Comics Time: Paying For It

Paying For It
Chester Brown, writer/artist
Drawn & Quarterly, April 2011
292 pages, hardcover
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My publishers wanted this book to be called PAYING FOR IT. I don’t like the title — there’s an implied double-meaning. It suggests that not only am I paying for sex but I’m also paying for being a john in some non-monetary way. Many would think that there’s an emotional cost — that johns are sad and lonely. There’s a potential health cost if one contracts a sexually transmitted disease. There’s a legal cost if one is arrested. If one is “outed,” then one could lose one’s job and also suffer the social cost of losing one’s friends and family. I haven’t been “paying for it” in any of those ways. I’m very far from being sad or lonely, I haven’t caught an S-T-D, I haven’t been arrested, I haven’t lost my c areer, and my friends and family haven’t rejected me (although I should admit that I still haven’t told my step-mom.

So far, I’ve been paying in only the one sense. (Since this is a memoir, “so far” is all that’s relevant.)

But let me be clear that my publishers did not force the title on me. I chose to give in to what they wanted. If I had insisted, they would have allowed me to put whatever words I wanted on the cover. I love and respect Chris and Peggy and realize that this is a difficult book to market.

–Chester Brown, in the entry pertaining to the Cover in the “Notes” section of Paying For It

“Difficult book to market”? Get outta town, Chet! When a review copy arrived at my house unexpectedly this Saturday, I tweeted, and quite seriously meant it when I did so, that having an infant in the neonatal intensive care unit was literally the only thing stopping me from dropping everything and reading this book right then and there. A parametric memoir from Chester Brown, the parameters of which were one of the great North American cartoonist’s experiences with prostitution? Appointment reading! Maybe it’s tough to market to the great unwashed, but you’d have to pry this thing out of my hands to keep me away.

As it turns out, Brown is right about the title his publishers selected. With its punning double meaning and slightly censorious elision of what, exactly, is being paid for, it’s all wrong for this straightfaced, blunt, even didactic sexual autobiography/soapbox lecture. “Paying for Sex” would be far more appropriate. Drop the cap from the “For” to make the phrase less idiomatic, insert the actual act back into the proceedings, and be as matter-of-fact and up-front as possible about what’s going on — which quality, not at all coincidentally, is a big part of why prostitution appeals so much to Brown in the first place. The social cues he seems unable to pick up on, the rituals he is congenitally incapable of performing, the years and decades of accrued guilt and sense of failure he built up from missing out on potential romantic or sexual relationships, the elaborate and to-him draining emotional quid pro quo of sex within the context of the few relationships he was able to enter into and maintain (that’s the context in which he really “paid for it”)…all of that disappeared the moment he told his first whore “Uh, I’d…like to have vaginal intercourse with you.” (“Yes, that’s what I really said,” he assures us helpfully in the “Notes” section.) It seems a shame to add a level of kabuki to the title of a book so fixated on taking it away.

This is not to say that humor has no place in the book. On the contrary, this thing is fucking hilarious. Much of this stems directly from how Brown draws what he draws. His Harold Gray tribute from Louis Riel has been abandoned (with the exception of Brown’s brother Gordon, who’s drawn like a Riel refugee). In its place are rigorous, unyielding two-column eight-panel grids filled with tiny, tiny people drawn in as smooth a line as you’re likely to see anywhere; “painstaking” is the word that comes to mind. Foremost among these tiny people is Brown himself; his self-caricature is gaunt to the point of skeletal, an impression enhanced by the pupil-hiding blank voids of his everpresent eyeglasses. (One of the “Notes” reveals that by a certain point in the narrative he’d begun wearing contact lenses, particularly when patronizing prostitutes, but he didn’t want to confuse the issue.) Seeing his eyeless face in three-quarter profile over and over and over and over and over again, page after page after page, is bizarrely hysterical after a while. It is the least sexy self-portrait possible — not just unsexy, but almost devoid of the energy one would think would be required to have sex at all. In the many scenes where Brown is accompanied by his best friends and fellow cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt, the portraiture gets funnier still. Watching the three bespectacled men — Brown balding and sullen, Matt babyfaced and effusive, Seth impossibly dapper and never without his suit, fedora, and cigarette — walk in lockstep down the city streets like some sort of morose urban Three Amigos is one of the unexpected comedic highlights of my comic-book year so far.

