FEATURES

An Interview with Chester Brown

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PART I: THE BIBLE 

PETER BAGGE: Do many biblical scholars at least consider the possibility that the Virgin Mary was (at some point in her life) a prostitute? Or is that still very much a minority opinion? 

CHESTER BROWN: It’s such a minority opinion that I haven’t encountered the idea anywhere — not in the work of biblical scholars and not anywhere else. 

PB: So this is entirely your own pet theory? For example, when you have Matthew saying “All evidence indicates Jesus’s mother was a whore,” this is evident to you and no one else? (well, except Matthew, according to you). 

CB: It hasn’t been evident to anyone that I’m aware of from the more-or-less modern world. I’m arguing that there’s evidence in the ancient texts.   Regarding Matthew, I think the author of the bulk of Matthew’s Gospel (who would not have been named Matthew) probably did not construct the genealogy that I think indicates that Mary was a prostitute. That author either copied a genealogy that someone else had created (without noticing its whorish implications), or the genealogy was added by someone else. In Mary Wept, making a man named Matthew the author of both the gospel and the genealogy was a convenience. I didn’t want to create a longer Matthew chapter that went into detail depicting a more plausible account of the creation of the gospel. That would have taken me away from the points I was trying to make. 

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PB: It’s interesting that the two main Marys in Jesus’s life — his mother and Magdalene — both personified the two polar opposites of womanhood: the Madonna and the whore. Do scholars ever wonder if this could have been an attempt to separate one woman into two separate beings? 

CB: I mention in the notes section for Mary Wept that I think that maybe the gospel writers split the historical Magdalene into two characters: Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. But, as your question implies, there’s another possibility: that the three Marys — the “virgin”, the Magdalene, and the one from Bethany — were all one historical person. That possibility occurred to me but, because I was strongly indicating that there was a sexual aspect to Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus, I didn’t want to go further and say, “Hey, maybe Mary of Bethany was Jesus’s mom!” There’s enough controversial stuff in the book without adding incest into the mix. In her book When God Was a Woman, Merlin Stone notes that the Goddess religions often had stories in which the Goddess had a sexual relationship with Her divine son, who then dies and is mourned. Stone draws a parallel between those divine sons and Jesus, but she doesn’t explore what that might have meant regarding Jesus and his mother. That’s the closest I’ve seen to speculation like that. No one that I know of has outright suggested that the Virgin and the Magdalene were one. 

PB: And all of this still presumes Jesus had sex with either of the Marys — or anyone else, for that matter. The Catholic church at the time I attended (1960s-early ’70s) made it clear that Jesus was celibate — which was the main reason used to explain why priests and nuns didn’t marry: to be more “Christ-like.” They also never mentioned Mary of Bethany in sermons or Sunday school, while Magdalene’s very defined role was that of the “reformed sinner.” The mere fact that the musical Jesus Christ Superstar portrayed Magdalene as having romantic feelings towards Jesus was very controversial at the time — even blasphemous! 

CB: If Jesus did not have a conventional sex-life — if, say, he wasn’t married but instead had sex with prostitutes — that might explain why the gospel writers ignored that aspect of his life. They were embarrassed about it, just as I’m arguing that they were embarrassed about his anointing by a prostitute named Mary of Bethany. There are several points in the gospels where Jesus says things that indicate that he had a negative attitude towards marriage and the conventional family. This is speculative, but perhaps he thought that, instead of a patriarchal family structure, a more matrilineal one would be preferable — something like that of the Himalayan Moso culture that I mentioned in the Paying For It notes.   Getting back to the original question, research into first-century Palestinian female names has been done, and Mary was a VERY popular name for women, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Jesus knew many women with that name. 

PB: In Catholicism (particularly in Latin countries) the Virgin Mary quickly assumed many of the roles that various goddesses played in Pagan cultures, and she still is deified to an extent that almost puts her on a par with Jesus. Yet almost all Protestant religions immediately put her in the back seat, ostensibly for the same reasons that they rejected the concept of sainthood: that only God and Jesus where holy deities. But do you ever suspect there was more to it than that? (I know that some scholars view it as plain old sexism). 

