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The Comics Journal #302: Wages of Love: Chester Brown’s True Romance Comix Excerpt

Quite a lot of the critical reaction to Paying for It has concerned itself with expressing approval or disapproval of its author — either condemning Chester Brown as a creepy exploiter of women or (less frequently) celebrating his sex-positive candor. Some reviewers have engaged with Brown’s polemic against romantic love, or his argument for the decriminalization of prostitution. Everyone’s so het up over the subject of the book that almost no commentators have been able to bring themselves to evaluate it as a work of art (in sort of the same way that it’s just about impossible to get anyone to come out and admit that any book or film about the Holocaust is bad). They’re so distracted arguing about what the book claims to be about that no one seems to have noticed what it’s actually about.

This sequence is from Paying for It. ©2011 Chester Brown

It’s some sort of testament to Brown’s fearless honesty in addressing such a taboo subject, about which there is apparently only one publicly acceptable opinion, that so many reviewers have gone out of their ways to make known their moral — and, in some cases, physical — revulsion. New York Times critic Dwight Garner, in describing a scene where Brown admits to being excited by the possibility that he’s hurting a prostitute he’s fucking, adds: “I cringe even to type that sentence.” Brown has said in an interview that he was disturbed by this incident, too, but he didn’t cringe at portraying it. And although I’m frankly made a little queasy by that scene too, I also admire Brown, as an artist, for showing it to us without the cover of some preemptive self-castigation. The unattractive truth is that men (and women) are sometimes aroused by things that are, in the light of day, creepy, disturbing, degrading or cruel. (Though I should also draw a distinction here between enjoying such things in fantasy or consensual play and actually doing them.) One of my female friends said the book “confirmed some of [her] suspicions about the male psyche.” The part of Paying for It that most resonates with me is (annoyingly) not in the book itself but elaborated in an endnote; Brown explains how, every time he used to see an attractive woman on the street, he’d imagine that there was some theoretical sequence of events that would result in her having sex with him and immediately condemn himself as a coward and a loser for failing to ask her out.

Just to get this out of the way, I’m not wholly unsympathetic to Brown’s views on the subject of prostitution. No doubt about it: relationships and dating are a mess, and you do have to wonder, at moments of low morale, whether there isn’t some other option. As far as I’m concerned, he makes a reasonable and persuasive case for patronizing prostitutes. However, Brown is a lot less interested in making a case for being a prostitute, and seems a little naive or oblivious to the realities that might compel someone to go into sex work. I’ve never patronized a prostitute, but I am friends with one, and she’s not a junkie or an indentured immigrant, she doesn’t get slapped around by a pimp, she wasn’t abused as a girl, and she isn’t in the business against her will; she enjoys her work and considers it a vocation and describes some of her relationships with clients as truly intimate. Her experience is probably not typical, but she would argue that it should be, and it deserves to be heard in the debate over prostitution. I also don’t understand why the state involves itself in consensual sexual conduct of any kind, although since prostitution is a business as well as sex, the issue is a little trickier than Brown supposes. But it’s also pretty obvious to me that, although these are all legitimate issues, none of them are the real issues with Chester Brown. [1]

This panel is from I Never Liked You. ©2002 Chester Brown

What I find much more interesting than Brown’s ostensible thesis in Paying For It is the personal story here, a love story, one that the reader has to piece together for herself from inadvertent hints and clues because the author seems either oblivious to it or determined to suppress it. As with the faces of the prostitutes he draws, which are always turned away from us, covered by hair, or occluded by word balloons, there is something in this book so consistently omitted it becomes disquietingly conspicuous, haunting by its absence. I don’t know whether reviewers of Paying For It have been too obtuse or too polite to mention this elephant sitting on the divan with its feet up, but to me it seems that there’s no way to talk honestly about the book without bringing up this central deficit: It seems never to have occurred to Chester Brown to connect the fact that he’s structured his adult life to preclude any possibility of a romantic relationship with the fact that his mother was a schizophrenic.

