While others talk politics, we talk aesthetics (mostly).
An imaginary four-way conversation on visual choices in
Chester Brown’s graphic novel Paying for It.
K asks the questions and critics X, Y, and Z debate the answers.
Y: A book that depicts dozens of sex acts could quickly become pornography; it’s easy to imagine that Brown wanted to make sure that Paying for It in no way resembles porn, in which we see all sorts of grimaces, leers, and over-the-top emotional facial expressions. So, I see Brown’s choice of a neutral, almost blank expression as an artistic strategy that allows him to direct readers’ responses away from the erotic. He encourage us to focus on the polemical aspects of his pro-prostitution memoir rather than its potentially pornographic aspects.
X: I think it’s clearly an act of fear. Brown presents himself throughout the novel as somebody who deeply fears emotional connection and commitment. His facial non-expression is a kind of fantasy of neutrality. It’s also a fantasy of “instant legibility”; for Brown, people can by instantly understood—there is nothing that needs to be processed, to be mulled over: “Don’t look at my face; focus on my rational argument about sex for cash.” In a way, it’s consistent with Brown’s extreme libertarianism. He wants to imagine that everyone is a free agent—a fully independent actor who is capable of fully rational decisions. This belief allows him to avoid thinking in any depth about why individuals are driven to do what they do: what role is played by biology, class, gender, sexuality, geography, etc . . . However, people are much more complicated than Brown makes them out to be: they are expressive and contradictory. Also, if one watches videos of Brown interviewed on Canadian TV, or sees pictures of him, one sees a smiling and laughing man. Why does he choose to repress this aspect of his personality in Paying for It? What’s he hiding? Considering how he presents himself, Brown “has a lot of nerve,” as my grandmother used to say, to complain that a women’s face is not responsive during sex.
Z: Well, there’s really no such thing as a face without an expression . . . It’s a risky, yet admirable decision, even though it doesn’t always pay off. Cartooning is closely associated with the art of caricature and its emphasis on faces. Readers—narcissists that they are—want to see their own emotions, their own feelings reflected in characters they read about. Brown fundamentally refuses to give the majority of readers what they expect, what, one could argue, they are desperate for—being conditioned as they are by TV, Hollywood, etc. Or maybe they want the kind of clear-cut facial expressions that have been a fixture of the slapstick medium of comic strips. Brown’s choice in this regard is brave.
K: Is Brown’s decision not to draw the faces of the prostitutes an act of dehumanization?
X: Certainly. We see Brown’s face and the face of his friends—mostly males, I’ll note—depicted literally thousands of times in the book. Brown says it’s to protect the women, but given that he simply could have drawn faces that looked nothing like their actual faces, we are left with only one conclusion: Brown is really trying to protect himself. Isn’t it telling that we see breast after breast, ass after ass, spread legs after spread legs, but no face? In the patriarchy, the male face is at the center; you look at the Father. This is exactly where it is in Paying for It. Brown has a harem around him.
Y: If anything, not drawing their faces is simply a reflection of Brown’s prudishness and over-scrupulousness. I think it’s a regrettable decision, but not because of any dehumanizing quality; rather it constantly reminds us that Brown is withholding information, not a good thing to be reminded of as you read an alleged memoir.
Z: “Alleged?” Well, people make a facile association between a character’s face and his or her humanity. Like Brown’s decision to drain his own face of emotion, this decision shows a certain bravery and sensitivity to the subject matter and how it’s likely to be perceived. Does anyone accuse Brown of dehumanizing himself by drawing his face “without an expression?” There can be a paternalistic and chauvinistic impulse behind the response of a reader who looks at a given representational strategy only in terms of female characters: “I need to protect these helpless women from this mean cartoonist.”
X: Do you remember those scenes where Brown and the prostitute are lying on the bed talking, and the word balloon completely obscures the prostitute’s face? It literally looks as if he has decapitated the character’s head, that he has reduced her to a body—the body he will soon fuck. He could have hidden faces in other, less hostile, ways. If one lingers on these panels, the diegetic and extradiegetic fuse; the women look like balloon-headed freaks. It’s visually unpleasant, regardless of its significance or rationale.
Z: In many of those moments, he’s actually having a relaxed and interesting conversation with the woman. It’s not really that sinister.