CB: I can understand why, in the interests of reestablishing some semblance of monotheism, Protestants felt the need to downgrade the Virgin’s heavenly status. But it’s obvious that, throughout its history, the church has denied that God has a female aspect.  You mentioned that God and Jesus are Christian deities, but you forgot the third member of the trinity — the Holy Spirit. There’s little focus in the religion on this spirit, but in both Hebrew and Aramaic the word “spirit” is feminine, and some scholars argue that the early Christians saw the Holy Spirit as important because they saw her as the symbolic manifestation of God’s feminine aspect.

PB: I left out “The Holy Spirit” since it isn’t represented (at least in my upbringing) as a human-like being, let alone a gendered one. But then I never grasped the concept or purpose of the Holy Spirit at all, nor was it ever explained or discussed in Church or Sunday school. It was just mentioned at the end of the sign of the cross, and that was it. The Third Wheel. The Larry Fine of the Holy Trinity! That its origins may have been feminine makes sense, though. I always pictured angels being female as well, unless they’re specifically described as male.  Mary the Pregnant Virgin is an insane story — one that even Catholics always privately joked about! So your book presenting her as a whore who needed a cover story didn’t shock me in the least. Has this gotten much push back from your readers? I suspect that it hasn’t! 

CB: I do have a good friend who’s very religious, and she was quite offended by Mary Wept, as I knew she would be. I explained to her what the book was about and suggested that she not read it, but she wanted to anyway. We’re still friends, but there will be a lot of people like her.   

PB: Almost all established religions have impossible-to-believe stories (such as the virgin birth) as part of their tenets anyway. It’s a test of faith to accept these stories, especially in the face of ridicule.   

CB: And at the Toronto launch for the book, some guy complained that I had “perverted” the stories I’d adapted.

PB: Well, you did, in a sense. You do have something of a political agenda, after all, that you pretty much admitted is influencing your latest interpretations of the Bible. 

CB: I would contend that I’m trying to get back to what the original creators of the stories were saying. For instance, I think the person who wrote the story of Ruth understood that the word “feet” in Hebrew was a euphemism for penis and, so, was deliberately implying that Ruth seduced Boaz and that they had premarital sex. If I’m right, then I’m not perverting the story, I’m highlighting its original meaning. But if you learned the story in Sunday school, and you’re not aware of what biblical scholars are saying about it, it could seem like I’m perverting the story.  I have a political bias that MAY be distorting how I’m interpreting these stories, but I’m trying to get at the original meanings of the stories. I’m not intentionally imposing my politics onto them.  Getting back to your original question, I presume that, in asking about push-back from my readers, you were thinking more about people who are familiar with my work and enjoyed books like Ed The Happy Clown and Paying For It and, no, those readers are probably not going to offended by the book.

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PB: That is true. Most devout Christians will probably never even know of your latest funny book’s existence. 

What do you imagine Jesus’s persona to be like at this point in your life? In your earlier biblical adaptations, you first portrayed him in a rather generic way (based on Mark), and then as the angry, judgmental Jesus from the book of Matthew. In this new book you don’t even show his face, while his words portray him as extremely open minded and accepting. 

CB: The teachings of Jesus mostly dwelt on something he called the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Kingdom of God, depending on the gospel). Sometimes this kingdom referred to an apocalyptic overturning of the social order that would be coming in the near future. And sometimes this kingdom was an inner mystical state that one could access in the present moment. Most scholars see those two sets of of teachings as incompatible. I agree, but which set can we attribute to Jesus? I think the scholar John Dominic Crossan gets it right in suggesting that, despite their incompatibility, they can both be credited to the Galilean — that he began as an apocalyptic preacher and, somewhere along the line, switched to the mystical teachings that focus on things like love and forgiveness.   

PB: Do you or does anyone else get a sense of a timeline of this switch in each or any of the books in the New Testament? Or does one book lean more towards one portrayal or another? In your earlier Bible adaptations you strongly suggested that these various versions of Jesus were most likely a reflection of the different Biblical authors — that they were projecting. 

