Shall we judge a book by its cover?
The cover of Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus bears a window or panel of yonic shape: a pointed ellipse that opens like an eye turned sidewise. This kind of shape has been likened to a sailboat, or sideways smile—in the world of gem-cutting it’s a marquise cut (said to be an homage to a marquise’s famous smile), or navette (little ship). Inside this marquise is a drawing that seems to reflect the book’s title: a pair of bare feet, and above them two droplets falling through black space—Mary’s teardrops, or, since the panel is all in black and red, perhaps drops of blood. Around the panel is an illuminated border, like a frame round a mirror, showing an open book at the top, from which unravel two symmetrical lengths of scroll, one to either side, and also two frankly phallic serpents—again, one at either side. Above all this is the book’s title; below, its subtitle and avowed topics, prostitution and religious obedience, and its author: Chester Brown.
That yonic panel turns out to be a vital design element in the book, recurring on the title page (where a naked woman’s form replaces the open book) and at the start of every chapter or section. Besides its evocative shape, there are other reasons we might read it as yonic: take the book’s title, which highlights the feminine over the masculine (Mary over Jesus), or its promised focus on prostitution, or the insinuating black and vivid red of the cover drawing. The shape’s sexual and lapidary associations strike me, in the book’s greater context, as politically freighted signs of the feminine—perhaps feminist signs, as the highlighting of Mary over Jesus may suggest, though I’m not sure if the book ever breathes the word “feminism.” In any case, I can’t help but think it deliberate that the cover frames the marquise shape with the masculine connotations of twinned serpents—and of the tradition of Biblical exegesis, to which Mary Wept is a determined contributor.
This is a religious book, after all, though a sort of heretical one. It’s weirdly scholarly too, and so the image of scrolls raveling out from a book suggests all sorts of relationships between and among texts: the Bible, or rather various Bibles; non-scriptural books of Biblical interpretation, that is, scholarly epitexts, on which Brown relies a great deal; and the tug-of-war within Mary Wept itself between Brown’s comics, which take up about two-thirds of the volume, and his learned and speculative addenda in prose that eat up the book’s final hundred pages or so. It’s as if, from the cover on, Brown aims to remind us of a clash of interpretations, and specifically of the way men have reframed women’s Biblical stories: dig those serpents, redolent of Genesis, arrayed around that shape. The cover’s bald symbolism suggests that Brown will take up an interpretive conflict grounded precisely in sex and sexuality. Texts and sex, together—in the context of Jesus’s feet (New Testament) and perhaps the loss of Eden (Old). The cover is not the whole book, but it is a key.
So, this is a book in which mixed messages—born of navigating between texts, and between female and male—will be the very basis of conflict. That conflict turns out to be mainly argumentative rather than dramatic in nature; the mini-dramas conveyed through comics are so disparate, and loosely joined, that it takes Brown’s hundred pages of back-matter to explain why they’ve all been roped together. Mary Wept, then, continues Brown’s habit (indulged in the biographical Louis Riel and autobiographical/political Paying for It) of pitting his comics, with their deadpan humor and knockout cartooning, against a ream of discursive notes written out in his distinctive hand. These voluminous notes seem to want to reason with the reader, whereas the comics want to provoke and challenge. The comics are the more interesting part, yet I confess that as soon as I began reading the book I found myself wanting to spend time with the discursive Brown of the back-matter. That’s me, I guess, always wanting to get the work out of the way before the fun starts. If reading comics is a matter of seeking wholeness by working out the relationships among fragments—in Scott McCloud’s familiar term, seeking closure—then Brown’s recent books raise the problem to a macro level by juxtaposing comics that perplex with notes that seek to explain. Mary Wept does this to death, and so easy closure ain’t to be had. I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed arguing with Brown, in my head.
The real key to Mary Wept is not prostitution but questioning obedience. Brown makes the argument that God favors independent, thinking, even rebellious people over those who seek blindly to follow “His” will with sheeplike docility. That argument undergirds but also overtakes Brown’s more specific argument in defense of prostitution (which carries on the agenda of Paying for It, his account of life as a john). If the key question at first seems to be, Does the Bible consistently condemn prostitution, or do parts of it in fact suggest a more approving view?, the underlying questions seem to be, Does God want obedience? and Can a heretical author still qualify as Christian?
