A John’s Gospel: The Chester Brown Interview

ROGERS: Okay, let me get back into the book here. Is it fair to say that the book is a lot about arguing, about debating with yourself, or debating with your friends, or about thinking? Does it seem like a book that’s about thought processes to you, rather than lived experience?

BROWN: It seems to me that there’s both in there. I don’t remember there being so much arguing with myself. There might be some of that in there, but there are quite a few scenes where I’m debating other people.

ROGERS: I’m thinking of scenes like where you’re at Comic-Con, just lying on the bed. Or walking down the street thinking to yourself. Or sitting in Sook-Yin’s house, when she’s gone up north, thinking to yourself. It seems like there’s a real reflective quality about the book, at the same time that it is about your actual experiences with prostitutes.

BROWN: Yeah, I kind of forgot about that being there. At one point in my career, I would’ve been reluctant to do that sort of thing. But Joe Matt does that a couple times in his comics. I remember there was one of his one-pagers early on when he was doing the diary-type stuff, where basically nothing happens for the whole comic. Joe is shown going throughout the business of his day, and in each of the panels he’s got a thought balloon where he’s thinking through stuff—I guess mostly about his relationship with Trish. And I remember just thinking, wow, he’s not doing anything; it’s all about what he’s thinking, but it’s really involving anyways. So that got me thinking, okay, a comic doesn’t have to be just about people doing things; you can show thought processes and that’s okay. Now, I don’t know if what I did worked the way it did with Joe, but, you know, hey, Joe’s a very talented cartoonist.

ROGERS: [laughs] Yeah, Joe’s kind of the master of doing comics where nothing happens. [both laugh] I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. But that was actually one of my questions: not only how the earlier diary strips influenced your work, which is kind of obvious, but I was wondering if, in particular, Spent influenced this book at all.

BROWN: Oh, enormously. [laughs] I mean, there are several scenes in here which are deliberate echoes of things that happened in Spent. Like, I set a scene in the Ten Editions bookstore just because Joe had a scene in it, although he calls it Tenth Edition in his book. But I wanted to have a scene in that bookstore. And the scene where we’re in the restaurant and the waitress asks if we’re artists—Joe had a similar scene in his book, but I show it the way I think it really would have happened because Joe’s version was totally inaccurate. [Rogers laughs] There are a couple other things like that, where I’m echoing Joe.

ROGERS: And it’s not just scenes that echo Joe, but the way that you put it together echoes the way he structures or cartoons Spent, where it’s a lot of repetitive framing, measured framing, and also these pecuniary worries, like when you’re always thinking about how much to tip or whether to tip. That seems very Joe Matt.

BROWN: Yeah. That wasn’t a deliberate echo. I can see how you could make the connection there.

ROGERS: So how do you put together these sequences where it's just conversation, or it’s just you sitting around thinking? How do you decide the framing? How do you decide the pacing? How do you structure something like that? I’m wondering if there’s any kind of strategy that you do to make those interesting.

BROWN: From the point of view of how I did it, for the whole book, I wrote all of the scenes out in longhand, all the dialogue. At certain points I realized, “Okay, I should have a silent panel here.” So sometimes in the script I would just put a square panel, and that indicates “silent panel.” And then just go on with writing out dialogue longhand. Occasionally I would realize, “Something that's visual is necessary here, and I have an idea; and if I don’t draw it out, then I’ll forget it.” So I would draw out visual stuff, usually just using stick figures. The script was just written like that. Then there was a second stage of the script, where I broke that dialogue down into panels, using post-it notes. Each post-it note would be a different panel. But, I think what you’re asking, I’m not sure how I do that.

ROGERS: I think you’re answering it. But you work from a script—like, a full script?

BROWN: Yeah, I wrote the full script out ahead of time, which is what I do now. In the early days, with the Ed book I wrote no script.

ROGERS: It was just cartooning straight to paper?

