A Chester Brown Notebook

I’ve already written about Chester Brown’s Paying for It in a column for the Globe and Mail, which meant missing out on last week's Brown deluge at TCJ.com. But the Globe and Mail column dealt with the political and social implications of the book. Below are some notes that try to tease out a fuller account of Chester’s remarkable “comic-strip memoir.” Since I deal with the cartoonist’s personal life and am friends with him, I’m just going to call him Chester — Brown or Mr. Brown seem too formal.

Chester Brown as Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe’s famous novel about a castaway sailor can easily be seen as a parable about how civilization can be recreated even in the state of nature. Although Crusoe is shipwrecked, he slowly over time builds for himself the accouterments of civilization and eventually even acquires a servant named Friday. Chester was a sexual castaway in the late 1990s, left stranded by the break-up of his relation with Sook-Yin Lee. Alienated from the complex social codes that govern courtship and romance, Chester decided to have as bare-bone (pun alert!) a sex life as possible, one based on the basic principal of monetary trade. A self-willed Crusoe, Chester seemed content with the desert island sex life he had created for himself. But just as Crusoe started building a shack and interacting with his servant Friday, Chester develops an emotional bond with one of his call girls. Inadvertently, Chester ends up re-creating a rudimentary form of monogamy based on paid sex, not unlike the rough-and-ready habitation that Crusoe constructed for himself. In both Defoe's novel and Brown's comic-strip memoir, much of the readerly pleasure of the narrative comes from watching how the resourceful hero overcomes difficulties and solves problems. As with Robinson Crusoe, the hidden lesson of Paying for It is that the basic patterns of civilized life are so ingrained that they reassert themselves even after a catastrophe.

A Work of Art or a Polemic? Reviewers have been wavering on the issue of whether Paying for It should be judged as a work of art or whether is should be considered a polemic. It is, of course, both. But it’s hard to deal with the two dimensions of the work at once. Chester’s interest in policy and politics sets him apart from most of the major cartoonists of the last three decades (with the major exception of Joe Sacco, and the possible exception of Peter Bagge, whose best work isn’t his political strips in any case). While there are political implications to be drawn from the work of Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware — three random examples that could be multiplied by many more names — it’s fair to say that these artists are mainly focused on telling character driven narratives. Whatever politics one can see in their work is an outgrowth of a concern with telling stories. To put it another way, it’s hard to imagine Chris Ware running for political office. Chester’s concern is much more explicitly political: he wants to change people’s minds about an important issue. Chester is closer not just to Sacco and to Bagge but also to artists like Steve Ditko (on the right) and Spain Rodriguez (on the left).

The Underground Comics Tradition. This sort of politically engaged, narrative cartooning hasn’t ever been very fashionable, except perhaps for a brief efflorescence in the underground comics during the politically polarized days of the Vietnam War and Nixon. It’s hard to remember this now, but when Chester first started cartooning he did seem to be a late-born underground cartoonist, someone whose roots were clearly in the comics of Crumb and Justin Green. In chronological terms, Chester’s earliest work is much closer to the heyday of the undergrounds (say 1968-1974) than we are to Chester’s first published work. The sexual radicalism of Chester’s art, his enjoyment at shocking his audience, and his direct political engagement all place him still in the underground comics tradition. The fact that Paying for It has an introduction by Crumb is entirely apt.

The Mark of Ditko, The Masks of Ditko. Ditko, for good or ill, has left a strong mark on Chester. In fact, the Ditko of the Mr. A stories can be seen as a kind of early-born renegade underground cartoonist of the Randian right, similar to how Chester is a late-born renegade underground cartoonist of the libertarian right. Paying for It begins in uncertainty and doubt. Fresh from the break-up with Sook-Yin Lee, Chester isn't sure of what to do and his early experiences of paying for sex are a process of discovery. But in the second half of the book, all doubt has disappeared: black is black, white is white, a is a, prostitution is great, possessive monogamy is evil. The implacable Chester who relentlessly argues for the merits of paid sex is a crusading Mr. A figure, unmasked but still wearing an inscrutable face that might as well be cloaked. Ditko is all about masks, as indeed is Chester's other great precursor, Harold Gray. As Donald Phelps long ago observed, the famously blank eyes in Little Orphan Annie created a mask effect. Interestingly in connection with masks, Chester enjoys having sex with a prostitute he calls "Gwendolyn" because her face is "an impassive mask" during intimacy, although friendly enough before intercourse. "I can respect a prostitute who's not going to put on a show of pretending to enjoy an experience she's not enjoying," Chester thinks. "It's honest." The sexiness of masks and emotional restraint is one of the subthemes of the book.

