A John’s Gospel: The Chester Brown Interview

ROGERS: I wanted to ask about another cartoonist. I was reading your back-and-forth with Dave Sim in the Cerebus issues.

BROWN: Oh my. [laughs]

Cerebus 186 by Dave Sim

ROGERS: And there was one part where you say that Cerebus 186 was an influence on your thinking about romantic relationships. Can you say to what extent, or how?

BROWN: Let me see. Up until that point, I just kind of accepted [that] everyone’s supposed to have a girlfriend and that’s the natural order. If you don’t have a girlfriend, you’re a loser. That’s what men do, they either have girlfriends or they marry—well, as long as you’re heterosexual. So, reading Cerebus 186, even though I didn’t agree with all the misogynistic views—I didn’t agree that women are inferior, all that stuff—still, here was a guy who was looking at male-female relationships in a different way. It kind of showed me, you don’t have to think like everyone else thinks about these things. Part of it was that I respected Dave a whole lot, and I knew him, and I thought he was very intelligent. That issue of Cerebus was a bombshell in a lot of ways. Like a lot of people at the time, I wasn’t sure, “Is he kidding? Is this a joke? Is he serious?” But it got me re-evaluating the whole male-female dynamic, and thinking about it in a different way, even if my conclusions are different from Dave’s. At that point I was right in the middle of my boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Sook-Yin. Up until that point, if Sook-Yin had broken up with me, I probably would have been totally depressed and despondent. But when Sook-Yin did break up with me—even though I didn’t want to break up with her, I was totally happy in that relationship—because that [Cerebus issue] changed my thinking about relationships, I think that’s one of the reasons why when she did break up with me, I was able to accept it without being emotionally upset about it. At one point, when I was originally starting to do this book, I was going to go through my whole sex life: losing my virginity, and my girlfriends, and everything. And of course I’m still good friends with two of those girlfriends, Kris and Sook-Yin. So I started to write this script and I thought, “I should probably get permission from them.” [laughs] So I asked them, “Can I do this book?” And neither of them wanted me to do the book. They were like, “Well, you can’t write about our relationship, definitely not.”

ROGERS: So did that take you aback for a little while?

BROWN: Well, that meant I had to rethink the book. “Okay, I can’t do stuff about the girlfriends. It’ll have to just focus on the prostitution stuff.” But if I had done the book about my whole sex life, then all that stuff about reading Cerebus 186 and how that changed my thinking, all that would’ve been in that book. And I still could’ve put that in, to some degree, in [Paying for It]. I was considering, at a certain point, having Dave as a character in the book, in the way that Seth and Joe are, because Dave and I had lots of discussions about prostitution, and he was very disapproving.

ROGERS: He would want you to conserve your energy or something, right?

BROWN: Well, he disapproved of paying for sex. He thinks women shouldn’t have jobs. He wants them at home getting pregnant and raising children, not out in the world having jobs. And so prostitution, for him, is just another job that keeps them away from their real role in life. That’s why he disapproves of it. So I was considering having us talk about all that kind of stuff. But at a certain point I decided not to put him in there, which turned out to be a good idea once our friendship fell through. Then I would have felt funny about getting his permission for depicting him in the book.

ROGERS: If you’re okay with it, we should clarify why your friendship fell through. I don’t know if it’s something you’re comfortable talking about, or…

BROWN: Oh, I’m completely comfortable talking about it. Well, he believes, apparently, that he’s not a misogynist, and I think it’s pretty clear that he is one. That didn’t bother me—I’m totally willing to be his friend despite the fact that, you know, he’s a misogynist. But at a certain point in time he decided he was fed up with people considering him to be a misogynist, and that he didn’t want to deal with people who thought he was one, so he set up that petition on the internet. I think it reads, “Dave Sim is not a misogynist,” and if you agree with that then you sign that petition. So he sent me a fax asking if I could sign that, and I sent back a relatively long letter by fax—I think it was maybe a page and a half or so—where I explained why I wasn’t and how I hoped we could still be friends anyways, that it didn’t influence or affect my thinking, I still liked him as a person and respected his work as a creator and all that sort of stuff. And that upset him apparently. I think he would deny that he was upset by that. I mean, he claims that he very rarely feels emotion. But we had a fax exchange back and forth—I don’t know if you’ve read those. He sent them to someone and they were put up online, so it's documented. So there was this fax exchange back and forth, and I realized this was getting us nowhere, and a friend—the cinematographer John Tran, another friend of Dave’s, who I know here in Toronto—we were talking on the phone. I was asking him if he was going to sign this petition, and he said he didn’t feel like he could sign it either. But we thought, rather than dealing with him on the phone, or sending faxes or whatever, it would be better if we just dealt with him in person. We were like, “Well, okay, let’s drive up to Kitchener and get together with him.” And it seemed pretty clear from the tone of his faxes that if we phoned ahead, he would just say, no, don’t come. So we decided we would just drive up to Kitchener and knock on his door, which we did. I had been so used to dealing with Dave—with the Dave that I knew, a friendly, affable guy—and that’s who I was expecting to deal with when he opened the door. And although he agreed to come out with us and have a coffee with us, he seemed very angry. I mean, like I said, he claims to not feel emotion, but he seemed angry. He wasn’t yelling or anything, but he had a scowl on his face. John was making small talk—he had a film that was opening around that time, Daddy Tran. So I think he was talking about the opening night of the film or something, and Dave just cut him short and was like, “John, that has nothing to do with me,” or “What does that have to do with me?” [Rogers laughs.] In a very angry tone. The whole conversation was kind of like that: confrontational, and angry on his side. He just wanted to deal with this issue—whether or not we considered him to be a misogynist. So it was unpleasant and basically confirmed that we were no longer friends.

