From The Comics Journal #135 (April 1990)
When he was growing up, he was shocked by the seemingly blasphemous premise behind Kirby’s New Gods series — there was, after all, only one true God. And for years after discovering it, he was disgusted by the explicit, over-the-top sexuality of Crumb’s work. Things change. At 29, Chester Brown now draws comics about masturbating saints, pus-sucking First Ladies, and never-ending bowel movements.
His critically acclaimed Yummy Fur comic is a wildly inventive assault on bodily repressions, religious orthodoxy, and narrative predictability which has earned him four Harvey Award nominations and the enmity of would-be censors everywhere.
FROM THE SACRED TO THE SCATOLOGICAL
Raised in a town on the outskirts of Montreal, Brown grew up determined to draw comics the Marvel or DC Way. Happily, in one of the sharpest editorial judgments they’ve ever made, those publishers didn’t hire him and debase his talents on juvenilia (even if they didn’t look at it in quite that way). Brown’s interests eventually widened into the alternative and underground comics scenes, and when the wave of minicomics started in the early ’80s, devotees of the form discovered his unsettling wit and exquisite cartooning in seven Yummy Fur minicomics. Critics and publishers did too, and so, in December of 1986, Yummy Fur began its taboo-shattering run as a Vortex comic book.
With the change in format, Brown’s work grew longer, more thoughtful and more resonant. In the main storyline of the book, Brown wove an increasingly complicated and disturbing tale of alternate worlds, malevolent authorities, and horror movie icons. Linking these impossible characters and improbable coincidences was the hapless, ineffectual figure of Ed the Happy Clown, friend of vampires and ghouls, and the owner of a most unlucky penis. It was a tour-de-force of imagination, but even more startling was the star of the back-up series — Jesus Christ. The beginning of his projected adaptation of the complete Gospels confounded those expecting more outrageousness, as Brown offered up a sober, serious, and tightly controlled version of the Book of Mark. More recently, after concluding his Ed extravaganza (the bulk of which was released last fall in the Ed the Happy Clown collection), he’s broadened his range still further with a quiet, autobiographical take on male power and violence, while his Gospel adaptation — now up to Matthew — continues to grow funnier, looser, and more daring.
Brown has lived for the last several years in one tiny room in a Toronto rooming house, and it is here, a wooden board resting on his lap and leaning against a cluttered table, that he works. (The cover drawing, a parody of our first discussion, is somewhat misleading as to scale — Chester’s room is actually much smaller.) Not that he’s complaining, mind you. If his critical fame hasn’t translated into any corresponding commercial success, his meager sales and modest lifestyle do allow him the relative luxury of working full-time on his comics. And perhaps, next year, he’ll finally win some of those Harvey awards.
This interview was conducted in several stages. After the initial discussion last February, and a follow up telephone conversation in March, a transcription was sent to Toronto where Brown — a soft-spoken, somewhat reticent conversationalist, as the cover dialogue suggests — freely revised and added to his earlier remarks.
SCOTT GRAMMEL: Where were you born?
CHESTER BROWN: In Montreal.
GRAMMEL: In the city proper?
BROWN: Yes, in the city proper. Then I was carted off to Chateauguy.
GRAMMEL: That’s where you were brought up?
GRAMMEL: Was this a small town?
BROWN: Um… I don’t know. I guess it was a fairly large place, but I don’t know how many people or anything.
GRAMMEL: When were you born?
BROWN: May 16, 1960.
GRAMMEL: What’s your family make up?
BROWN: I was the oldest. Me, then a brother. My mom died when I was 16, my dad remarried, so I have two stepsisters and a stepbrother.
GRAMMEL: Are any of them artistic?
BROWN: My brother is kind of an artsy guy. In fact, he was probably a big early influence. He was a brilliant writer early on and when we did comics in our teenage years I copied all his characters. He’s an accountant now.
GRAMMEL: Your brother is how much younger than you?
BROWN: Two years.
GRAMMEL: What did your father and mother do?
BROWN: My dad was an electrical engineer and my mom was just a housewife.
GRAMMEL: So you were middle-class, upper middle-class?
BROWN: I’d say upper middle-class; we weren’t struggling.