An Aesthetic Judgment: The Art. The controversial nature of the subject matter has led most reviewers to focus on the politics of the book and skirt discussing the art, a shame because this is Chester’s best drawn work and contains his strongest cartooning. The influence of Harold Gray’s work, so evident in Louis Riel, was already pushing Chester towards icon-like images of characters who seem almost frozen in ice, displaying a figurative “monumentality” (to borrow a word from Chris Ware). But in Paying for It, Chester pushes these tendencies to another level of intensity, making the art elegantly distilled. Some of the effects are quite subtle, like the lockstep manner Seth, Joe Matt and Chester walk through the street (suggesting a hidden affinity between the three even as they disagree about the ethics of prostitution). Conversely, when Chester and his former girlfriend Kris walk down the street, their legs move in counterpoint (i.e., when Chester’s right leg is the forward one, the panel will show Kris's left leg forward). This minute detail brings out the gender divide.

An Aesthetic Judgement: The Narrative. Artistically, the only problem with Paying for It comes from Chester’s admirable decision to protect the identities of the women he buys sex from. It would have been quite wonderful to get to know more about the prostitutes Chester slept with, to get a fleshed out sense of their lives and personalities. It would also be good to have more details about how he became emotionally attached to “Denise” (the pseudonym given to his long time call girl, with whom he now has a paying monogamous relation). The dearth of details is perfectly understandable -- indeed commendable in its consideration for the privacy rights of prostitutes -- but also regrettable artistically. Certainly a major achievement of Paying for It is that it humanizes the experience of being a john, which will make it much easier to have rational discussions about prostitution in the future.  All in all, one of the great autobiographical comics, up there with Crumb's work and Brown's own I Never Liked You. So far, Paying For It is the book of the year and is likely to remain so unless George Herriman returns from the dead and offers Fantagraphics a chance to publish the graphic novel he's been working on in the afterlife.

Polemical Problems. Although I’m unreservedly enthusiastic about Paying for It as a work of art, I do think that as a polemic it occasionally misfires, especially in a few of the notes in the back. Part of the problem is that Chester is heavily relying on his own (arguably very peculiar) case history, which means giving emphasis to his objections against possessive monogamy. This leads to statements like “I think marriage is an evil institution.” This assertion is very interesting for the light it sheds on Chester’s decision to go to prostitutes but it’s unlikely to win many friends to the cause. Although many people are unhappy in their marriages or fail to achieve happiness in marriage, very few would agree that it is an “evil” institution. I’m actually much closer to Chester than most people are in questioning possessive monogamy. The tyranny of coupledom that we all live in is oppressive to all sorts of nonconformists, so that its impossible for people to openly celebrate choices like celibacy, a ménage à trois, an open marriage, lifelong sexual experimentation outside of marriage, among other paths to contentment. But even I think it’s a smidgen too stark to say that marriage is “evil.”

Reframing the Argument. If you’re trying to make an effective argument for gay rights, you wouldn’t normally start off by saying heterosexuality is evil and that ideally all heterosexuals should be having gay sex. Rather, you argue that some people are made happier by gay sex and that the non-harmful actions of consenting adults shouldn’t be prohibited. When I make the argument for the normalization and decriminalization of sex work, I try to frame it in terms of human sexual diversity (i.e., different people have different ways of being sexually happy) rather than as part of an argument against romantic love or possessive monogamy. Not that I’m completely unsympathetic to the arguments against romantic love or possessive monogamy – just that I think those are separate issues. You have to pitch your battles on the terrain where they can be won.

Sexual Diversity. The best argument for normalizing prostitution is the undeniable fact of human sexual diversity and the obvious benefits of allowing people to pursue their own paths to happiness. Chester is without question a happier person since he’s started paying for sex. There are undoubtedly many other men and women who would have happier lives if they too could buy a little nookie, especially if the legal and moral strictures against prostitution were lifted. That’s a real benefit that needs to be put on the table. Equally crucial is the argument that decriminalization and normalization will make the lives of prostitutes safer and easier, which Chester touches on in Paying For It but could have developed at greater length.