CB: I don’t think there are any biblical scholars who argue that any of the gospels present a realistic timeline for the life of Jesus.   Mark is clearly an apocalyptic work. Matthew and Luke both present apocalyptic and mystical material together in a jumble. John was written by at least three authors — one of them was apocalyptically oriented and another leaned mystical. Those are the biblical gospels, but I also think the Gospel of Thomas was written in the same period as the biblical gospels, and it has a mystical focus. (While some biblical scholars would agree that Thomas was written early, others think it was written after the period in which the biblical gospels were written.) Each of the gospel writers had his own take on what Jesus was trying to convey.  Anyway, as I was saying, I had accepted Crossan’s view that Jesus had started out as an apocalyptic preacher who had become more mystically oriented, and that’s where my thinking was at when I began drawing Mary Wept. Then I decided to add the chapter about Mary of Bethany to the book. The more I mulled over Mary’s anointing of Jesus, the more I became convinced that there was a sexual component to it and that Mary of Bethany wasn’t a simple prostitute, but, rather, was a sacred prostitute who represented the goddess Asherah. That would imply that Jesus didn’t begin his movement, but that he was a figure in an already existing group of Asherah-worshipers.   

PB: Your suggesting that Jesus may at one time have been polytheistic is the most controversial thing you’ve said yet! Though there’s no doubt that his attitude towards women was markedly different than the way they were generally portrayed in the Old Testament: more accepting and sympathetic. This alone must have made him a radical figure for his time.

CB: I’m not sure that Jesus would have seen himself as polytheistic. I don’t think he literally believed there were two or more gods. Rather, he recognized that God can have a male and a female aspect — that God can be both Yahweh and Asherah.   

PB: Most Christians are barely aware that Jesus had siblings, but your footnotes discuss a major role his brother James played in the early church. You also portray him as an uptight square! Is that the general consensus about him? Or is this also a minority opinion? 

CB: It’s not at all contentious to say that James had a conservative attitude regarding the laws of Moses. I don’t think there’s a biblical scholar out there who’d disagree. The scholarly disagreements are about what James’s attitude meant about Jesus. For example, Robert Eisenman wrote a massive book about James, detailing his conservatism, and concluded that, since James favored obeying the law, Jesus did too — as if brothers always agree! 

PB: That reminds me of another major theme of your book: how God favored rebels. Except for when he didn’t! Adam and Eve being a perfect example. This is a mixed message if ever there was one, and it reminds me of why I find the Bible so impossible to use as any kind of a moral compass: That being that the Biblical God behaves very much like a fickle, thin-skinned tyrant whose moodiness has everyone constantly walking on eggshells. He clearly was based on the various emperors and pharaohs that the Bible’s authors lived under at the time. In other words, the Biblical God is all too human!

CB: It depends on which parts of the Bible you’re talking about. Yes, God is fickle, thin-skinned, and moody much of the time. But biblical-era Jews — like Jesus — who were more mystically oriented believed in a more transcendent divine being. Sometimes those Jews presented stories in which God seems unfair on a surface level but is something else on deeper level. Take the story of Job, for example. It seems to present a capricious God who is very unfair in his treatment of Job. But if the interpretation that I present in Mary Wept is correct, then the point of the story is that life isn’t fair and that concepts like justice and law are created by humans. God is beyond such concerns. Getting overly concerned with concepts like fairness and justice can impede one’s ability to appreciate this miraculous experience we’re having called life. Another example would be Jesus’s Parable of the Talents. The master in that story, who symbolizes God, treats the slave who hid the talent unfairly. The slave doesn’t really do anything wrong and yet is punished. If I’m right, then the story isn’t about God’s fickle nature but is actually about how one’s perception of God (and life) affects one’s experience of God (and life). 

PART II: SEX WORK AND ROMANTIC LOVE

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PB: I was struck by a lot of the criticism you received for Paying For It, in that the most visceral opposition to prostitution in general was from male readers — specifically left-leaning progressive males. Did you also notice this?  