GRAMMEL: Your parents were Baptists?
BROWN: Yeah, they were both Baptists, but they only went to the Baptist church for… until I was maybe 7 or 8, and then they switched to the United Church.
GRAMMEL: And the United Church is..?
BROWN: Well, it’s Christian. Actually, they’re a kind a left-leaning church.
GRAMMEL: I would guess the Baptist church was not.
BROWN: Right. [Laughter.]
GRAMMEL: This was quite a noticeable shift?
BROWN: It was quite a jump. The big controversy in the United Church right now is whether or not we should be ordaining homosexual ministers. Most churches wouldn’t even be considering it. Actually, they’ve gone ahead and said, “Yes, we will ordain homosexual ministers,” so there arc a lot of churches saying, “We can’t accept that,” or breaking off.
GRAMMEL: So was that your mother’s or your father’s influence? Was there a conscious decision that they didn’t like the Baptist church?
BROWN: No, we went to the Baptist church in Montreal, and it was just such a long drive [laughter]. It was like, oh I don’t know, a half hour drive each way. So they said, “Let’s just switch to another church.” Actually, there was a Baptist church in Chateauguy, but my dad didn’t like the minister there, didn’t agree with him, or something like that. We switched over to the United Church.
GRAMMEL: At what age did you switch from the Baptist to the United Church?
BROWN: I think I was around 7: 7 or 8.
GRAMMEL: Did that give you an idea that theology can be, or is, flexible?
BROWN: No, I certainly didn’t realize it at the time — the difference in the viewpoint between the Baptist and the United Church. To me they were just two churches. I didn’t really understand why we were changing churches, except that it was a shorter distance to the United Church, so it made sense in that way. But I didn’t realize the other differences between the churches.
GRAMMEL: You’ve said that every Sunday you went to church, but was there any other religious training?
BROWN: No. The school we went to was religious in some ways. We’d have to say the prayer in the morning or something. There were religious songs in the school. But it wasn’t really too religious in that way, and I never had any other kind of religious training.
GRAMMEL: Was the Bible a part of your parents’ reading to you?
BROWN: Oh, OK, yeah. We got read Bible stories a whole lot. Not actually from the Bible but the children’s versions. And also different religious stories, not necessarily stuff from the Bible but, I don’t know, kids’ stories that have a kind of religious message in them. I think there was one called “Tip Lewis and his Magic Lantern” or something, about this… I don’t know, Horatio Alger-type stuff, but with a clear religious message there.
GRAMMEL: Be a Christian and become rich. [Laughter.] Do you not have the separation of church and state to the degree that we have in the U.S.?
BROWN: Um… I think we do now. Well, we did then, too. This was just a case of having teachers who were very religious and brought it into the classroom, and it wasn’t as controlled then as it would be now. Now there’s a big stink if anyone tries to say prayers in school, and all these groups saying, “We have to have no religion in the schools.” Stuff like this. But at that time teachers could get away with it if they felt like bringing that stuff in.
GRAMMEL: Was yours a home where reading was important? Were your parents intellectuals?
BROWN: There were a lot of books around the house, but they didn’t seem to read a lot themselves, or I don’t remember it. My dad read the newspaper in the morning, and that was about the only thing I saw him read. I was surprised years later when I was getting right into Russian literature that my dad had actually read all that stuff, and he was going on about how depressing it was and how he hated that stuff now. But he had read that stuff. My mom seemed to be the one who read more, but mostly the reading that was done in the house seemed to be just reading to us — reading to the kids — and what we read, the kids’ books that were around. But there were a lot of books around. There was, I don’t know, James Bond books and Perry Mason books around, Shakespeare, what have you. I don’t know, all kinds of stuff.
GRAMMEL: And we tend to read more Ian Fleming than we do Shakespeare, right?
BROWN: Actually, I never read either of them. They were there, but I read other stuff. My parents’ books were my parents’ books, and I didn’t read the stuff that they had around.
GRAMMEL: Did you find it was a real normal upbringing?
BROWN: Yeah, it was very normal.
GRAMMEL: Of course, I don’t think any family —once you look into it — is “normal.”