Brown describes himself as “Christian” in the back-matter. However, his book argues that Mary, mother of Jesus, was a prostitute. Between those two commitments, the book’s logic ricochets back and forth like a pinball. Brown argues, “it could well be that Mary was sweet, innocent, young, and a prostitute. A woman can be all of those things,” he says, provided that one does not see prostitution as inherently morally wrong (204). He thinks that Jesus took an approving or tolerant view of sex-for-pay. But the real animating question here is the one about obedience, which is why, even as the book investigates Biblical stories of prostitution or women’s unlicensed sexuality, it also includes brief comics based on the stories of Cain and Abel and of Job and the parables of the Talents and of the Prodigal Son, all male-centered tales in which women traditionally do not figure as individualized characters. The resulting volume, I would argue, is incoherent, but it works hard to impose coherence through Brown’s notes, which strive to wrestle all this diverse material into shape. I reacted to these much as I reacted to the notes in Paying for It, that is, with a mix of impatience at Brown’s contorted reasoning and admiration for his stubborn defiance of convention. Mary Wept walks a similar path, but this time for the sake of hair-splitting Biblical exegesis. It’s a head-scratcher, all right.
Take Mary Wept as a sort of conspiracy theorist’s reading of scripture in terms of women’s (disavowed) sexual agency, the value of prostitution, and, above all, the importance of free-minded questioning over obeisance. I’m with Brown on the free-minded questioning, but it seems obvious that what he wants to do is build a version of God that flatters his commitment to libertarianism. The back-matter comes right out and makes the case bluntly: “God is not interested in morality, God is interested in love… The problem with laws is that they compel morality in an unloving way” (215). Therefore, it wasn’t God who laid down what we call “God’s law,” but men. Jesus himself knew this, and his parables confound any easy notion of obedience; in fact Jesus’s teachings “never do accord with traditional views of justice” (241). Jesus was carrying on a heretical, questioning counter-tradition that went back at least as far as Cain and Abel (216). This, says Brown, is the “spiritually advanced” position:
I see two separate schools of thought in the Hebrew Bible - - a less spiritually advanced school that fashioned the laws of Moses, and a more spiritually advanced school that questioned the law, that suspected that God wasn’t behind it, and that produced stories like Ruth, Job, and Cain and Abel. (238)
One of the main inspirations for this argument, Brown tells us, came from Yoram Hazony’s book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (2012), although Hazony does not go as far toward valorizing disobedience as does Brown, who takes the argument to the issues of sexuality and prostitution. For Brown, the question of sex-for-pay opens up the larger issue of “law-observant” religion versus a more advanced, “beyond-the-law” spirituality, a kind of antinomian rejection of compelled obedience (185). In a sense, the question of prostitution serves Brown as an opener for the larger question of what God values and what “He” wants of us.
What Brown has done is reconstruct Jesus, and the Bible more generally, in terms of his own political and moral imagination. To be sure, he is careful to cite historical sources, and takes as his springboard Biblical historiography by scholars like Jane Schaberg (The Illegitimacy of Jesus, 1987) and John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, 1991), both of whom he cites gratefully. But at bottom Mary Wept seems like an attempt to project backward into scripture Brown’s own version of a tolerable God who values freedom of thought over moral law. In this sense, the book is consistent with its predecessor, Paying for It, which argued both for decriminalizing prostitution and against regulating it under law—a libertarian position in essence. Here Brown takes the “beyond-the-law” argument about as far as it can go, to God even. This underlying theological and political stance accounts for the book’s loose joining-together of, one, Biblical stories of women who “took the sexual initiative for social advantage” (155), and two, parables of inspired disobedience.
The book’s agenda, I think, remains unclear unless you give the back-matter the same attention you give the comics. Brown’s afterword, acknowledgments, bibliography, and notes (54 handwritten pages of notes, plus a 20-page drawn adaptation of the Book of Job) are essential to the book’s meaning. That’s why it’s hard for me to comment on Mary Wept purely as a work of cartooning. Unlike, say, Brown’s Louis Riel, this book doesn’t offer a whole, compelling comics work that it then complicates with scholarly and political back-matter; rather, it requires that you take in every aspect of the book on similar terms. Without its scholarly final third, Mary Wept comes across as an interesting but disjointed anthology of Biblical tales with not one but several thematic concerns.
Tacking back and forth between comics and apparatus, I see a kind of detective story taking shape, starting from the Gospel of Matthew’s unexpected inclusion of women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary—in the genealogy of Jesus, then chasing clues from there. Brown interprets the Matthew genealogy as a kind of coded hint meaning that Mary was a prostitute. A good chunk of Mary Wept—almost a hundred pages—is devoted to retelling the stories of these Biblical women, in the order they are named in Matthew. Each has a chapter of her own. A further chapter, the seven-page “Mary of Bethany,” tells the story of Jesus’s anointing by a woman, perhaps Mary Magdalene, perhaps a prostitute—an incident recounted in all four Gospels. That anointing, Brown reminds us, literally “made Jesus a christ” (183); that is, the ceremony of anointing identified Jesus as messiah. (The Greek Khristos arose from a verb meaning to anoint, used to translate the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ, mashiah.) Brown speculates that the ceremony may have had a sexual dimension. Ultimately he stresses a heretical, law-defying point: that a woman who was very likely a prostitute “had the spiritual authority to anoint Jesus as a christ” (252). Brown handles this brief chapter discreetly, treating Jesus and “his friend Mary” as silhouettes or unseen, off-panel presences; Jesus’s words appear as floating balloons against panels of pure black.
