The Chester Brown Interview

GRAMMEL: Let’s talk about Jesus.

BROWN: Uh-oh.

GRAMMEL: You don’t want to talk about Jesus?

BROWN: If you want.

GRAMMEL: When did you first think of adapting the Gospels, and why?

BROWN: Well, I mentioned some of this in the latest Yummy Fur. I’d read Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician, and thought, “Wow! Is all that stuff really in the Bible?” So I figured I’d better read the Gospels over and double check just to make sure that he wasn’t lying to me or something.

GRAMMEL: What is Jesus the Magician about?

BROWN: The title pretty much says it. It says that Jesus was seen as a magician in his own time, not as a prophet or as a son of God or anything like that, and he gave various examples in the Gospels; as well as a whole bunch outside the Gospels. And so I figured, “Well, let’s check what is in the Gospels.” See what really is there. And I went through them. I’d already read through them at least once before — probably more than that — but that would’ve been many years before.

GRAMMEL: Now, he discusses the so-called “Secret Gospels”?

BROWN: Yeah, the Secret Gospel.

GRAMMEL: What exactly are those all about?

BROWN: OK Well, the Secret Gospel of Mark, it’s... a few passages from a version of Mark that aren’t in the traditional Mark that we know. It’s actually just two very short passages. In one of them he raises a man from the dead, and it’s pretty much the same as the raising of the dead story told in John — Lazarus is raised from the dead. He doesn’t have any name. He’s just called the Young Man.

The only thing that’s really different is that in the Secret Gospel account Jesus has some kind of initiation ritual. Into what I don’t know. Into his secret circle or whatever. This, to Morton Smith, is of course more proof that Jesus was a magician, you know? He was initiating him into some kind of secret cult or something.

GRAMMEL: Is Morton Smith respected?

BROWN: I think so. Wait a second. Let me see what his credentials are here. [Reading] “Ph.D., Hebrew University; Ph.D, Harvard; Professor of History, Columbia University.”

GRAMMEL: That sounds pretty good.

BROWN: Yeah. He has some measure of respect in the field.

GRAMMEL: So the reading of this book pretty much started you to re-examine Jesus and the Gospels —

BROWN: Yeah, think again about Christianity and the Gospels, but from a different perspective. Reading the Gospels not as… Because the last time I had read the Gospels I’d read them as a Bible-believing Christian, and this time just coming into it kind of outside of that. Just wondering what was there.

GRAMMEL: Your adaptation of Mark has been very straightforward, except for the inclusion of the two incidents that you quoted from the Secret Gospels, and I wondered if this was on purpose.

BROWN: When you say “straightforward,” what do you mean?

GRAMMEL: Well, it’s done in a traditional manner that, perhaps at first glance, would not be objectionable to any Christian. And I wonder if that was because you felt you were on shaky ground altering jazzing up the Gospels.

BROWN: No, but I felt that that kind of would have been expected of me. People were expecting me to do something weird with Mark. And I am doing all the Gospels. I know that readers, when they started reading Yummy Fur #4, didn’t know I was planning on doing all four, but I knew I was going to. And so starting from a traditional view seemed like a good place to start. And I can get weirder as I go along, but...

Underwater Chapter Three ©1995 Chester Brown

GRAMMEL: Well again, one of the things I noticed as I went through the story is that you didn’t seem to be questioning the validity of the mystical experiences. When a demon is driven out of the man, we see a vague, ectoplasmic form of a demon going into the swine, to give one example.

BROWN: Well, I’m adapting the Gospel, and the Gospel… That’s what it says in the Gospel. It says he drove a demon out, so why not show it?

GRAMMEL: Reading Yummy Fur I came to feel resentful when I came to the chapters of the Gospel because they were so straightforward and visually uninteresting when compared to the main storyline. I wonder if you were happy with the way it came out.