BROWN: That’s true. I mean, my mom was a schizophrenic — but then, that’s kind of normal, too — to have someone in one’s family who has some sort of mental illness, or any kind of illness, that disrupts the family. I guess it comes back to the old question of what’s normal.
GRAMMEL: Now when you say schizophrenic, was she on medication so it was in control most of the time?
BROWN: Yes, it was in control. She was on medication. I mean, I just said something about it disrupting the family, but really most of the time it didn’t, really at least not that we’d notice as kids. I didn’t affect her ability to… be a good mom. I really couldn’t have asked for a more perfect mother.
GRAMMEL: So she wasn’t in and out of hospitals a lot then.
BROWN: Well, some — when I was really young.
GRAMMEL: Was that when she was diagnosed?
BROWN: Oh, I don’t know when she was diagnosed. I guess probably before I was born.
GRAMMEL: Were your parents much older people?
BROWN; Yeah, they took a long while to get married and to have kids. When I think about it, I still have 10 years to go before I’ll be the age my dad was when he had me. Most people have kids in their 20s.
GRAMMEL: Did you notice that age difference as you were growing up? Was there more of a chasm because of that?
BROWN: No. No, I got on fine with my parents. They were great parents. I mean, I had the usual problems in adolescence that everyone does. I hated my parents then just like everyone. But they were fine.
GRAMMEL: You said your mother died when you were 16. Was it related to her schizophrenia?
BROWN: Um… yeah.
BROWN: Um... [Hesitation.]
GRAMMEL: The thing I wondered was how this influenced you in thinking about the afterlife, and the larger religious questions. Was that an impetus?
BROWN: It didn’t seem to be at the time. Well, kind of. I mean, that kind of thing always does get you thinking about death, but I didn’t think of it in those terms. I don’t think it made me think about religion any more. I don’t know.
GRAMMEL: What was high school like? What kind of crowd did you hang out with?
BROWN: We had kind of a neighborhood gang. Actually, it was just the family across the street and us. There were three kids there, and me and my brother, so we hung around all the time. In high school I had some friends too, but, definitely I was on the outside pretty much.
GRAMMEL: Did you do anything in high school like sports or band?
BROWN: No sports, no band. My big involvement in high school was on the yearbooks. I did a lot of the illustrations and stuff.
GRAMMEL: Were you trying to draw comics in high school?
BROWN: Yes. I was trying to draw the heroes and everything. I wasn’t trying to draw comics… Well, eventually I was, now that I think about it. Did I tell you about the first thing I had published?
BROWN: I guess you’ve never heard about “Doug Wright’s Family” down there in the States, have you? “Doug Wright’s Family” was a comic strip that was published in this weekend magazine that came out with the newspapers. And I created a strip that was very much like “Doug Wright’s Family,” only it was kind of based on my family — it was me and my brother and my parents. And I did quite a few of these. They were quite awful, but the first thing I ever had published anywhere was one of these strips in a local newspaper. My dad managed to convince the editor to print one of them.
GRAMMEL: This was when you were in high school?
BROWN; Yup. Actually, I was probably 12 when that one was published.
GRAMMEL: You mentioned doing comics with your brother earlier. What were they like?
BROWN: They were like Sunday funnies, short one page things. My brother was actually better at it than I was — his stuff was funnier. That’s why I’d copy all his characters and situations. I could do that stuff because I didn’t consider it “serious,” but when it came to trying to draw superhero comics — which was what I wanted to do — I couldn’t. I spent a lot of time — a lot — designing hero-type characters, their costumes, their universes, and all that. But when it came to actually doing stories with them I couldn’t. I didn’t even know how to begin. It seemed too intimidating. Now, of course, that stuff seems too stupid to do.
GRAMMEL: Did you have any other memorable creative outlets as a kid?
BROWN: My brother and I used to do radio shows together all the time. When we were in our teenage years that was our favorite pastime.
GRAMMEL: Did that come about from listening to old time radio shows?
BROWN: No, just from listening to the radio at the time.
GRAMMEL: What kinds of stories did you do?
BROWN: They were pretty wild, outrageous stuff.
GRAMMEL: Did you script them?