I know, I know: What about the fucking? Pretty funny too. Throughout the book Brown uses a sort of dilation effect to center one’s attention in each panel, tending to shade in the periphery of the panels with a circle of black, like an old silent movie. This is barely even noticeable until you hit the sex scenes, which tend to show a bareassed Brown silently thrusting away at the crotches of the whores in question, usually with several different physical configurations per encounter (which is to say per chapter, since each experience with a prostitute gets its own chapter). Before long Brown’s mid-coitus interior monologue features him calmly assessing the pros and cons of each prostitute — he thinks about how she stacks up against previous women he’s been with, whether or not to patronize them again, what kind of review he’ll give them on a website for clients of Toronto escorts, and so on. It’s so deadpan he might as well be in the produce aisle squeezing melons.

Which is the point. In the lengthy, handwritten prose section that ends the book — first a series of polemical Appendices detailing Brown’s exact position on the decriminalization (not legalization! keep the government out of it!) of prostitution and his responses to arguments against the profession, then a response from Seth to his depiction as a character in the book (“The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him.”), then another series of Notes on various points of interest in the book — Brown advances an admittedly quixotic vision of a world where paying for sex is an utter commonplace, a practice so pervasive that the need for professional prostitutes is lessened because you or I would have no problem exchanging money for sex with our attractive friends and acquaintances and vice versa, the same way we might go to movies together or send a friendly email. The important thing to Brown isn’t just decriminalizing the supposed offense of giving or receiving money for sex, it’s deflating the romanticized aura of the act itself.

As you’ll learn at great length from Brown, both in monlogues within the comic and in the prose material appended to it, the book isn’t so much about prostitution in and of itself as it is about the way Brown has rejiggered his life in order to avoid the “evil” of romantic love, or “possessive monogamy” as he comes to exclusively put it. Unlike familial or friendship love, romantic love in its idealized form is exclusive — you love one person, that one person loves you, and neither of you is allowed to feel the feelings you have for one another or have the sex you have with one another with anyone else. This leads to jealousy, an emotion Brown views as immature and immensely destructive. The solution? Separate sex from its romantic context entirely. Have close friends and companions from whom you get all the benefits of friendship love, which is superior to romantic love anyway, and then have sex with people of whom your contractual obligation to whom ensures that you will have no further expectations, nor they of you. Sex is sacred, Brown argues — so it should be made available without stigma or shame to as many people as possible. What better way to accomplish this than cash?

So that’s the platform here. Brown wants to do away with romantic love, and prostitution has enabled him to do this.

Except for one jaw-dropping revelation he sneaks into the final eight pages’ worth of comics: UPDATE: Actual revelation redacted, but suffice it to say it calls into question, if not outright undermines, all the Big Ideas he’s been advancing all along. This is the key to the whole fucking thing, and he shoves it away in a single chapter! If this is the way life is to be lived in Brown World, then don’t we need to see how it’s lived if the entire project is to have any value? That’s where the rubber hits the road! So to speak!

And once you realize that Brown has pulled the knockout punch, so many other things you’d been willing to overlook due to his overall breathtaking candor and craft become harder to excuse. Every prostitute we meet, for example, is depicted as a faceless brunette. Now, it’s abundantly clear why he wouldn’t want to actually draw these women true to life even without his notes explaining this decision, but noting that he did in fact see prostitutes who weren’t pale brunettes doesn’t change the fact that that’s how he drew all of them — nor does it make the fact that he drew their naked bodies as accurately as possible but left them a faceless raven-haired horde otherwise any less unwittingly (?) revealing.

Then there’s the chapter where he has sex with a very young-looking, foreign-born prostitute who gasps in pain throughout intercourse: “That she seems to be in pain is kind of a turn-on for me, but I also feel bad for her. I’m gonna cut this short and cum quickly.” What a gentleman! In the Notes he reveals he was astonishingly naive — credulity-stretchingly so, to be honest, for someone who appears to be so well-educated in every other aspect of the literature of prostitution — about the existence of sex slaves, whom he continuously talks about as though kidnapping by force were the preferred method of harvesting them, as opposed to false-pretense illegal-immigrant indentured-servitude. “Was ‘Arlene’ a sex slave? She didn’t seem like one,” he shrugs in the Notes about this painful encounter, before quoting someone on how “outcall” prostitutes (those who come to your apartment) are unlikely to be sex slaves since they could always go for help instead. Anyone who’s watched a single episode of Law & Order: SVU or Dateline NBC could shoot this whole element of things so full of holes you could use it as a colander.

