’ve already read two I was more impressed with, though in their home countries they were books of last year and of the year before that — The Sky Over the Louvre and the Winshluss Pinocchio.

  14. Andrew McIntosh says:

    I loved the book, but at the same time I find myself agreeing with most of what patford said—we’re just given far too little information.

    I’ve been reading basically every review and interview I’ve come across, and I find that greatly enhances the reading of the book, because it fills in so many of the gaps—I already knew most of what happens in the book, along with a great deal of additional commentary, even before I had a copy in my hands.

    But for someone who wasn’t already obsessed enough with Brown’s work to hunt down all these articles; for someone who was opening up this book blind, there really is far too much important information missing for it to really make it’s point. Denise shows up, and the next thing you know, they’re monogamous. Just like that.

    Also, I have trouble reading the scene with Gwendolyn the way you did. I don’t see any hint of Chester finding “sexiness” in the “impassive mask”—each time I’ve read it, I’ve read disappointment in Brown’s comments, as in everything’s great but for this “impassive mask”. Do you have privileged information from the man himself to give you that way of reading it? Because no matter how many times I read those pages, I can’t get that interpretation out of it.

  15. Mike Hunter says:

    RobClough says:
    …Brown is giving up more than romance in seeing escorts, he’s giving up the pleasure of simple intimate physical contact–touching, kissing, the sensation of being lost in another person…. It may well be that this sort of thing simply isn’t important to him, that he prefers to more or less get straight to the act without traditional foreplay or simple physical affection.

    Which reminds of a cartoon: A middle-aged, executive-looking man is in bed with a dismayed-looking woman. He tells her, “Of course I ejaculated prematurely… I’m a very busy man!”

    Jeet Heer says:
    …If you are a libertarian living in a welfare state, you’ll have to receive some level of government money at one time or another… As is now well known, even Ayn Rand had to accept medicare late in life.

    “Have to”? “Had to”? Yeah, I can see some Nanny State bureaucrat ordering a cop to wrench their arms half out of their sockets, and brutally forcing Brown and Rand to take that money.

    In Chester’s case, he could’ve skipped a few sessions with hookers in order to save some money…

  16. patrick ford says:

    If only I had been born in Xanada. If the choice is between living in a corporatist country which “forces” you to go out and get a job, as opposed to a socialist country where the government “forces” you to accept large cash gifts, well let’s just say I’m envious.

  17. Jeet Heer says:

    Well, the reason I think Chester found the “impassive mask” sexy is that he keeps going to Gwendolyn, suggesting that there was something attractive about her bedroom behaviour. I’m not working from any privileged information here, just extrapolating from Chester’s behaviour as shown and also his larger tendency to draw people as if they had masks.

  18. Jeet Heer says:

    About Gray as a libertarian. It’s complicated because his worldview jelled in the 1920 and 1930s while official libertarianism came together after World War II. And as you say, there are other strains in is ideology (populism, moralism, and authoritarianism). But still, Gray anticipated many elements of libertarian thought. I’ll talk about this more in future introductions to the Little Orphan Annie series. Brian Doherty, a historian of libertarianism, told me that Gray was “ahead of the curve” on many matters.

  19. Andrew McIntosh says:

    Fair enough. The problem I have reading it that way comes from a) in 145:1 when he says “but now her face is an impassive mask.” Why “but”? b) he closes the scene in 147:3 with him saying “This is my fifth time with her, and her face is still like a mask during sex”, after which he never sees her again. Right in the next scene, he talks about “Alexis” being less attractive than “Gwendolyn”. The entire scene with “Gwendolyn” paints her in a more positive light than just about any of the other prostitutes—she’ s “STUNNING”, she’s friendly, they like to talk. Why did he ditch her, if not for the “impassive mask”?

    Of course, this could all come down to the same problem—not enough critical information. Maybe Brown did like the mask and ditched her for some other reason, but failed to communicate that, just as he fails to make the reader understand his relationship with “Denise”. Brown’s always been a master of “show, don’t tell”, but in PFI, there are far too many scenes where we just simply have to take his word.

    On a completely different note—did anyone else find it weird that Brown would choose to use a page for the cover from a scene where he didn’t get laid and lost his whoring money in the process? What a way to advertise what a “positive” thing the world of prostitution is!

  20. MZA says:

    about “Gwendolyn”, Chester says, “She’s more beautiful than any of the prostitutes I’ve been with so far.” That seems like a plausible enough reason for multiple return visits, without any extra extrapolating.