CB: There was a lot of whorephobia on display in the reviews of Paying For It — some of it was overt and some of it was subtle. One of the silliest examples was Matt Seneca’s insistence that he does not have a problem with prostitution, he just thinks it’s morally wrong to pay for sex!   I didn’t think it was particularly noteworthy that a lot of the negative reviews were written by men. Aren’t there just more men writing comics criticism than women? It seems to me that whorephobia isn’t confined to one gender or political ideology.   

PB: The comics reviews may have been mostly written by men, but many of the other reviews (admittedly often written by current or former prostitutes) were by women, and all were quite favorable.    

CB: Oh, I saw negative reviews written by women, including a significant one written by a sex-worker, Charlotte Shane. That one appeared on Tits and Sass, a web-site run by sex-workers. I certainly can’t say that Shane was coming at the book from a whorephobic perspective, which reminds me that I don’t mean to imply that all of the negative assessments of the book were written by people with a bias against prostitution. It’s not a perfect book, and I can see how one could have valid reasons for not responding favorably to it. Other than that negative review on Tits and Sass, all of the reviews of Paying For It that were written by sex-workers or ex sex-workers that I saw were positive. The most important one was Annie Sprinkle’s for the New York Times Book Review. She really liked the book, and what she wrote boosted sales a lot. The day that review came out, the book’s ranking on Amazon jumped to thirty-something — I can’t remember the exact number. It was also significant for me when sex-worker Maggie McNeill wrote a positive assessment on her blog The Honest Courtesan, since I respect her enormously.      

PB: The Tits and Sass writer (Shane) of course agreed with the main premise of your book. She just sounded insulted that she doesn’t seem to be your type!

A telling moment for prostitution’s opponents is that when the topic of male prostitution comes up (a topic that they never bring up themselves), they respond with a dismissive “that’s different” — that males are “able to take care of themselves,” and that any life choices they make are entirely their own. Yet this implies that women are both physically, intellectually and morally weak and are unable to look after themselves. It strikes me as very paternalistic, the way it infantilizes women. Would you agree? 

CB: Yeah, this is probably the point that best highlights the weakness of the anti-prostitution argument. As you note, anti-prostitutionists never bring up the topic of men engaging in sex-work. Their propaganda is full of references to women and girls, and sometimes boys, but never adult males. If their arguments were sound, they wouldn’t have to avoid that topic.   

PB: The “danger” aspect that prostitution’s opponents bring up also ignores the fact that many women have jobs that make them potentially equally vulnerable — domestic work and private health care, for example — let alone traditional male roles like law enforcement and the military, roles ironically in which there’s a strong societal push to include MORE women. I’m sure you’re aware of this contradiction, as well as the fact that sex work’s illegality is what truly makes it dangerous.   

CB: That’s all true but, also, the media tends to exaggerate the danger. Most clients are not violent. They’re regular, normal guys who just want to get laid. The woman I regularly pay for sex — the woman I called “Denise” in Paying For It — she never had a violent incident with a client. That doesn’t mean she liked all of her clients or that they were all nice, but it does indicate that the majority of johns are not dangerous.   

And, as you mentioned, the illegality makes it more dangerous. Here in Canada, prior to 2014, many sex-workers screened their clients before seeing them by asking for their real names and other identifying information, and many clients were willing to hand over that information. But that was when it was legal to pay for sex. In 2014, the government passed a new law making it illegal to pay for sex, so clients are now much less likely to hand over identifying information to a sex-worker since they’re worried that that sex-worker could be a cop pretending to be a sex-worker. That makes screening a client more difficult, if not impossible. 

The media also focus on two supposed sources of danger: the clients and the pimps. (Of course, most sex-workers don’t actually have pimps.) The media ignores the danger that cops pose. As I just indicated, I read Maggie McNeill’s blog, and she regularly links to news stories about cops raping sex-workers; there’s a steady stream of these stories — usually a couple of them each week. And those are the accounts that actually make it to the news; most such rapes wouldn’t be reported, of course. Most sex-workers hate cops, for good reasons. Anytime I hear someone in the media interviewing police officers for their expert insights into sex-work, I shake my head at the foolishness of the interviewer. If sex-work was decriminalized, cops wouldn’t have the same sort of power they have now over sex-workers. Again, the laws are making it less safe for prostitutes.   