BROWN: No. Oh, no. It was all made up as it went along. As outrageous as I get in Yummy Fur, they were that far out, you know?
GRAMMEL: How young were you at the time?
BROWN: Probably 13 to, say, 16 or 17.
GRAMMEL: So you probably did quite a few.
BROWN: Oh, yeah. We did tons. And they certainly weren’t all saved. We’d just record over the same tape again and again. Just the very favorite ones we’d keep, and even those I think we’ve lost now.
GRAMMEL: Did you have continuing characters that you and your brother would play?
BROWN: Yeah. The big character was this woman called Mrs. Robert [pronounced Ro-bear], who was kind of based on a neighbor of ours that we really didn’t know, but we kind of speculated what she was like. She was actually our next door neighbor and we never saw her, but we knew her kid — whose name was Robert — so we kind of would say, “This is what his mom must be like.” She was the main character, and she became pretty well defined to us. There were a couple of other ones, too.
GRAMMEL: Were these domestic dramas or horror stories or comedies?
BROWN: They were supposed to be funny.
GRAMMEL: So they weren’t dramatized superhero stories by any means?
BROWN: No. No, not at all. Mrs. Robert was a radio host. She’d come on and tell about all the stuff that was happening in her family, and then she’d play music. [Laughter.] And then she’d come back on and say what that song reminded her of, what troubles she was having with her husband, or whatever. All this kind of stuff.
GRAMMEL: Let’s talk about comic books when you were young. Are you one of those people who read comic books as long as you can remember?
BROWN: Yeah. Well, I can remember when. Actually, it started with Silly Putty. Remember Silly Putty? We had Silly Putty and we were copying from the Saturday comics [in Canada, the traditional day for the large color comics sections], but that wasn’t enough, so my mom went out and bought Batman comics for us. We were also watching Batman at the time.
GRAMMEL: So this would be probably 1966 or ’67?
BROWN: Yeah, I guess. I would’ve been still in kindergarten, so it could’ve been in ’66. Anyway, Batman was on TV, and I was more interested… When she brought in the Batman comic, I was more interested in looking at it — I don’t think I could really read it at this point — than in copying the Silly Putty pictures, you know? And so from that point on, any time my mom went into the city to do shopping she had to bring us back a comic book each. Usually she bought the same comic book for both my brother and me.
GRAMMEL: So was your brother into comic books too, then?
BROWN: He was into comic books too, but he gave up on it at the normal age and I continued.
GRAMMEL: In adolescence, yeah. So I’m guessing that, unlike some people, you didn’t have parents who were asking, “Why are you reading that trash?”
BROWN: No, she never discouraged us from reading comic books — but we could only own so many. We had a dresser drawer, and there was a drawer especially for comic books, and we could only fill it up to the top of the drawer, then we had to get rid of them. If she noticed that the drawer was full, she’d say, “The next time there’s a school rummage sale, you have to take a whole bunch of them down to the sale and get rid of them.”
So we’d pack as many comics as we could into that drawer, so a lot of them would get ruined. Like, you’d open the drawer and the ones on the top would get all scrunched and the covers would scrape off. That stopped when I really got into collecting comics when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t see them as being accessible until I really got interested in collecting them. They’d run these little biographies of artists, saying, you know, he studied this in high school and this in college, whatever, and I realized these are ordinary people doing this. “I could do this.”
GRAMMEL: This is when you started drawing?
BROWN: I was always the best artist, going back to kindergarten.
GRAMMEL: At this point you wanted to do Superman or Spider-Man?
BROWN: Oh, yeah.
GRAMMEL: Were you a DC fan, then a Marvel fan?
BROWN: Well, Superman and Batman were on TV, so those were the ones you read — the ones that were on TV. I remember the first Spider-Man I got because my mom brought it home. This wasn’t one of those shared things. She only brought home one comic and it was Spider-Man. She said she’d been in such a rush she’d thought it was Batman, but she’d picked up Spider-Man by mistake. So we read it and thought it was really awful. This high school kid, we thought, was pretending to be Spider-Man because he was just a kid. He obviously couldn’t be Spider-Man. So we didn’t get it, right?
GRAMMEL: Was that Romita?
