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?