BROWN: No. I think if I was doing it again now I would try it differently. But what I was doing was trying to distance the reader. Because I’m going to tell it over another three times. The feeling was “I can draw in closer in Matthew, Luke, and whatever. This is your beginning point, just kind of show the reader what’s there, don’t get him in too close. Don’t involve him too much. Keep him distant.” And looking over it I’m not too pleased with how it looks because I think I got in even closer than I wanted to. If I was doing it again I would distance the reader even more, I think. I’d go for even more long shots, even more… Well, and also the art was too detailed. I’d make it even simpler now if I was doing it over again.

GRAMMEL: Simpler in the way Art Spiegelman made Maus simple?

BROWN: Yeah, something like that, maybe. Although I wouldn’t make them mice or anything.

GRAMMEL: Your Jesus in your adaptation of the Gospel of Mark was a fiery angry Jesus. Is that your interpretation of him generally or was that how you saw him portrayed in Mark in particular?

BROWN: How I saw him in Mark. And that was one of the surprises of Mark for me. Just reading through you don’t notice, or at least I didn’t, how often he is described as being angry.

GRAMMEL: What did you think of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ? I know you hated the book.

BROWN: Yeah, I didn’t like the book. I liked the movie quite a bit. I’ve seen it a whole bunch of times now. It is too long. There is a lot that I feel shouldn’t be in there. I would’ve cut a lot of stuff out. But it’s still a good movie.

GRAMMEL: Overlong? Is that your only objection?

BROWN: Yeah. Certain places… The Sermon on the Mount was really awkward.

GRAMMEL: Did you find the scene that was the most controversial upsetting to you?

BROWN: You mean the dream sequence? No. That was the best part of the movie. I mean, if the movie hadn’t had it, it wouldn’t have been a good movie. It would’ve been just a boring, straightforward retelling of the story we already know.

GRAMMEL: Was your objection to the novel on a novelistic level, or its theological viewpoint?

BROWN: Neither. I just couldn’t get into the writing, and gave up after a couple pages. Actually, I should mention when I was reading the book, I also didn’t like the way Jesus was characterized in the first bit I read. I was really getting annoyed with what a wimp he was.

GRAMMEL: There’s a few stories that you’ve done for other publications. Unfortunately, Fantagraphics sent me Honk! but not the Prime Cuts that you were in. I know that it’s a Gnostic view of Jesus. Why don’t you just say anything you’d like to about that story.

BROWN: It’s a Gnostic version of how Jesus gets the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the traditional Gospel one, which says the Spirit came to Jesus when he was baptized by John the Baptist…

GRAMMEL: So are you interested in the Gnostic interpretation simply as another viewpoint or is there some kinship there for you?

BROWN: A bit of kinship. I feel closer to the Gnostics than I do to the regular, orthodox position. I’ve called myself a Gnostic, but I’m not sure I really fit into the… Well, I know I don’t completely. The thing that I disagree with most about the Gnostics is to the Gnostics the world is corrupt. This world was made by a false god or a lower god, not the true god, and we all have a tiny part of the divine Spirit within us that you’re supposed to go within yourself and find. So our bodies are corrupt and awful things, and the trees are corrupt and awful — everything about the world is awful. We have to ignore the world around us to find the true beauty of God within us. And that I just can’t accept, you know?

GRAMMEL: Which is the part that appeals to you?

BROWN: The part that appeals to me is that you accept yourself as the true authority on God. You don’t rely on outside sources. You don’t rely on your preacher. You don’t rely on the Bible or anything. You just say, “What is my opinion?” What in me tells me about God, about the world?”

GRAMMEL; So it’s a view of theology that seems to stress the individual, and the individual’s relationship to God.

BROWN: Yeah, precisely. Good.

GRAMMEL: That’s interesting, because I don’t see you as someone who is looking for just the right person to tell you who God is.

BROWN: Uh-huh.

GRAMMEL: You’ve written that you don’t “know enough about him to revere’’ Jesus. Do you not believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God, was divine?


GRAMMEL: How exactly do you perceive him?

BROWN: As a normal man. And I very much doubt that he considered himself to be divine. That’s something his later followers put on him.