K: What about Brown’s decision to have so much white space on the page, to make the characters relatively small, and to avoid close-ups?
X: I have no real opinion about this decision, except maybe that Brown’s a little squeamish about his subject matter. I would have preferred for things to be a little bit larger. With one exception: he has a close-up of his package on page 92 that I could do without. It’s always about size with the fellas.
Z: Well, to take a different tack, we could see Brown in the artistic tradition of the miniaturist. Rather than have his art utilizes the full expanse of the European album-sized page or a traditional American comic book page, Brown creates a book and art that is small, refined, almost delicate. This is also a way of treating the subject with respect, of avoiding the voyeurism associated with various kinds of close-ups, staples of the porn industry, or things such as “the money shot” or the “beaver cam.” I would not be surprised to find that many readers would prefer larger art (the pervs!). But again, Brown is working against expectations. It’s his way of draining sensationalism from the narrative. If, as has been said, “The visual is essentially pornographic,” Brown has done the best he could to make his visuals as non-pornographic as possible. Watch some porn and then look at Paying for It—the difference, especially in term of things like camera angles, are dramatic. This must be the least erotic sex memoir in existence. One has to be a special kind of perv to see this as porn!
Y: While there’s no need for Brown to be sensationalistic, explicit and implicit dramas live in the situations he documents—prostitution and sex work—and he avoids them. For Brown, visiting a sex-worker is like going to the dentist, you know? There’s a little anxiety before hand, but afterwards you’re happy you did it. Surely there was more drama to be—
X: That’s exactly right, and this is where the libertarian underpinnings of Brown’s projects are again “exposed.” The reason people become dentists and the reasons people become prostitutes couldn’t be more dissimilar. How many little girls, or boys for that matter, say, “I want to be a ho when I grow up?” For Chester, it’s a rational choice and so we needn’t trouble ourselves about it. And where is race? The book is a literal “whitewashing,” with every sex worker drawn as a white woman. Is this a version of the old “I’m a libertarian and, unlike you (who obsesses over race) I don’t see race. Everyone is a person to me.” Ugh.
K: OK. Let’s talk about the way Brown represents intercourse.
Z: In the image you’ve shown us, (represented above) Brown makes another strange, but very illuminating choice. He depicts himself and Carla—the prostitute is always named (a way to “rehumamize her”?)—as if floating in space. There are no stars to light the panel; rather the light is generated by the act itself. Again, it’s this magical kind of miniaturization strategy which gives the moment a real tenderness; the background of the panel disappears and prostitute and john merge together, blocking out the world, becoming almost like spiritualized lovers, surrounded by a halo. Brown has sanctified their sex. The motion or excitement lines and cartoon lighting effects that Brown uses gives a way for emotion to come through. Brown’s face may be neutral, but the environments he draws, which are repeatedly lit in this hyper-dramatic way, allows emotional intensity to be re-infused into a scene. People who read a comic book as “all about the faces” are doing themselves and the book a disservice. You need to pay close attention to Brown’s compositional strategies in order to see how he creates drama and emotion.
X: Well, this may or may not be true, but there’s a big problem with Brown’s choices. So many of the scenes, especially the sex scenes, are hard to distinguish from each other, and the narrative suffers because of this repetition. Is sex really that repetitive and banal for Brown? I almost wondered if he used “cut-and-paste” in the sex drawings.
K: In one panel, Brown says, “romantic love is evil.” He softens this criticism in the notes, but he seems to believe this idea throughout the narrative.
Y: Brown’s claim reveals a great irony—one that he likely has not considered. He says romantic love is evil and that prostitution offers an alternative way to get sex, the sole benefit of the romantic relationship. But if you look closely at many of the scenes—well, you don’t even need to look closely, it’s all right there on the surface—he tries to recreate romantic love within the structure of the prostitute-john relationship: he gives the prostitutes his comics to read, he holds doors open for them, is very interested in their lives, compliments them and forms closes attachments with them, worries about hurting their feelings, thinks about them when they are apart. He’s in romantic love with almost all of them!It’s odd too, that someone who claims to be a rational libertarian would deploy such extreme religious rhetoric: “evil.” We see many cracks in his libertarian façade, if not on his physical face.