ROGERS: So there’s been no contact since?

BROWN: No. I was even wondering—because I send out these Christmas cards every year—should I send him a Christmas card? He sends out those form letters to people who try to write to him, and I think it says in there, “If you’re not willing to sign my petition, please don’t bother me with trying to get in contact further.” So I was like, “Okay, if he says that, I should respect his wishes.” With this book coming out, I do mention him in the afterword to the book—I was wondering, should I send him a copy of the book? I haven’t decided one way or the other on it. But, yeah, that’s where things stand with me and Dave.

ROGERS: At several points in the book you’re trying to call into question this notion of romantic love and at one point say that it’s bullshit and evil and so on. How does that affect your relationship with so much of what our culture puts out, in terms of movies, novels, pop songs?

BROWN: I can still respond to romance in art. I remember I was reading James Turner's book Nil for the first time, and I was enjoying it, but my attention was at a certain level. Then he introduces a female character who’s a love interest, and suddenly, I noticed, my interest just went up, like that! [Rogers laughs] I’m supposed to be against this stuff, but here I am responding to it in a work of art. At the Lightbox [cinema in Toronto], a week or two ago, they showed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which I hadn’t seen before. It’s a romantic love story, and I loved it. But I probably am aware in a way I wasn’t before, of just how much that is around us. And if a creator fashions a story or a work of art that doesn’t involve romantic love and manages to maintain my interest anyway, to me that’s a big achievement. I guess most people don’t think of [romantic love] as a device, but it’s something that works. For whatever reason, it grabs our attention. Putting a man and a woman together—or if it’s a gay love story, putting two people together—and having them romantically interested in each other, that grabs people’s attention. It’s more difficult to create a story that’s involving that doesn’t have romance at its centre. Actually, going back to Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, that was an interesting thing about that movie: the emotional restraint of the performances. They were almost Bressonian. Even though it was supposed to be this heavy love story, the acting was very restrained, not very expressive. Seemed curious for it. I guess that must have been a choice that was made.

Postcard for the unrealized Yummy Fur film

ROGERS: On the topic of movies—in the Ed movie talks, I’m wondering what kind of interactions you had with [filmmaker] Bruce McDonald [who had optioned Ed as a movie], or if you had any input on a screenplay, or if you got to watch the filmmaking process at all for any of his stuff.

BROWN: No. I was never on the set for any of his movies or anything. Every once in a while we’d get together for lunch and he’d talk about progress on the film, sometimes with [actor/screenwriter] Don McKellar. At one point, it was going to be an animated film, so we got together with the animator too, the guy who was going to be animating it. So [we'd] talk about things, talk about what he was working on, about how imminent the film might be.

ROGERS: So it never got to the point of—

BROWN: There was a script written. It was actually a pretty good script. Bruce wrote it along with Don and another fellow named John Frizzell. But it never really got beyond the script-writing stage. It was always a problem raising money for it. And you can understand why. [Rogers laughs.] Something that has to do with Ronald Reagan and mountains of shit…

ROGERS: Dan Clowes has talked about the process of making a movie affecting his cartooning, and it doesn’t sound like you were close enough to the process for it to—

BROWN: No. I mean, Dan was actually involved in writing the screenplay for Ghost World and subsequent films. Whereas I have no interest in writing the screenplay for Ed or the Riel movie or whatever. So I couldn’t be influenced by that because I didn’t participate in it. I just want to stick to being a cartoonist. I have no interest in becoming a screenplay writer.

ROGERS: So was Riel optioned for a movie?

BROWN: Yeah, it was. Bruce optioned that one as well, along with another director. It was optioned for maybe three years, and they spent the whole three years just squabbling back and forth about the approach [Rogers laughs]. So it never got made.

ROGERS: I’m curious what you think about Bruce’s work, which of his stuff you feel is closest in spirit to yours.

BROWN: I don’t know—I haven’t seen everything by him. There is kind of a maverick freewheeling approach to his stuff, which I guess kind of resembles some of my stuff. I certainly have really enjoyed quite a few of his films. Probably my favourite was the adaptation of the Tony Burgess [novel], Pontypool. I loved Pontypool. [The title of the film is Pontypool, but the full title of the novel is Pontypool Changes Everything.]

ROGERS: That was what I was going to suggest was closest. So what is it about Pontypool?

BROWN: Well, it’s a great horror movie. And actually, from my point of view, probably one of the reasons why I loved it, is that whole question about that language-disease spreading from ideas connected to affection and love. [Rogers laughs.] That really appealed to me. But I guess that came more from Tony Burgess than Bruce. I saw it at the Manulife Centre, the Varsity [cinema in Toronto]. They’ve got the Chapters [huge chain bookstore] right outside there, so as soon as I walked out of the film, I was like, “Oh, I want to pick up the novel now.” So I walked downstairs to the Chapters, and they didn’t have any copies of the book. And I was like, “What kind of marketing is this?” [Rogers laughs] “This is the perfect time for the book to be out.” I haven’t come across it since then either. So I’ve never read it.

ROGERS: It’s a Canadian book, isn't it?

BROWN: Yeah. Tony used to live in Toronto. I met him a couple times, because he was kind of in Joe [Matt]’s circle of friends at a certain point in time, so actually several times we argued about the real identity of Shakespeare.