Graphic Novel Friday: Paying for It by Chester Brown
In case you are feeling at all apathetic towards comics, allow me to point you in the direction of Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John. Yes, the widely respected cartoonist has published a first-hand, 280-page account of his life as a customer in the sex-trade. It’s unflinching in its honesty (and adult content), and yet once the voyeuristic allure wanes, what remains is a frank, convincing look at a lifestyle that few readers will recognize.
After a break-up with his live-in girlfriend, Brown decides to continue cohabitating with her even when she openly brings home another man. It’s a revelation for the artist, realizing he doesn’t need that emotional tether, but he does miss the physical nature of their relationship. Naturally, Brown turns to sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, whose book details suggestions for exploring prostitution (“He makes it sound so simple and straightforward. Maybe I should pay for sex…Okay, I’m determined--tonight I’m going to go out and look for a hooker.”). And then Brown hops aboard his bicycle and pedals into the night, where he encounters only cop cars (“This is weird.”) and opts to return home to try the classifieds instead.
What follows is a year-by-year log of every prostitute Chester Brown employed over the course of 14 years. The encounters are not erotically presented--the panels are cramped and diminutive--and Brown is largely/typically expressionless throughout. Over at The Comics Journal, R. Fiore addresses the lack of eroticism in a review: “The frequenter of prostitutes, even among those who don’t condemn the practice in principle, is seen as a creep, an image that Brown does little to discourage when he draws himself to look like the Crypt Keeper.” The faces of the women are always obscured, as are any identifiable characteristics, says Brown in his foreword:
Quite a few of the sex-workers I spent time with opened up to me and told me about their families, their childhoods, their boyfriends, and other aspects of their lives. I wish I had the freedom to include that material in the following pages--it would have brought the women to life as full human beings and made this a better book. I’m assuming that all of them want to keep secret the sex-for-money part of their lives, so I refrained from putting in personal details that could potentially reveal their identities if a particular friend, family member, lover, or acquaintance were to read this memoir.
It’s an admirable and unfortunately necessary caveat, but Brown is clear on the focus of the book from the subtitle.
In a nerve-wracking succession of pages and panels, we see Brown become a john, beginning with the phone call from a classified ad, to meeting the woman (who offers him a drink--which he declines, thinking, “What if they drug it.”), and then to Brown wondering, “Should I take my glasses off?” The entire sequence is rife with anxiety, and it’s understandable if readers want it to end as quickly as it does. There are plenty of lighter moments, though, like when the cartoonist informs the prostitutes of his profession and has to face the inevitable follow-up: “Stuff like Superman and Batman?”
Brown’s portrayal herein has been called “clinical,” but there is still warmth in Paying for It. Cartoonists and friends Joe Matt and Seth appear frequently to chide the author about his new lifestyle and engage him in inquisitive, concerned, and incredulous debates. For all of Brown’s claims to enjoy emotional detachment, there exists a nerdy sweetness in his exchanges with some of the women, in his forced attempts to appear relaxed, and in his meticulous planning of where to place the money so that it is both obvious and not.
Paying for It may offend as much as it entertains. Chester Brown is fearless in his self-portrayal, and he offers plenty of rebuttals to those who would shout him down. Not that it's without support: Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore lend extended blurbs to the back cover, and R. Crumb pens the introduction. It’s a divisive take on a divisive subject, and Chester Brown has crafted what should be the most talked about graphic novel of the year.
Also recommended: TCJ.com's eight-page interview with the author.