BROWN: Yeah, for the most part, making it up as I went along. And I kind of tried to do that again with Underwater and realized, it may have worked for Ed, but it doesn’t work every time. [laughs] So then after that I started writing full scripts. I didn’t write a full script for I Never Liked You or The Playboy either. But Underwater taught me my lesson: okay, from now on, write full scripts. So for the Riel book I worked the same way: dialogue first, and then breaking it down into the individual panels, although I didn’t use post-it notes for Riel. That was a trick I picked up. I had a reading somewhere with the children’s author Barbara Reid, and she explained that that’s how she worked: she wrote her scripts down on post-it notes and that way she could rearrange things. And I was like, that’s perfect for comics, especially my comics. If I decided I needed an extra panel here, I could just rearrange the post-it notes. It’s a perfect way of working for me.

ROGERS: Why did the lack of scripting work for previous works but not for Underwater?

BROWN: Well, if I compare Underwater to Ed the Happy Clown, with Underwater I was to a large degree making it up as I went along, like I had with Ed the Happy Clown, but I was trying to just follow one character in a pretty naturalistic way. Whereas with Ed, if I felt something was getting boring, I could switch to another character or I could make up any crazy thing to happen to Ed. I couldn’t suddenly have one of the characters turning into a vampire in Underwater. I didn’t want it to be that sort of work. I wanted it to have a more realistic tone. Obviously you can do a very interesting story that has a realistic feel to it, but you really should plan it out more carefully beforehand. I think that was the problem. And with I Never Liked You, even though I didn’t script it out beforehand, I knew what the book was about, I knew the scenes I was going to hit. Although I didn’t write a script, I actually did write out a scene-by-scene description of the book. So it was almost scripted. And [with] The Playboy, there was a sense of improvising as I went along; I didn’t know how I was going to approach the material. Even so, I clearly had an idea of what the book was about and some idea of the sort of stories I was going to be telling about my life. So in a way that was also more scripted than Ed or Underwater.

ROGERS: Maybe this is a question that you get tired of answering, but is Underwater something that you would ever return to? Are the gospels something that you would return to? Because I know that you’ve returned to works in the past and revised and made notes on them and so forth.

BROWN: I’ve considered doing that with Underwater. That was the original plan, when I started Riel: “I’m going to work on Riel but also work on trying to come up with an ending for Underwater, or a way of working with that material in some way.” And I just never did. That was the plan, but I just worked on Riel instead. So I never did return to it, and at this point it seems unlikely that I will. The same thing with the gospels—it wouldn’t be that difficult to finish Matthew at this point, because I’m not that far from the end. I’m at the point where Jesus is just about to enter Jerusalem, which is his last days, and it’s leading right up to the crucifixion. But my heart just isn’t in it. I have no interest now in finishing it. There’s other stuff I’d rather do.

ROGERS: So, again, I’m sure this is a question you will get tired of answering, but what is the stuff that you would rather do? What is coming up next? [Laughter]

BROWN: Uh… Yeah, I’d rather not say at this point. [Laughter]

ROGERS: Well, let me rephrase that: would you consider going back to fictional storytelling? Is that anything that you could see yourself returning to in the future?

BROWN: My interest isn’t in fiction now. So… non-fiction or real-life or whatever.

ROGERS: Do you keep a diary? Because there is this cataloguing impulse, this attention to record-keeping in this book, and even in The Playboy.

BROWN: I don’t have a full diary. I have a semi-journal. What I mostly record is phone calls. When someone phones me, I’ll write down who phoned me, at what time, and maybe what we talked about, and other notes. Like, when you phoned me the other day about setting up this interview, I would have written down what time we were supposed to meet. So there are usually a few notes about every phone call, and then if anything else significant happens that day I might write a line or two. Like, we’re seeing Joe Sacco tonight, so maybe tonight or tomorrow I’ll write down, “Had dinner tonight with Joe Sacco and whoever else was there at such-and-such restaurant.” But it’s not like a full…

ROGERS: It’s not a reflective record of your life.

BROWN: No, no. It’s not about my emotional state or anything like that. It’s not a full diary. But that is how I indicate all the dates in there about when I saw the various prostitutes. All that’s in there. So that’s how I was able to get all that information.