X: Nicely put. I personally agree with Brown on this, but it’s obvious to me, as it is to you, that Brown’s ideas about romantic love are far more conflicted than he lets on. Who would think a libertarian would be so irrational?
K: On a similar topic: early in the book Seth says to Brown “You’re repressing. On a subconscious level, you’re suffering.” Brown replies, “Freudian nonsense. If I’m not consciously suffering, then I’m not suffering.”
X: Brown couldn’t make his own failings more unambiguous here. He can dismiss Freud all he wants, but the idea that we are completely conscious of the fullness of our emotional lives at every moment is an absurd fantasy: it’s laughable! This is why it’s impossible to take Brown seriously as a philosopher about anything, especially issues as complicated as emotion, male-female relationships, sex, and the sex industry. Again, the libertarian dream: all we need to know is available to each of us; we are all free agents making free choices—if somebody’s in a tough situation, it’s their choice, which is to say, it’s their fault. We need not concern ourselves with the reasons behind a prostitute’s “choice.” I’d like to live in that dream world.
Z: It’s fine to read Paying for Itto learn about Brown’s attitudes toward prostitution, to read it as an advocacy narrative about the need for decriminalization. But that’s not how I approach it. All of the conflicts and tensions that you both point out are there, and for you, they’re indicative of Brown’s failure as a philosopher. But personally, I couldn’t care less about the inconsistency or the flawed integrity of his reasoning—that’s not why I read literature. We often say, “I like this character because he was flawed. He seemed realistic in that way.” But when Brown is flawed we say, “The book is bad because it’s poorly or unconvincingly argued.” First of all, it’s not poorly argued and second of all, although part of the book is an argument, I treat the book more holistically. I am not reading it to be convinced of anything. In a sense, I read it as fiction. I find “Chester Brown” a fascinating character, a kind of “Charlie Brown,” in a way. Both are a mess psychologically, but their authors have built a fascinating story around this mess by employing interesting and intelligent visual and narrative strategies. To get back to the question, I believe that whatever is repressed will come out in the art; and it does in this comic.
X: You’re letting Brown off the hook. He says it’s a memoir, he offers numerous arguments; he even provides lengthy discussions and citations in the end notes. The book is an argument in favor of prostitution. I’m not sure how anyone could see it otherwise.
Z: Well, I managed to. People often say great literature is great because it challenges readers and “conventional wisdom.” Yet, most people don’t actually believe this. They want a book to affirm their beliefs. I think Brown gets it wrong around 60% of the time, but so what? He gets it wrong in ways that I find artistically interesting—and that’s what I look and read for.
K: You seem fairly enthusiastic in your support of Brown’s artistic choices. Are there things he could have done better?
Z: Perhaps, but I’m not sure that my minor critiques are all that relevant. I’ve never read a perfect book. Paying for It is a touch repetitive: as we have discussed, many of the intercourse panels look like each other. So while I could offer that as a critique, I simultaneously see a value, or at least a logic, in this decision. The book is slightly monotonous, but whose life isn’t? To eliminate these scenes, even if it might streamline the book, would be dishonest, an attempt to make the book a little tighter as a narrative; but this would sacrifice the sense of the book as a record of Brown’s life.
Y: But doesn’t the idea of the book as a record contradict your prior claim that you’re not reading it as a memoir, that you’re reading it as fiction? And if you’re reading it this way, you should judge whether or not it is successful as fiction.
Z: Perhaps, but you’re more interested in judgment than I am. If my strategies of interpretation change, I’m fine with that. So let me rephrase what I said earlier: all I’m saying is the book can be read as a memoir, a polemic, fiction, even a deadpan sex-adventure narrative if you like. I’m fine with any of those approaches and wherever they lead us.
K: I haven’t seen anyone refer to Brown’s visual or verbal sense of humor.
Z: This is one of the ways in which the book is very successful. Toward the middle, Brown ends many chapters with a punch line; often he makes a joke at his own expense that appears in a thought balloon while he’s having sex with a prostitute. Brown’s a funny guy. “Tip”? Is that a dick joke?
X: Even though I don’t believe it, let’s say—for the sake of argument—Brown uses self-deprecating humor. The fact remains that he is an exploiter. He simply can’t convince me, no matter what clever or cute artistic strategy he may employ. He’s able to make jokes, but the difficult and dangerous lives of these prostitutes are not funny. If he is funny, it’s only a way to let himself off the hook. It’s porn masquerading as legal reasoning.