BROWN: I think it was the first Romita issue. It had the Green Goblin on the cover.
GRAMMEL: So what was the first Marvel comic that you bought and liked?
BROWN: Giant-Sized Fantastic Four #1. I was probably about 13 or something then. We’d gotten Marvel comics when we were kids, but we’d never really latched onto them, you know? I think when I was younger the solid look of the DC’s—the very straight, conventional look—appealed to me, and the more wild kind of look of the Marvels didn’t for some reason until I was into my teenage years.
GRAMMEL: So which were the ones that you really latched onto? Was it the Kirby ones?
BROWN: No, because Kirby wasn’t doing stuff at Marvel at that time. I was really wild about stuff that looked like Kirby, but actual Kirby work — the stuff that Kirby was doing for DC — it took me a while to get used to that stuff.
GRAMMEL: At this point he was doing his New Gods series?
BROWN: Yeah, which, when I first saw New Gods, I thought it was blasphemous, [Laughter.] So I wouldn’t buy it. I thought, “This is awful. How can he do a series about gods? There’s only one God.” That kind of thing.
GRAMMEL: Did you have a similar problem with Thor?
BROWN: Yeah, I guess I kind of did. I didn’t pick up Thor until later on. It was one of the later titles I latched onto.
GRAMMEL: Who was doing work at Marvel at this point that you were interested in?
BROWN: Well, the stuff I really liked was the monster stuff. You know, Werewolf By Night and Frankenstein, and that stuff. A big favorite of the time was Mike Ploog. I liked the Jack Kirby imitation stuff like Rich Buckler’s stuff. He was the one that did that first Fantastic Four that I picked up. And he was doing the Fantastic Four regularly at that point.
GRAMMEL: You’ve had vampires, werewolves, and even the Frankenstein monster in Yummy Fur. When you were growing up were you really into horror in general, or just the Marvel work?
BROWN: In general, too. I was reading a lot of horror fiction. Short stories, and that kind of stuff. Ghost book anthologies, what have you.
GRAMMEL: Were you a big Warren fan?
BROWN: No. No, I wasn’t. I did pick up Warrens, but I mostly picked up, at the beginning, Vampirellas for the most obvious reason that she was a sexy character. Well, I didn’t pick up too many because it seemed kind of forbidden, and I didn’t want to have a lot around the house in case they were found or something. The Warren book I picked up a lot, though, was The Spirit. That I really thought was neat, and bought for more than just the sexy girls, you know? Although Eisner did have sexy girls, there was more to it than that.
GRAMMEL: Was that your first introduction to Eisner?
BROWN: Oh, yeah.
GRAMMEL: So this is around the time when you were really interested in Berni Wrightson and Jim Aparo?
BROWN: Right. Who were both DC artists.
GRAMMEL: So you weren’t necessarily a Marvelite in the way that we think of them today.
BROWN: No. I did read DC books. If I had my choice of where I’d want to work at that time it would have been Marvel, but actually I think probably my favorite artists were DC ones. The ones I’d try to imitate most, anyway.
GRAMMEL: Isn’t this roughly the time that Barry Smith was the hot artist?
BROWN: It was a bit after that, but, yeah. I remember picking up these Conan reprint books, especially this one. What was it? Was it “Red Nails”? I think it was “Red Nails.” That was a brilliant piece of work. I really got into that. But I don’t know, Smith was kind of hard to imitate. I would try and do stuff like him, but…
GRAMMEL: I’m guessing you were a big Swamp Thing fan.
BROWN: Yup. Although I was too much a collector in that if I missed the first issue of something I wouldn’t pick up the subsequent issues. So I think I missed the early issues of Swamp Thing, so I didn’t want to get the later issues. And I kept hearing more and more good things about Swamp Thing, and so I finally had to pick it up. I got the last two Wrightson issues and I thought they were great. But it was just kind of too bad I missed all the other stuff until later.
GRAMMEL: Did you ever read Mad magazine as a kid?
BROWN: I read a couple of the Mad books, and I liked them quite a bit, I was a big Don Martin fan.
GRAMMEL: But Mad magazine wasn’t a big thing?
BROWN: No. I think I actually only bought one issue of the magazine itself.