In other words, we see little more of this pivotal scene than the book’s cover shows. Once again Brown, as he often does, uses a failure (or absence) of representation to imply the unrepresentable.
All this is intriguing, and Mary Wept includes many such inspired moments, where either Brown’s discretion or his boldness makes the pages fascinating. The book turns puzzling passages from the Bible into moments of blunt, colloquial comedy that made me chuckle:
I have to say, the cartooning here is damn good, a distillation of Brown’s late mode: small, tight, economical drawings, matter-of-fact even when they’re mysterious and provoking. Brown is selective, discreet, paring down each panel to the barest essentials. He handles each tale like a string of beads, a chain of irreducible and distinct images, challenging in their enigmatic rightness, their blankness and elegance, their refusal to give more than needs be given:
Brown’s style here is consistent with that of Paying for It, but enlivened by his return to the Biblical settings of his Gospel adaptations (from back in his serial comic book days). The pages hew to the same sort of formal regularity as in Riel and Paying for It, with once again a fixed layout, though it’s worth noting that Brown uses a different fixed layout for each new book—in this case, four tall, thin panels per page, matching the book’s unusual trim size of about 4¼ x 7½ inches. These skinny panels work well as habitats for Brown’s austere and minimal drawings. The book’s one exception in terms of layout is its adaptation of Job, sadly buried in the endnotes, which manages to be obtuse and grand at the same time, whether depicting the angels (in Brown’s words) “hanging out” in Heaven,
or Job’s suffering and bitterness, or Yahweh’s angry rejoinder, “Where were you when I created the world? Can you see the magnificence that is all around you?”
That “magnificence” includes violence, terrors, and earthy sex among the beasts of the field. Of course it does. Brown has never been more in command of his drawing than here, and the effect is quietly stunning.
I’ve said that the comics seek to provoke, while the notes reason. On occasion, though, the discursive spirit of the notes does infiltrate the comics, working against their pleasures. For example, one of the comics is an expository interlude invented by Brown that casts St. Matthew as the author’s mouthpiece. Brown has the Apostle flatly explain his gospel’s references to women as a deliberate ploy to imply that Mary, mother of Jesus, was a prostitute. This on-the-nose “Eureka” moment plays like a conspiracy theorist’s big “reveal,” laying out Brown’s theories about the censorship or suppression of information in the scriptures. It’s unconvincing and absurd.
Happily, most of the book’s comics are about inciting questions, not telling readers what to think. Yet, again, Mary Wept is hard to consider “purely” as storytelling or as a work of comics (whatever that might mean). Brown comes across as an earnest Biblical interpreter with intertwined political and religious aims. The book, despite its blunt humor, is not satirical. Yes, it’s entertaining—I certainly found it so—but a good part of the entertainment comes from scholarly and moral disputation. Mary Wept is a treatise on sex by way of renegade theology, or maybe the other way around, and so asks to be regarded as something other than an anthology of bemusing tales and arresting images. In its curious, inevitably Chester Brown-like way, it’s an impressive, if confounding, intellectual feat.
In the “end,” Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus doesn’t feel like something that ends. It feels like part of a process of discovery that is nowhere near ending. Read deeply enough into the notes and you’ll see an argument about patriarchy that only gradually emerges, as Brown discerns a conflict between “Yahwist” religion, which he calls “anti-woman, anti-sex, and anti-prostitution,” and “Goddess” religion, which he considers “pro-woman, pro-sex, and pro-prostitution” (256). Prostitution becomes, for Brown, part of an alternative spiritual tradition, even a “sacred activity” (259). It also becomes a way for women to retain their “sexual and economic autonomy,” in contrast to “domesticated” women, that is, wives (184—here Brown draws from Nickie Roberts’s feminist, pro-prostitution study of 1992, Whores in History). All this comes out of the back-matter slowly, tardily, as Brown shores up his interpretations with arguments and references in scholarly fashion. I imagine that he is not done thinking about these issues.
The glory of Mary Wept is in its idiosyncratic cartooning: its poker-faced reinvention of Biblical tales according to the quirks but also the rigorous self-discipline of Brown the artist, who, when he lays down his spare, gutsy lines, is absolutely on top of his game. The problem with Mary Wept is that it has to work so damn hard to hold itself together by means other than comics. The resulting dialectical strain makes this a more interesting tome by far than Crumb’s Genesis—Brown, after all, wants to have a knockdown argument with the material, and his visualizations are more original. Yet his provocative cartooning sits oddly alongside his complex and jury-rigged, if not tortured, reasoning. The end result is a book in conflict with itself.
In that conflict, though, is perhaps glory of another kind: that of an artist's stubborn courage. Mary Wept may be heretical and strange, but it's also honest and generous. God bless Chester Brown.