[1] Brown’s default position on every issue is contrarian: he sees romantic love as a cultural delusion; he believes all government intervention (except the protection of property rights) is an outrageous intrusion; he sides with controversial figures like Thomas Sasz who debunk mental illness and drug addiction as legitimate medical diagnoses. This is all consistent with the worldview of Ed the Happy Clown, in which all authority figures are corrupt and suspect: the police are masked, porcine thugs with truncheons, machine-gunning convicts and disposing of inconvenient bodies; doctors smoke cigarettes over their open patients in surgery and bludgeon whimpering prisoners with pipes; President Reagan is a cranky baldheaded dwarf who’s controlled by his sultry pus-sucking wife; and divine justice proves to be just as arbitrary, cruel and beyond appeal as the kind doled out on earth. (The one exception, interestingly, is a minister, who first seems as if he’ll be a fire-and-brimstone caricature but instead preaches a sermon about love.) Reflexive mistrust of authority is probably healthier and less dangerous than blind deference to it, but it ends up being another kind of conformity; blanket skepticism is as automatic and uncritical, in its way, as blanket credulity.

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16 Responses to The Comics Journal #302: Wages of Love: Chester Brown’s True Romance Comix Excerpt

  1. Jeet Heer says:

    Like all of Kreider’s comics reviews, this is a terrific piece of writing & I’d encourage everyone to track it down. A few quick thoughts on the print version of the review (spoiler alert if you haven’t read it yet):
    1. My biggest disagreement is with Kreider’s judgement on the art, which I find to be quite lovely in its austere (almost skeletal) sparseness. It’s a distillation of all the lessons in minimalist storytelling Brown has learned from Harold Gray and others. Or to put it another way, if Ernie Bushmiller or Charles Schulz drew comics about their sex lives, it would look like this.(Kreider is also wrong about the quality of art in Joe Matt’s Spent).
    2. I agree that Paying For It Is best read as part of an autobiographical sequence that includes I Never Liked You, the Playboy and “My Mother was a Schizophrenic.” I especially appreciated the link between that last story and Paying For It that Kreider made.
    3. There is a disjunction between the story Brown told and his ideology but to me that makes the work all the richer. The Pale Fire analogy really works well.
    4. Having written on Dave Sim and Brown, Kreider now needs to tackle Joe Matt and Seth. He could turn this into a book about the psychological trauma of Toronto-area cartoonists.

  2. “Quite a lot of the critical reaction to Paying for It has concerned itself with expressing approval or disapproval of its author”

    It seems 100% reasonable that this would be the main form of critical engagement, given that the book is a polemic, and seems to have been intended as a monograph that just happens to also have pictures. You don’t have to be “het up” about the subject matter, or “distracted”; had it been a comic about Kant’s use of the transcendental deduction in the first Critique, people would have reacted in the same way. (except, of course, that no one knows or cares what the transcendental deduction is)

  3. jim sheridan says:

    I had to pay a woman 50 bucks to use the transcendental deduction with me.

  4. Ben Lipman says:

    Brown’s annotations in the back make it quite hard to judge as a work of art, separate from solely being an argument for legalised, yet unregulated, prostitution. His ideas at the back on the subject seemed quite half-baked to me, and it really distracted from any power the comic had in and of itself – he portrayed himself as quite creepy in several scenes, which was honest and great, but then he gives defences for his actions throughout the back section, ie “there was an ugly girl in the brothel so they probably weren’t sex slaves”. Just the comic alone, without text at the back trying to convince us his every action and thought within the book is correct, would have served the comic much better.

  5. Wane Franklin Roman says:

    Too bad there isn’t this much handwringing and tsktsking every time “GI” Joe Sacco releases another book of “reportage” wherein he profits from unspeakable, immeasurable suffering thanks to religions and governments the world over, knowing full well there will never be a “solution” and that his lifetime meal ticket is actually perpetuating the “conflicts”… but hey, sex is bad, killing is cool.

  6. patrick ford says:

    It’s the new age mantra. Don’t worry, be happy.

  7. Wane Franklin Roman says:

    Are you threatening me?

  8. R. Fiore says:

    Look, all we’re saying is that you have a nice little store here and it would be a shame if something were to happen to it. We don’t want to threaten you, we want to protect you. We live in the age of broken thumbs and you can’t be too careful . . .

  9. patrick ford says:

    The new world where Joe Sacco is the sell-out.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnDq_f-NZnE

  10. Neil Patrick Harris says:

    Once again I must “applaud” the “brave” speaking “truth” to “power” of “Wane Franklin Roman”, but the sneer quotes sprinkled through his most convincing portrait of Joe Sacco as a blood-soaked war profiteer are confusing on a point or two. Has Sacco been covering some “conflicts” that are not really conflicts?