  21. Superb article, Jeet.

    I agree that Chester’s polemics are inseparable from his comics, and I find them fascinating (even when I profoundly disagree with them). Paying For It is an extraordinary book – the kind of book I prefer to read and re-read and think about as it is. Elements which some might see as a flaw (the hidden faces, the impassive masks, the evasiveness about “Denise,” the ‘controversial’ opinions) – all of these are to me a part of the whole, and just add to the fascinating complexity of yet another Chester Brown masterpiece.

    It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this book and soon forgetting it. It’s lodged itself deep into my brain and will never leave.

    Also: loved the discussion of how Brown uses light and shading. Really a beautiful article; so full of ideas and interesting responses.

    Also also: congratulations on the newborn!

  22. Jeet Heer says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Dylan. Absolutely agree that Paying For It has to be seen as an integrated whole, take it or leave it. And, yes, its a book that sears into you and doesn’t leave after you put it down. I actualy think that most of the reviews, even the positive ones, haven’t yet done justice to how primordial it is.

  23. Paul Mason says:

    I fear for the rest of his creative output regardless of quality of this book. Ditko and Sim did some interesting work once their basically authoritarian and moronic world views began to coalesce, but it wasn’t long till their work became insufferable despite maintaining most of their basic cartooning chops.

  24. FrF says:

    After reading Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts by Jonathan Franzen I couldn’t help but see his and Chester’s take on romantic love as antipodal. Quotation from the above essay: “The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.”

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  29. Charlie Brown says:

    This is an interesting article and I agree raises some points that other reviewers have not addressed.

    However, I disagree with its core thesis that Chester Brown is ignoring his inner self and motivations and thus creating a relatively sterile work.

    As I see it, for people to survive they obviously need to breath, eat, drink, sleep and defecate. But, there is one other requirement, I think: sex.

    Now, of course people survive without sex, but I would propose most are profoundly neurotic as a result. As an example whom the author makes reference to: Dave Sim.

    He supposedly has renounced sex but, as the author points out, is (to be generous) deeply neurotic.

    Now, are there cases of people renouncing sex who are “normal”?

    I’m sure there are, but I’m saying as a whole, to give up sex seems to be to give up a part of life that is required for emotional health.

    Chester gave relationships a shot and they didn’t work out.

    I don’t think this reflects his shortcoming; I know only a very few happy couples but know countless dysfunctional and miserable ones.

    The core issue is ego; most people appear to me to be profoundly self centered and narcissistic.

    So, perhaps Chester is right that romantic relationships are a losing proposition.

    We were meant to live to age 25, have sex and die.

    Now that we are living longer we have to deal with romantic constructs that are simply that: constructs.

    So, the author’s contention that Brown’s lack of a relationship is a result (or may be the result) of his childhood seems to me possible but not the bottom line.

    Brown simply accepts reality as it is: most relationships are false constructs and sex is a normal part of a healthy life.

    The rights of sex workers are important and I agree it is horrible to view Brown dispassionately hurting a prostitute during sex and hoping deep down for underage girls.

    This to me is the most disturbing part of his work; he is frequently fearful of stings if the girls are underage but not concerned if they really are and simply takes their word that they are not.

    Chester Brown is an ass, a self-centered cretin, a disgusting excuse for a human being.

    But, in this he is no different from 99% of people.

  30. Charlie Brown says:

    I don’t understand the assertion that no couple on earth would stand for a partner seeing a prostitute. Think of R. Crumb who has written and spoken of his relationship with his wife who is happy to let him engage with a prostitute (or I think he prefers the term “courtesan”). That is because the courtesan allows for a level of sadomasochism that would be hard for a partner to sustain. Also, many women have affairs – I think the stereotype is that women in France pride themselves on their “lovers”, which is little different in execution if the mechanics are more subtle (the exchanging of “gifts” and the unspoken limits of the arrangements). The author’s assertion that, however, she could see such an arrangement for a gay couple is extraordinary in its inaneness, and undermines her entire article for its stark level of undercover homophobia.

    Finally, Chester Brown NEVER says “monogamy is evil” as the author asserts. He says romantic relationships aren’t for him. Thus, the author is trying to create a thesis where none exists and her article only underscores her own neuroses, rather than the merits (or lack thereof) of Chester Brown’s work.

  31. Studs Dix says:

    Thus indeed, my friend, or should we say, ergo? It is 2013 after all.

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