A John’s Gospel: The Chester Brown Interview

ROGERS: Is that something that you see in Harold Gray as well?

BROWN: Yes. I mean, some people might disagree because there’s so much melodrama in Gray, but certainly in the way he uses his visuals, as opposed to the superhero comics that I would have grown up on, where there are all these close-ups and where characters have eyes that show emotion. In Gray, the camera is distant from the action, and everyone has these blank eyes, and faces don’t show a lot of emotion. Yes, the stories themselves involve emotion, but the style seems, at least from a modern point of view, very restrained.

ROGERS: Would the time that you’re thinking about Bresson have been around the same time that you were getting into Gray? Or have you always had Gray in the background?

BROWN: I responded to Gray right from the beginning. Dover had published this collection, a collection of two of the Leon and Cupples books, Little Orphan Annie and Little Orphan Annie in Cosmic City—which wasn’t the whole Cosmic City story, unfortunately, but anyways. I think that was my first exposure to his stuff, and I loved it right away. That’s what got me just confining myself to square panels a lot of the time. But then I kind of got away from Gray. Right before I started Underwater, I finally found a copy of Arf, and that got me back into Gray again. In a way, that doubled my interest in Gray.

ROGERS: That is where you start to see it, even just in terms of body types in Jesus and the parents in Underwater. Is there a connection with Gray’s politics as well as his aesthetics that you responded to? Or is that something that’s developed more recently?

BROWN: Initially, I would’ve had a negative reaction to Gray’s politics. I don’t think of myself as a right-winger, but I know in a Canadian context I would be seen that way—my turn rightward had nothing to do with Gray. That was just other reading. But once I was turning in a more rightward direction, that was another thing to respond to in Gray’s work.

ROGERS: This isn’t going to map out exactly, but—Gray has a lot of… “affection” I guess isn’t the right word, but he has a lot of compassion for people like small farmers, independent business people, at the same time that he objects to big government and stuff like that, so I think that there’s the same kind of—

BROWN: He even seems to have an affection for prostitutes.


BROWN: Have you read that sequence—Jeet [Heer, of TCJ] sent it to me, I think it’s from the 1950s. It’s a storyline about juvenile delinquents, but there’s a prostitute character in there, named Nell, who he obviously doesn’t seem to be judging in any way harshly. She is, if anything, one of the positive forces in that storyline, which was interesting.

ROGERS: Is there any of Gray in Paying for It? Has any of that influence carried over?

BROWN: A lot less than was in the Riel book. Probably there are lessons from Gray that have carried over, I’m sure, and certain approaches and ways of thinking. But I guess because of the sudden interest in Fletcher Hanks—even before that, with that earlier thirty pages, if you looked at those, those looked a lot less like Gray too. So I guess I’d kind of developed out of that, or maybe I just thought it wasn’t appropriate for the material. I did kind of wrestle with it a bit at the beginning. Because of the Gray influence, towards the end of the Riel book, Riel and other people have these tiny heads and these big bodies with these big hands. So I was wrestling with that a bit in my drawing style at the beginning of drawing Paying for It. There are certain panels where I drew myself with this tiny head and big body and then I would have to redraw it with dimensions that looked more like mine. [laughs] Actually, for the presentation I have for the launch, I’m going to show a couple of those panels and how I had to redraw them. But I guess I was trying to get away from the Gray influence for this book.

ROGERS: Are there are any old cartoonists that you’re discovering now or lately that you could see your style being influenced by in the same way that Hanks or Gray has done?

Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton

BROWN: No one who’s coming to mind. I mean, there are a whole bunch of cartoonists who I was looking at heavily while I was doing Paying for It: Basil Wolverton, Joann Sfar.... I was particularly interested in him because he draws a lot of female characters, and he is always able to make them look very beautiful but also very distinct. At one point I was thinking of actually drawing the women’s faces, and so I was looking at Sfar: how do you do that? How do you draw lots of female faces but make them look distinct and still attractive? Then I went with the decision to not show their faces. But I still was looking at Sfar; his stuff is gorgeous.

ROGERS: And what was it about Wolverton that was interesting you? Was it his religious material, or the humour material, or the sci-fi material?

BROWN: Oh, the sci-fi material. Spacehawk and that sort of stuff. Yeah, the more serious stuff—the horror comics from the 1950s.

ROGERS: I guess he’s got that same kind of distanced, formal style that Hanks and Gray have as well.

BROWN: Yeah, there’s some similarity. I’m not sure how I would characterize it, but between those guys, there’s something about them that has a similar feel. Although the artwork in Paying for It looks nothing like Basil Wolverton, that’s what I was looking at. But how that got filtered through my brain and ended up looking like the stuff in Paying for It, I don’t know. [laughs]

Cover to Lady Chatterley's Lover by Brown.

ROGERS: You’ve started putting comic strips on the cover of your books. I think that started with the D.H. Lawrence book that you did for Penguin [Lady Chatterley's Lover]. So what is appealing to you about that format, or about how that looks on the cover of a book?

BROWN: I always had trouble coming up with a single image for my covers. Really, doing comics is the perfect medium for me because my brain doesn’t tend to think in terms of one image at a time. I like thinking in sequences of images. So it was always a struggle: what is the one image that’s going to go on the cover? Now that I’m willing to allow myself to think in terms of putting more than one image, putting comic strip panels on the cover, it makes it easier for me. [laughs] I don’t have to come up with one image; there can be several. Also, I think it signals to the reader, if you have something with a word balloon in it, “This is comics.” It makes it a bit more clear.