Paying for It original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Chester Brown
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Price: $24.95 US/CAN
It was my wife who made me aware of this book indirectly; she pointed out a review/feature about it in a recent issue of Macleans (basically, Canada’s answer to Time), to which we have a subscription. I’ve long been aware of cartoonist Chester Brown’s work and the recognition he’s received for it. I’ve always meant to familiarize myself with his storytelling, and this latest project seemed like a good opportunity to do so. I enjoyed what I found here, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. There’s a much more matter-of-fact, linear and detached tone to the writing. I was impressed with Brown’s honesty but also surprised by what he’s really writing about here. The subtitle for this original graphic novel is “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John,” which would seem to suggest something of an education on the world of prostitution. Brown definitely shares some enlightening though simple and grounded information about how some of the business of prostitution is conducted and who the people are who find themselves performing such work. But in reality, Brown examines himself and his own emotional shortcomings… or are they his strengths?
After his passionate romance with a longtime lover has gradually transformed into a platonic friendship, Chester Brown comes to realize that when it comes to love, the warmth he feels for and from family and friends are enough to sustain him. There’s only one aspect of his life that’s going unfulfilled as a result of his abandonment of romance: sex. He soon comes to realize that there’s an abundance of willing sexual partners who are only a phone call and a handful of bills away, and Chester soon finds what he needs in a diverse array of prostitutes, a couple of whom he gets to know fairly well. Chester’s friends don’t understand his new philosophy and his habit of paying for sex, but their arguments for and urging toward a more conventional lifestyle go unheeded.
Brown boasts an exceedingly simple visual style, but he nevertheless manages to convey a lot of reality and humanity despite its simplicity. At first glance, the figures all seem fairly stiff, but there’s a fairly natural way to way the move around. Brown employs small details to capture anatomy properly (and given the amount of nudity and sex in the book, there’s a lot of anatomy to convey). All of the panels throughout the book are uniform in size, which sets a steady but not hurried pace. With simple linework and inks, Brown successfully conveys a variety of settings. After reading the book, one might think all of the rooms in which the sexual transactions occur just blur, but a further glance shows a variety of backdrops. Some indicate an absence of affluence, while others are more pristine, representing more expensive real estate.
The prostitutes are all faceless, but as Brown explains in his foreword, he’s made purposeful choices in his storytelling — both verbally and visually — to protect the identities of the many women involved in the encounters he’s detailed here. However, I find it interesting that the other characters, Brown included, are faceless in their own way. Sure, we see his face, those of other cartoonists and his former lover’s face as well. But they’re often expressionless, even when there’s a little emotion in the dialogue. It’s in keeping with the detached tone that Brown maintains throughout the book. It’s as though he wants us to focus on the facts, the debate and the results of his personal sociological experiment/practice.
Brown’s philosophy in this book is well explained and reasoned, but it’s also entirely reliant on the perspective of the one who adopts it. Most people wouldn’t be able to pull off the emotional and social transformation that he does here, nor should most attempt to do so. Brown’s able to apply logic and detachment to something that’s almost completely emotional for most. It’s easy to see why his friends are doubtful and confused by Chester’s decisions, but at the same time, it’s pretty easy to understand his point of view as well.
One of the things about this book that surprised me was just how accessible it is. I’m not suggesting that Brown might’ve built up some continuity or history that newer readers couldn’t appreciate. No, I’m talking about the level of discourse. It’s certainly intelligent, but again, his matter-of-fact approach keeps it from being haughty or condescending. The debates Chester has — both with his friends and with himself — are enlightening and well reasoned, but they’re not immersed in lofty sociological theory. the dialogue is all down to earth but not dumbed down either. The various appendices in the back of the book add more context to his story and extend some of the arguments that don’t fit into the narrative structure he uses. I appreciated some of those appendices — especially the one from cartoonist Seth, who expounds on his memories of events, his perspective on the central issues of the book, and his affection and respect for his friend.
Brown, as the central character in this book, is intriguing. He’s a study in contrasts. On the one hand, he seems to have moved beyond traditional emotional behavior. He’s not jealous, he doesn’t yearn for a lifelong romantic partner (anymore) and he’s not the least bit embarrassed and secretive about his decision to pay prostitutes to fulfill his sexual needs. But the reality is that he’s a thoroughly emotional being. When he first embarks on his quest for paid sex, he worries about running into acquaintances in a certain part of town. He worries about the feelings of the prostitutes with whom he’s having sex. He’s irked by those who misrepresent themselves and disgusted by potential sexual partners with certain body types. However, he suppresses those feelings. He even denies himself pleasure (or at least abbreviates his own pleasure) so as to avoid offending prostitutes or to avoid confrontation with them. 9/10
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