Discussing the sex-work laws and the whorephobic reactions to Paying for It has reminded me of something Robert Fiore wrote regarding the book back when it came out. He said that only a few people are ever charged under the laws, so the laws aren’t really a problem. That’s like saying that, since not that many gays were charged with breaking the homophobic sodomy laws, those laws weren’t a problem and didn’t need to be repealed. The sodomy laws were bad laws — if the total number of gay men arrested and charged with having sex with each other was only two, that still would have been two too many. The laws shouldn’t have existed and nobody should have been charged under them. The sex-work laws are wrong for exactly the same reason that the sodomy laws were wrong — there should be no laws controlling consensual sexual activity between adults, even if the number of people charged under such laws is low. 

I just had the pleasure of meeting Norma Jean Almodovar when I was in Los Angeles, and she gave me a copy of her book Cop to Call Girl. She did time in prison for being a sex-worker. Would Fiore be able to look Norma Jean in the eye and say that the hell she went through was no big deal because most prostitutes don’t end up incarcerated like she was? 

And the laws can negatively affect sex-workers even if they’re never charged with breaking them. Thank god “Denise” never encountered a violent client, but if she had she would have been reluctant to go to the cops because she was breaking the law at that time by working out of an “in-call” apartment. So a hypothetical violent client could have abused her with impunity and gone on to assault other sex-workers. 

And, of course, the laws affect what johns do. A few years ago there was a case in Ottawa in which underage teens were being forced to work as prostitutes. Two of the clients (separately) realized that something was wrong and called the cops, but that was before it was illegal in Canada to pay for sex. Would those guys be as willing now to call the police? I don’t think so. We should eliminate laws that discourage people from doing the right thing. 

I respect Fiore — he’s bright and really funny — but that was an incredibly stupid thing to write.   

PB: The internet has made prostitution both safer and (I suspect) more common, at least among educated middle class women. Yet I suspect that this has lead indirectly to this recent moral panic over “sex trafficking” — an attempt to blur the distinctions between prostitution and kidnapping and slavery as a backdoor way of prosecuting prostitutes and their customers. Would you agree? 

CB: Yeah, I suppose you’re right that there’s probably a connection between sex-workers beginning to use the internet and the media myth springing up that “sex-trafficking” is widespread.   

These things go in cycles. For most of the 19th century, prostitutes were seen as morally bankrupt. Then, late in that century, some guy wrote some newspaper articles claiming that women and girls were being kidnapped and forced to become prostitutes. This supposed trade was called “white slavery.” This claim spread in the media and was widely believed for a few decades. Instead of being seen as morally deficient, it became common to see prostitutes as victims of “white slavers” and their clients. Eventually the story was seen for the bullshit it was and everyone went back to seeing prostitutes as lacking morals. The “sex trafficking” story is just a new version of the “white slavery” story, so the media is back to seeing sex-workers as victims and the word slavery is again being thrown around in relation to them. I’m hoping this time, when it becomes widely recognized that the trafficking story is largely bullshit, that, instead of everyone going back to seeing sex-workers and their clients as morally deficient, people instead start listening to those of us involved in this when we assert that we’re not doing anything wrong and our sexual civil rights should be respected.   

PB: I noticed that in comments on Goodreads and elsewhere that you seem to have lost some female readers with your dismissive views on romantic love — you lost me there as well, in that I think there’s an obvious physiological reason for it, though it left many women with the impression that you’re just bitter and “broken,” which colored their take on the rest of the book. It also amplified the negative impression that sex with hookers equals sex without love or romance, even though your book made it clear that that isn’t entirely true.    

CB: I agree that there’s probably a physiological basis for romantic love, but that doesn’t mean that it’s therefore necessarily always good. Not that I’m saying it’s always bad, either.  A lot of us have two “natural” impulses that seem to be in conflict. One of them is a tendency to feel emotionally drawn to a particular sexual partner. And, yes, one can feel that romantic pull even when one is paying for sex. I certainly feel it for “Denise,” which is the reason I’m still paying to have sex with her thirteen years after we first met. But there’s another impulse in a lot of us  — the desire for multiple sexual partners.