  11. Tim Kreider says:

    With respect, Jones, One of the Jones Boys, I think either you’re confusing or I failed to clarify the distinction between “agreement/disagreement” and “approval/disapproval”–the former being a reasoned evaluation of someone’s argument, which is what you’re talking about in your comment, the latter meaning ad hominem moral judgment, which is what I was talking about in my essay. (Though God knows the former seems to elide into the latter pretty much instantly these days, in internet discourse, at least.) People are of course free to agree or disagree with Brown’s thesis, though I personally find that the least interesting aspect of the book; taking care to express their disapproval of its author’s lifestyle seems to me more like reflexive p.c. or Puritan sanctimony, neither of which is real illuminating.

  12. mateor says:

    So where is the line between pressing back against the moral judgement towards Brown (which I agree is useful) and doing the same thing for Dave Sim or Orson Scott Card?

  13. Robert Boyd says:

    Why must the “argument” aspect of it be separated from the “work of art” aspect?

  14. R. Fiore says:

    I think they have to be considered as separate categories. Suppose Frank Miller were to do a really terrible comic that condemns the use of child soldiers, as opposed to a brilliantly conceived Superman story by Orson Scott Card condemning gay marriage.

  15. R. Fiore says:

    Though now that I think of it, didn’t Batman recruit a bunch of kids for his guerilla army in Dark Knight? Then there’s Robin, though that precedes Miller. Bad hypothetical example. You don’t look to comics for help on the children as combatants issue.

  16. Joe Bradshaw says:

    It’s ever-so-difficult, while at the office, to meticulously analyze every previous post in order to ensure that I’m staying on-topic. Feel free to shoot me down if I’m not. Here goes:

    The relationship between how the book stands as a “work of art” and how it stands as an enlightening (or revolting) “moral polemic” is an intimate and direct one. People have probably gone over some of the reasons why: we are more likely to be jarred, and subject to the arousal of moral impulses (whether they be of intense shame and disgust, or glowing pride and appreciation), if the work in question is finely tuned. The fact that the work of art is, by our lights, the sort of thing that can shake us in our seats (regardless of the quality of the shake) is justification enough to deem it “good” instead of “bad.” To say that a work of art fails simply because it arouses feelings of shame and disgust is to misconceptualize what it means to experience an impulsive feeling. During Eminem’s tenure as the professor of American controversy, the advocacy groups that elected to denigrate his art, rather than his emotional / intellectual disposition, as a means of discrediting his public image ended up looking trite and foolish. If Eminem hadn’t been skilled at doing what he does, no one would have cared much that he was a homophobe, or misogynistic, or anything else.

    1984 isn’t particularly poetic or well-written, but we like what it has to say, so we keep it around. If we ever get to a point where we no longer have to worry about the kind of future Orwell describes in that book, we’ll probably lose interest in it. This is to say that 1984 suceeds as a polemic where it fails as a “work of art.” When we generally have the converse reaction to a similarly unskilled piece, we just forget about it, or dismiss it out-of-hand. To rehash the example of hip-hop music, compare the way the public generally regards Eminem, as opposed to ICP. Both of them have been just as offensive, misogynistic, and homophobic as the other. Nobody gives a shit about ICP, though – just like no body gave a shit about the films “Ted Bundy” and “Gacy,” or Jewel’s poetry. Even if the latter works included material that was theoretically offensive to us, we didn’t pay it any mind because the works in question were pretty terrible. They didn’t make us feel anything – we just disagreed, intellectually and morally, with what they chose to include in their unskilled production.

    Which brings me back to the notion of “impulsive feelings.” Unless we’re still under the spell of a Kantian-Christian conception of what it means to be moral, the arousal of such feelings shouldn’t scare us. Rather, they should serve as signposts for constructive thought and action issuing from the work in question. If the work of art is not sufficiently skilled to build such signposts, then it probably isn’t a very good work of art. Any critic who uses his / her own feelings of shame as an excuse to denigrate a work of art, as a work of art, is barking up the wrong tree – treating his / her impulsive feeling as an “end in itself” (to use Kantian language) rather than as a platform upon which to improve / clarify the moral situation.

    The point to take is not that “prostitution is bad and romance between lovers is what God intends,” any more than it is “romance is just an echo of a patriarchal and oppressive institution, and sex should be as free and valueless as one like.” Brown’s book raises the situation as an interesting one to think about, and that’s enough.

    And yes, I *am* effectively saying that whatever Brown’s personal opinion on the matter is, it does not (and should not) matter.

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