Z: I’m glad you mentioned the word “cute.” There really is something cute about the entire book. I think, you know, this can be connected to the ideas of miniaturization that we discussed earlier, and also—
Y: But is there dishonesty in this cuteness? All these funny little talking cartoon people discussing real people and real issues: sex acts and monetary exchange, and the legal, ethical, and moral ramifications of prostitution. If Brown really wants to be taken seriously, he should be less cute.
Z: Well, that’s kind of how he draws. He may exaggerate some of these tendencies here, but there’s a way in which an artist is who he is. If you don’t like Brown’s drawing style, fair enough. But that’s how he draws—that’s his approach.
K: Would any of you agree with the claim that the sum total of his artistic choices adds up to one thing: Brown is an exhibitionist?
Z: Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. I suppose one would have to be an exhibitionist to create a comic with so many images like those in Paying for It. But your question is the wrong one. The right one: “Has Brown created an interesting work of art?”
X: Of course he’s an exhibitionist: look at that page (above). He follows in a long tradition of men who document their sexual conquests: “First I did this one; then I did that one, etc. . . . ” Please.
Y: I have to admit, the idea of a man drawing himself, drawing his genitals, drawing sex acts over and over and over and over is a bit creepy to me. There’s no way around that. Maybe it’s the byproduct of Brown not drawing the women’s faces, but they are so often seen from the side or behind—you rarely see their genitals in any detail. I don’t want to see a dude “manhandling” his weiner so much.
Z: Why should any of this be creepy in any way? Is it because they are drawings? Fiction writers write about sex, memoirists write about their sex lives. Brown is a cartoonist who has sex—so he draws sex. . . . Prudes.
K: For those of you critical of Brown, can you see anything admirable in his project?
X: Not really. The world that Brown creates, the world that his prostitutes live in is one without any fear or violence—it’s completely divorced from the world sex workers I have known inhabit. I bet that being a “Merry Maid” in real life would be more dangerous than being a sex worker in Brown’s world.
Y: I can’t help but see Brown’s comic in the context of the North American autobiographical alternative comics. In this tradition, we see so many ineffectual, uncertain, white men offering up the minutia of their daily lives. Even though Brown’s narrative is far more philosophically, politically, and socially engaged than these narratives tend to be, I still see it as more of the same.
K: Let’s take a look at the opening of Chapter 8, in which Brown talks with the prostitute named Anne. At the risk of forcing the theme of our conversation onto this scene, can we make a connection between Brown’s aesthetic preferences when it comes to women’s bodies and his art style?
Y: No; not at all. But this sequence is a good example of one of those moments when I feel Brown trying to recreate the romance of boyfriend-girlfriend love within the structure of the prostitute-john economy. Brown as “knight in shining armor,” the guy who’s going to help build up the prostitute’s low self-esteem. This scene, too, seems creepy and kind of fetishistic. Ever hear any of those millions of songs in which the guy sings, “I’m gonna treat you right, like no man has ever treated you before, like the queen you are, blah blah blah . . .” That’s Brown’s theme song.
X: Exactly. It’s the chivalrous man setting the standards and helping the woman to feel better—while we see him groping her. It’s like he’s feeling up produce at the supermarket to check for freshness! And watch the hand slowly move, one may say “creep” closer in each consecutive panel . . .
Z: Maybe we should see not see this scene as an allegory that plays out “male versus female” on some larger, cultural scale tied to the patriarchal oppression of women. Simply put, it’s an honest conversation between two people. It’s unfair to read a work of art as if it must bear the burden of expressing a profound cultural significance. Put another way, does every male-female interaction in a book need to be seen in the context of the patriarchy? I agree that we live in a patriarchy, one that applies far more pressure on females to obsess over body image than it does on males, but does that mean that we need to read this scene—and every one like it—in terms of such cultural and theoretical generalities? The problem is one we were having before: we are simply ignoring the artistic, the local, the specific, the aesthetic by saying all we care about is what this book can tell us about ideas in the real world. Art can be argumentative, but it can never be only this. As far as the question you asked, perhaps Brown sees himself as a ‘aesthetic naturalist’ in all fields.
K: Thank you.