For heterosexual men that would mean the desire to hop into bed with every attractive woman who communicates sexual interest in us. I constantly find myself attracted to women I see when I’m walking around the city, and if any of those women were to express interest in having sex with me, I’d have a difficult time saying no. In fact, since Paying For It was published, I’ve been in a few situations where attractive women have expressed an interest in having sex with me, and I’ve said yes. (So I haven’t been completely monogamous with “Denise” in the past few years.) Now, those two impulses don’t have to be in conflict. In theory one could have, say, a significant sexual partner who one has a strong, emotional, romantic bond with, and also have other occasional (or more-than-occasional) sexual partners. Romantic feelings and monogamy do not HAVE to go together. At the end of Paying For It, you’ll remember, I wrote that it wasn’t romantic love that I had a problem with, but what I called “possessive monogamy”. I think this is one of the crucial sources of tension between romantic couples.   

I suppose, in pointing out in Paying For It that our modern conception of romantic love arose at a particular point in time, that it might look like I’m saying that it’s completely a cultural construct. That’s not what I’m saying. In noting that romantic love wasn’t important in ancient cultures in the same way that it is in ours, I’m NOT saying that it didn’t exist back then. Different cultures express these natural impulses in different ways for various reasons, but the romantic impulse has always been there in some form or another. For example, there were certain polygamous societies where, if they could afford to, men married multiple wives and the (male) impulse to have multiple sexual partners was exalted over the impulse to have an emotional attachment with one sexual partner. But that doesn’t mean that, back then, a man with multiple wives didn’t have a favorite wife who he felt romantic about.    

PB: Of course marriage and romantic love aren’t synonymous. There have always been arranged marriages and so-called “marriages of convenience,” as well as the many marriages that start out all lovey-dovey yet quickly go sour. It’s the link between romantic love and sex that people attach so much importance to. That the sex needs to “mean something.” It makes them feel less vulnerable, and more than just a sex object – which is also the main reason why most people couldn’t imagine being a sex worker, or relate to those who are.

I’m belaboring the obvious here, but just wanted to make clear my point of how even a sympathetic reader would have viewed you as at least somewhat emotionally damaged. And this is not to say that I feel that way! You seem fine to me, while doing no harm to anybody. So criminalizing your sex life is both cruel and pointless.  Besides, there are countless professions that I myself could never imagine doing – a house painter being at the top of that list – yet neither I nor anyone else is suggesting those professions should be illegal!

CB: Recently, Maggie McNeill made a comment about romantic love that I completely agree with: “Most romantic relationships are of short duration and only survive by turning into them into something else.” This observation, that successful romantic relationships morph into something other than romantic relationships, is, it seems to me, widely ignored in favor of the myth that true romance lasts “forever.” Examples of what successful romances can morph into would be: a sexless marriage that has become a child-raising enterprise, or a friendship between two people who live together and have sex maybe two-or-three times a year. I’m not saying that those two examples are necessarily examples of bad relationships. Couples like those can be very close and good for each other, but they might not be meeting each other’s sexual needs. And if someone in such a relationship tries to get his-or-her sexual needs met outside of the relationship, that can lead to damaging feelings of betrayal and pain. Our culture spreads a lie about romance and sex. Romantic couples who sustain their romantic feelings and who have frequent sex over the course of many decades are extremely rare. Yet our culture pushes this notion that that’s the ideal that we’re all supposed to trying to achieve. I see my relationship with “Denise” as a very positive, affectionate, and mutually supportive one. But it’s not a romantic relationship. “Denise” is not “in love” with me, never has been, and has never pretended to be. And pointing that out doesn’t mean that I’m saying something bad about her or our relationship. I’m trying to say that non-romantic loving relationships — including non-romantic sexual relationships like the one I have with “Denise” — can be just as important as romantic ones. Indeed, they could potentially be more important, since they’re more durable.   

