Chester Brown’s PAYING FOR IT is destined to be one of the most talked about graphic novels of the year — we’d suspect it may be THE most talked about. It’s a great work of comics that is nonetheless problematic for the views it espouses about human relationships and commerce.
Just in case you aren’t sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the book to come out, PAYING FOR IT is a memoir by Chester Brown about his experiences employing prostitutes. Brown’s previous works include such masterworks as I NEVER LIKED YOU, ED THE HAPPY CLOWN and the historical narrative LOUIS RIEL, which is considered an important political work in Brown’s native Canada. As one of the pioneers of the most successful schools of autobiographical comics, Brown is a major figure of the art comix era.
He’s also, you may recall, a fearlessly honest autobiographer who rivals such folkS as Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Ames for embarrassing self-revelations and frank accounts of his masturbation habits and sexual fantasies; Brown doesn’t flinch but the reader does.
So it was expected that PAYING FOR IT wasn’t going to hold back…and it doesn’t.
However, while Brown’s readers may have expected the many pages of dispassionately clinical accounts of the various women he employed over the years, what they DIDN’T expect was a long appendix laying out Brown’s thoughts on how adapting his way of life would be better for everyone. And that’s what critics are grappling with.
Short version: great comics, weird text pages.
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.
Obviously these grandiose statements can be tough to swallow, and I can easily imagine a number of readers having loud, visceral reactions to the book (I almost threw it across the room when Brown suggested there was no such thing as drug or alcohol addiction). Brown’s at his best when he makes the case for decriminalizing prostitution (not to be confused with legalization, which would require regulation, which in turn would break his libertarian heart) . His arguments – for example, that more prostitutes would be willing to press charges if harassed or abused — are sound and his personal experiences suggest that paying for sex is rarely the tawdry, depressing affair we tend to associate it with. If you are a socially awkward, intensely shy man who finds the pursuit of true love to be an excruciating, hopeless affair, then I can see where paying for sex might appear like a healthy, viable alternative.
Tom Spurgeon’s lengthy, thoughtful review goes into great and expressive detail on the many virtues of Brown’s body of work before getting down to the fact that the political message is a little off. Lest we forgot, Brown is a great cartoonist:
Brown is unapologetic to the threshold of argumentative passion — or whatever Brown’s dispassionate yet invested equivalent might be — on these matters. It’s clear that he’s thought about them a great deal. There are revealed any number of fun, pleasurable and insightful elements to the supplementary material, from Crumb’s opening salvo to the photo of Brown that caps things off. A significant amount of humor is brought to bear throughout, particularly in some tiny drawings into which Brown places arguments with which he doesn’t agree. Brown is such an idiosyncratic cartoonist that his notes and commentaries delight through off-hand descriptions of narrative choices that no other cartoonist on earth would have made; such curt, matter-of-fact declarations duplicate the unsettled energy found in the work.
Team Comix is going to cut Brown all the slack he’s earned and enjoy his work for its underlying humanity, revelation, and humor. (Two of the above reviews have already removed a “spoiler” of sorts for the surprise ending, which cries out for a sequel of sorts.) But civilian critics are likely to be a little harder on Brown for such things as glossing over the existence of drug addiction, sexual slavery, sexual violence against prostitutes, and
other stances that come off as self-justification.
Admittedly, unless you are a fan of Brown’s, the many panels of the stone-faced cartoonist joylessly pounding away at a series of faceless, nameless women (somehow humanely portrayed to the best of his ability) isn’t necessarily the best advertisement for his belief that prostitution should be decriminalized. After reading the comics part of the book and the first part of the appendix, the reasonable person is likely to agree with this idea. But when Brown asserts that a system of payment would be better for all of human sexual and reproductive purposes, fewer will be jumping on that particular bandwagon.
At MoCCA, we were told that Brown may be planning another political campaign — he ran for MP in 2008. Comics are a friendly world of camaraderie and acceptance. Politics are less so. If Brown is girding up his loins to get into that world, we suspect things will get very entertaining indeed.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.