A John’s Gospel: The Chester Brown Interview

ROGERS: So this other question is about some of the moments that I found jarring in the book. These are the moments when you depict the girl pulling her hair in front of her face because she doesn’t want to have sex, or the one where you’re turned on by the girl who’s in pain. Are these just honest depictions of what happened, or was there a purpose that you were trying to achieve by showing these?

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BROWN: Well, in both of those, I was disturbed, both times. I was disturbed that I was turned on by the fact that this woman seemed to be in pain. That was a significant moment. I was trying to be honest about both positive and negative things that happened, and if I had edited those out or not included those, I would’ve felt like I was, in a sense, lying or not being honest about what I had felt. It seemed necessary to put those in.

ROGERS: The argument that’s being put forward in the book so much is that, paying for sex is a commercial relationship, sex work is work, that these are categories that we’re familiar with, and these are how we should be thinking of these kind of interactions. But what happened there, it seems, is that approaching this relationship as a purely consumer relationship breaks down a bit.

BROWN: Well, there are going to be people who don’t like the work and shouldn’t be doing it. The woman who pulled the hair over her face, she shouldn’t have been doing it [laughs]. She couldn’t emotionally handle it, apparently. So, I mean, I felt bad for her. But anti-prostitutionists seem to think that’s how all prostitutes feel. I certainly wanted to acknowledge that some of them do feel that way, some of them can’t handle the work, some of them shouldn’t be doing the work.

ROGERS: Is there a difference between kinds of work? I mean, you compare cartooning and prostitution a lot in the book as just two different kinds of work. But is there a difference between sexual labour and manual labour and intellectual labour?

BROWN: Oh, yeah, there’s very definitely a difference. To me, the difference is because of the way we think about sex. So many of us do think of sex as a shameful thing or a private thing. I make the argument in the appendices that it shouldn’t be taxed. And that’s because it is a private thing. I don’t think the government should intrude that much into people’s private lives. They shouldn’t be involved in our sexual lives, the government, at least as long as it’s consensual sex between adults. But that’s a difference because of how we feel about sex. If we had a different attitude towards sex, maybe it would be okay for government to intrude more, or at least tax it. I don’t know. Actually, even if we had a different attitude, I still think I would—

ROGERS: [laughs] I was gonna say, “Are you promoting taxation here?”

BROWN: [laughs] Yeah, governments should tax as little as possible.

ROGERS: Have you had any feedback from sex workers on the book? I guess you’ve showed it to your current “girlfriend.”

BROWN: Yes. She had a positive reaction to the book. In fact, she said thank you for doing the book. [laughs] I’m not sure what she was thanking me for, whether it was her depiction, or my restraint in her depiction, or whether it was the overall attitude towards sex work. I haven’t shown it to other sex workers. Peggy sent it to Tracy Quan, who used to work as a prostitute and has written a couple of semi-autobiographical novels about her experiences, and she seemed to have a positive reaction. She wrote a nice quote, anyways. And the same thing with Veronica Monet. I’m not sure if Veronica used to work as a prostitute or still does, but she has written a book too, and she wrote a very nice quote too. Those are the only sex workers I know of who’ve read the book, I think. I hope I’m not forgetting anyone [laughs]. Of those three the reaction seems positive so far.

ROGERS: Three for three. You mention that Paying for It wouldn’t be your title of choice. [Brown laughs.] Do you have a title that you would prefer?

BROWN: Well, I mean, I was thinking of all kinds of titles. At one point, I was considering The Sex Life of John [Laughter] But I wasn’t sure if that would be too confusing.

ROGERS: That people who were looking for books about abolitionists would pick it up?

BROWN: Yeah, yeah. [Laughter] But the one that I wanted to go with, closer to the end, and when we were really trying to thinking of titles, was I Pay for Sex, which I thought was much more direct. And, yeah, they were against that.

ROGERS: Would that have kept it out of book stores in, like, middle Ontario or something like that?

BROWN: I think that was their concern—that it made it too blunt and too obvious. Whereas Paying for It is just a step away, says the same thing, but isn’t quite as direct. I was also considering 23 Prostitutes, but they didn’t like that for the same reason. [Rogers laughs.] And when I suggested that title to Seth, he was like, “Oh, but it would be even better if it was 23 Whores,” because “whores” is such a vibrant word, or something. [Rogers laughs.] Peggy really did not like 23 Whores.

ROGERS: No. I’m picturing an alternate universe where the Chester Brown books on the shelf are Fuck and 23 Whores. [Laughter] Just as confrontational as possible. What similarities do you think Paying for It has to your past work? Or do you think that there are similarities?

BROWN: Well, the most obvious similarity is that quite a few of my books before this have been autobiographical. So there’s that. And I suppose a willingness to talk about aspects of my life that most people would not want to talk about. Although it seems like more people in our culture are more willing to talk about their sex lives or whatever—that’s becoming less unusual now. What else? I don’t know what else.

ROGERS: Well, in your previous autobiographical work you’ve used direct speech to convey information. So you have the avatar in The Playboy, or you have the panels that got excised from “Helder,” where you’re talking about coming home from work, or in “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic” your character is speaking directly to the reader. Did you consider doing that here, that kind of direct address?

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BROWN: I don’t think I did. I’ve always been leery of using narrative captions. And so that’s why, in those earlier books, I was trying to avoid using narrative captions. So in The Playboy, instead of using a narrative caption to say “I got home from school,” or whatever, I have that little demon Chester saying that sort of stuff directly to the reader. I guess in Paying for It I just tried to avoid using narrative captions as much as possible, and when I did use them I went for the full-panel narrative caption, the way that Chris Ware does. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. It’s just experimenting, trying different things.

ROGERS: On the topic of experimentation—in this book and Louis Riel, you've settled on a strict grid with a white background. Why has that changed from past books or from your past approaches?

BROWN: It’s probably just nostalgia. That’s the traditional comic book look, is the grid. Particularly the work that I love, like Gray’s work—although Gray wouldn’t have used a grid, when his work is reproduced now, it looks like a grid: you’ve got the strips on top of each other. It’s not that I dislike the experiments that I was doing in The Playboy or I Never Liked You. I think that’s interesting, choosing to isolate panels away from each other. Also, when you use a grid, you can usually fit more panels on a page. But probably it’s more the nostalgia thing.

ROGERS: And why has the black background disappeared? Even in [the new edition of] I Never Liked You, why is the white background preferable to the black?

BROWN: For me now, the black seems too… rich. There’s too much there. I prefer it with a lot of white space. Even with Paying for It, I have very large margins—larger than a lot of other cartoonists put around the whole image block, or whatever you'd call it. So now my way of getting a lot of white on the page is having those large margins. I guess it’s the austerity. Lots of white.