PART III: ART AND POLITICS 

PB: Many of the drawings in Mary Wept… are quite cartoony, especially the way you drew many of the male characters. This is especially true in contrast to your other nonfiction work — or anything you’ve done since Ed the Happy Clown, for that matter. Was this a conscious decision on your part? Or something you just fell into?    

MARYWEPT_27CB: I wanted the book to be small, and originally it was going to be even smaller than it is now. So I was thinking, to keep the characters recognizable (especially since there are so many different characters), that I should draw the heads larger than I had in the last two books. If you’re drawing characters with big heads, that means you’re heading in a more cartoony direction. So it was a conscious decision. Although I can’t say that there was a good reason for wanting the book to be small. I just like small books.  Anyway, as I said, the book was going to be even smaller than it is now, and I showed some photocopies of the artwork to “Denise” at the size that I originally wanted to make it, and she said, “This is TOO small — you’ve got to make it bigger.” I listened to her and made the book the size it is now.    

PB: I just read that the recent collection of Kaz’s Underworld strips has inspired you to take your art in an even more cartoony, exaggerated direction. Do you intend to employ this in future non-fiction work? Or are you inspired by Kaz’s stories and art to write something more absurd as well?    

CB: I’d never thought much about Kaz one way or the other. I didn’t dislike his work, but I didn’t particularly like it either. I was just kinda indifferent to it, and hadn’t picked up any of his previous books. Then I was at the comic-shop I frequent — The Beguiling — and saw the big new Underworld collection and flipped through it and found myself suddenly recognizing how beautiful his cartooning is and wondering, “Do I want this book?” I didn’t buy it, but on the bike ride home I realized I’d made a mistake — I wanted that book badly. I almost turned around, but for some reason I didn’t have time to. So I had to go back to the store the next day. I became enthralled by that Underworld collection and I love everything about it — the atmosphere, the sensibility, the humor, but particularly that cartooning style. There’ll probably be some sort of Kaz influence on whatever I do next. Whether that influence will be obvious or not, I can’t say yet. A part of me is tempted to do something more absurd — closer to Ed the Happy Clown — but don’t hold me to that. I really don’t know what I’m doing next. I didn’t plan on doing Mary Wept. One day the idea wasn’t even in my head as a possibility, then two days later I was writing the script.    

PB: What about reviving and finishing Underwater? You told me that I and others made you self-conscious by pointing out that it read like you were making it up as you went along, since that was in fact what you were doing. But it still was a great premise.  Would it be that hard to make up a solid ending for you to work towards? That’s what we cartoonists do best, after all: make stuff up! 

CB: It might be possible to take the material that’s already been done and fashion a new ending, rather than the one I had planned. If such an idea did occur to me, and it was a good one, I’d do it. But I’m spending zero creative-time thinking about Underwater. I’d much rather focus on projects that interest me now. 

PB: Do you plan on running for office again?    

CB: I’m not planning on it, but I might if I’m not too busy when the next federal election rolls around, which won’t be for several years, thank god! What a hassle that was.    

PB: Are you involved in any effort to repeal the recent Canadian anti-prostitution laws you mentioned above?    

CB: I’m going to be vague here because I’ve been asked to not speak openly about this yet, but I’ve been talking to people who think — hope — they can do something to spur change. Those plans might come to nothing. I’m not the person spearheading this initiative.     

PB: Well, good luck to whomever and whatever it is!

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7 Responses to An Interview with Chester Brown

  1. R. Fiore says:

    If I appeared to say I favored laws against prostitution then I was misunderstood. I don’t see laws and punishment as solutions to anything in this context. What I meant to say about prostitution is that while it is the most sensible thing in the world from the male point of view, it’s not altogether clear to me that it’s possible to pay for sex without exploiting someone’s unhappiness. This is a question that has yet to be answered to my satisfaction. It would, however, be lovely to think so.

    One thing that struck me in the Mary Wept is that when you read the Bible in this way it will say what you want it to say but it ceases to have any authority. I thought Paying for It was a far stronger argument for normalizing prostitution.