GRAMMEL: I was surprised to hear that you once thought that Kirby ‘s New Gods series was blasphemous, Were you an uptight, Bible-believing Christian when you were younger?

BROWN: Oh, yeah — definitely. I was very uptight about my religious beliefs. That’s the way we were brought up. Not only were we not allowed to say the Lord’s name in vain, but we couldn’t even say “gosh.” I’m serious.

GRAMMEL: Is one of your reasons for adapting all four of the Gospels, to take control of something that had a hold on you as with your shit “problem”?

BROWN; Yeah, I suppose so — though by this time I’ve pretty much worked it out of me. I mean, I can say Jesus wasn’t divine without worrying whether I’ll go to hell or not. That probably wasn’t the case five years ago, and certainly wasn’t the case when I first saw New Gods.

GRAMMEL: One thing I haven’t touched on is your own particular experience with what some would call censorship by Diamond Comics Distributors. I know it’s been resolved, but could you tell me how that affected you?

BROWN: Hmm… Well, on the one hand, I did feel he was within his rights. If Yummy Fur was genuinely offensive to him, why should he be forced to distribute a book that he didn’t like? But it certainly was annoying for me. I lost a lot of money.

GRAMMEL: He was carrying it and then he stopped so you saw sales drop from what they had been.

BROWN: Yeah, dropped quite dramatically. I mean, I think he was something like a third of all our sales.

GRAMMEL: Do you mind if Yummy Fur is bagged for “safety” on the stands?

BROWN: No, it doesn’t bother me. People know it’s me inside. It used to annoy me if I couldn’t look inside a comic to see what the artist was inside, but this was way back when I was reading Marvels and stuff. And they’d have one artist — a good artist — on the outside, and a bad artist on the inside, [laughs] you’d want to look inside. But for creator-owned book where you have the same artist inside and outside, I don’t think it should matter.

GRAMMEL: But aren’t you limited then to the people who’ve already read your book?

BROWN: Yeah, but most of the people who buy comics are comic-book fans, know other people who are comic-book fans, and they probably know someone who is reading Yummy Fur. So if they’re really curious, they can go and look through their copies. If they’re really curious I’m sure they could go to the manager of the store or whoever’s at the front and just ask, “Can I open up this bag and take a look through?” They might even have an open copy around.

GRAMMEL: I’ve read differing reports about your own feelings toward having a panel partially obscured in issue #4. Did you think that it was outrageous censorship or did you think it was fairly prudent in a strange time for comics?

BROWN: I could understand Bill [Marks]’s point of view. I was not really angry. Annoyed. But, you know, I went along with it. I could have taken a stand, but I didn’t. He suggested it, and we talked it out for awhile. Certainly it wasn’t an angry discussion in any way. That was the one and only time Bill suggested changing something. He’s since said to me that he realizes it was a mistake, and that he wouldn’t do it again.

GRAMMEL: You’ve said that it’s a “dangerous time to be writing or drawing anything that might offend anyone and has sex in it. “Are your biblical adaptations meant in any way as land of a buffer against such a threat?

BROWN: No. I was doing the biblical adaptations because I really wanted to.

GRAMMEL: Do you feel that there’s a good chance that you’ll be hauled off to jail?

BROWN: I’m not feeling that right now. The time I said it was probably around the time of Bill C-54. And something like that could, I guess, pop up at any time. Right now I don’t feel really worried or anything.

GRAMMEL: Has Yummy Fur been part of any recent store busts?

BROWN: Not that I’ve heard. It could be. If Yummy Fur had been in Comics Legends I’m sure that would’ve been one of the books they would have picked on. They probably just didn’t have it in the store or something.


2 Responses to The Chester Brown Interview

  1. Pingback: Tea With Chris: Empty Cans of Beer | Back to the World

  2. MatthewThurber says:

    BROWN: Well, actually, I’m picking them up because I’m getting them free. [At the editing stage I’m no longer getting it free; Bill apparently can’t be bothered to mail me copies from Picton so I’m actually PAYING FOR IT now.]

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