The thing is, like Brown, I don’t think the existence of sex slaves necessitates the continued illegality of prostitution, any more than the existence of labor slaves meant we should ban the harvesting of cotton or the performance of housework. He’s quite right to say that were prostitution decriminalized, law enforcement could focus on forced prostitution that much more readily. It’s the “forced” that matters, not the “prostitution.” But for a guy who’s so willing to extrapolate universal principles from his personal experiences — his mother’s disastrous, effectively lethal course of treatment for schizophrenia means schizophrenia doesn’t exist; his unhappy experiences with romantic relationships mean that romantic relationships are a categorical evil — he sure doesn’t mind leaping right the fuck past any personal experience, or those of anyone else, that might cause those principles harm. And, you know, hey, that’s how almost all of us live, to one extent or another (most of us not to the extent that we need to wonder whether or not a given sex partner is a sex slave, but to some extent at least). That’s human, and we forgive each other for it in life. In art? Art explicitly dedicated to the advancement of some philosophical and political truth? Then that’s the sort of thing you gotta pay for.

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13 Responses to Comics Time: Paying For It

  1. rev'D.76 says:

    Unexpected!! Cannot wait to read– though I’ll have to. I haven’t been able to buy any comix for 3 months. Re-reading all of FINDER, currently. (& pining to read VOICE.) Imagine I’ll jump onto ED THE HAPPY CLOWN after that train pulls into station.

    Speaking of, anybody know what happened with #9 of the ED reprint series? Between that, UNDERWATER & his GOSPEL(s) there’s a few unfinished symphonies on my top shelf. Brown said the ED reprints would be the last iteration of the original, untweaked story, & I’d like to finish what I never even knew existed back when I was in junior high…

  2. Andrew McIntosh says:

    “[H]is mother’s disastrous, effectively lethal course of treatment for schizophrenia means schizophrenia doesn’t exist.”

    I thought I’d read a lot of Brown, but where did this come from? I thought she died after falling down the stairs, and I don’t recall him blaming anyone for that, unless it was in some interview I haven’t read. In the “Getting Riel” interview with Sim he makes it seem like he wasn’t much aware of what was going on with his mother. He’s taken an anti-psychiatry stance, but I don’t think he specifically blamed the doctors for his mother’s death.

    • From what I remember, she died from a fall down the stairs IN a treatment center. I don’t think he’s ever come out and said he blames psychiatry or what have you; I’m just playing armchair analyst and assuming that when a) your mom dies while in treatment, and b) you later decide, and expound upon at length, that such things as schizophrenia and addiction aren’t real, one has to do with the other.

      • Andrew McIntosh says:

        Well, you gotta admit, “disastrous, effectively lethal course of treatment” is a pretty hyperbolic (at least) way of saying “she fell down the stairs during treatment”. I don’t think armchair psychiatry would ever get us anywhere—especially ironic given Brown’s anti-professional-psychiatry stance.

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  4. Andrei says:

    Never mind Chester Brown, how is your newborn doing? Congratulations and best wishes to you and your family.

    • Thanks, Andrei! She’s doing well. She’s struggling with her eating, but they just moved her to taking every feeding from a bottle instead of alternating with tube feedings, with the hopes that she’ll soon be taking bottles down left and right. Then she can come home with us at last!

  5. alex says:

    “Anyone who’s watched a single episode of Law & Order: SVU or Dateline NBC could shoot this whole element of things so full of holes you could use it as a colander.”
    Anyone who is watching Law & Order: SVU or Dateline NBC to further their understanding of trafficking, migration and sex work is not getting the real picture.
    May I recommend Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins instead? And perhaps getting in touch with sex worker rights organizations in Asia such as Empower or the APNSW for a more complex view?

    • I’m certainly not saying that I turn to the adventures of Benson, Stabler, Tutuola, and Munch to further my understanding of anything other than the sexiness of Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay. I’m just saying that even an utter dope on this issue, such as myself, can see right through Brown’s insouciance about the less pleasant aspects of sex work, especially the less pleasant aspects of his own experiences with sex work.

    • By the way, my apologies for taking this long to “approve” your comment. No idea why it went into the moderation queue to begin with–perhaps the use of the word “sex”? I haven’t been logging into the blog very often due to IRL events, and that’s the only reason it took this long.

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