    The thing that struck me most in Brown’s earlier cycle of Bible comics, and in Crumb’s Genesis, is the strangeness of the source material. As you read Genesis it becomes ever more starkly clear that you’re reading about savages, and some later interlocutor was attempting to comprehend how these events could be consistent with a God who rewards virtue. What comes through in Brown’s earlier Bible comics is that there is something deeply mysterious in this story. It’s the project of most religiously motivated interpretations to demystify it, and make it easier to understand. Mary Wept falls more in the latter camp than the former, being intent on a particular interpretation, and was to me less interesting for that reason.

    Not apropos of anything, my interpretation of what The Parable of the Talents was that God doesn’t want you to be hiding in your holy hole staying out of trouble, he wants you to be out and doing in the big world. It seemed to me to be a very interesting position for a religion to take, though I don’t myself practice that or any other particular religion.

  2. Keith418 says:

    Have you ever thought about checking the Talmud?

    http://gnosis.org/library/grs-mead/jesus_live_100/ch9.html

  3. Chester Brown says:

    Robert,
    You claim I misunderstood you, and perhaps I did, but the editors have linked to the wrong post. The comments I objected to weren’t in your review of Paying For It, they were in something you wrote in the comments section of Jeet Heer’s piece about the book (A Chester Brown Notebook), specifically this:

    “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.”

    Now, as I said, perhaps I misunderstood that, but, reading the above, I think you should be able to see why I did. It still looks to me like you were saying that the prostitution laws do not need to be reformed.

    I might as well also add my two cents on this opinion:

    “…while [paying for sex] is the most sensible thing in the world from the male point of view, it’s not altogether clear to me that it’s possible to pay for sex without exploiting someone’s unhappiness.”

    You’re thinking of the matter from only one perspective, the sexual one. Do prostitutes enjoy the sex they have with their clients? No, most of them probably don’t most of the time. But they do enjoy the money they make. Being paid for sex can genuinely be, for some people, “the most sensible thing in the world” from a financial point of view, which is a perfectly valid point of view.

    The woman I regularly pay for sex could stop seeing me and get a part-time (non-sexual) job to make up for the money I pay her, but she’d have to work a lot more hours at that part-time job than she spends with me to make the same amount of money. I know she feels that her quality of life (let’s call that “happiness’) would suffer as a result. To put that another way: even if a particular prostitute would be unhappy having sex with you, she might be even more unhappy NOT having sex with you.

    The sex-worker I see also tells me that I make her happy in non-financial ways, and I believe her. I can understand why you might be sceptical of that claim, but all I can say is that, if you could somehow see our interactions, I think you’d believe her too. On that point, I mention in the above interview that I just read Norma Jean Almodovar’s book, and she writes about how much she genuinely liked many of her clients. She’s not the only one — I’ve read accounts by many sex-workers and most of them liked at least some of their clients, often many of them. If, in paying for sex, you treat the sex-worker with respect and courtesy, it’s much less likely that you’ll be “exploiting someone’s unhappiness”.

    Incidentally, I wish you wrote more often for TCJ. You’re the best writer they have, in my opinion. If I didn’t say that when we met in person several years ago, I should have.

  4. R.Fiore says:

    If my impression that the trade is generally tolerated if the practitioners don’t make a nuisance of themselves is incorrect, you’re one of the ones that gave it to me. You do something you know to be illegal, you take your chances. I don’t believe prostitution should be illegal. If you’ll look at the comment thread on the review you’ll see that people were complaining that by not condemning prostitution I was promoting sex trafficking. On that I would say that it’s easy to imagine that the demand for desirable women willing to have sex for money could exceed the supply, and that unscrupulous people might endeavor to increase the supply by illegitimate means. The most convincing spokespeople for legalization are the sex workers, and I’ve never seen how you do anybody a favor by doing them out of a job.

  5. R.Fiore says:

    Perhaps I should add since I’m having trouble making myself understood that I’m not passing judgement on the actions or motivations of any individual, no do I mean to make any presumptions about things of which I have no direct knowledge.

  6. Jose says:

    Interesting article that has some parallels with Chester Brown’s theories:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/the-unbelievable-tale-of-jesus-wife/485573/

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