Comics Review: Chester Brown’s Paying For It

One weakness I have as a writer, that I always have to work on, is that once I start talking about really abstract concepts–like my last post on Craig Thompson’s Habibi–it can become very unrelatable. And if something cannot be related to, a reader will be less inclined to want to unless they are part of a specialized reader-audience: and even then readability is important. It is key. There are very few things more asinine than talking about how elitist some knowledge-bases are while at same time bandying about its jargon like it is a matter of course and not even bothering to explain what it means in context.

For me, a dialectic is a structure where two or more concepts are pitted against each other: or at the very least a structure of, or narrative argument. I also think it can be more complicated than the above and can say more than one thing at the same time. So, really, mentioning all of that in this review is appropriate given that the book I want to look at is called Paying For It.

Chester Brown is a fascinating cartoonist. He and Craig Thompson have a few things in common: in that they came from some relatively religious backgrounds and have delved into some esoteric subject matter from time to time. Brown himself really likes to make “weird stories” in addition to the esoteric stuff and examines human relationships in a very analytic, detached, but thoroughly detailed way. If you want to look at a wide variety of Brown’s work, I would suggest reading his collection The Little Man.

As for Paying For It, I came across it a year ago when I went to the previous session of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I bought the book and had Brown sign it whereupon I was exposed to another very fascinating dialectic with some interesting implications. First of all, it is an autobiographical work. This is no new thing given that Brown has drawn autobiographical comics before, but this time he gets honest: sometimes brutally honest. You know, that kind of honesty where you show yourself in wide natural human spectrums of intelligence, decency, and ugliness.

Chester Brown essentially creates a comic about his experiences with prostitution: with sex-workers. However, he doesn’t stop there. No, Brown doesn’t really defend his actions–or his depicted thoughts–so much as advocate prostitution as a natural form of human monetary, social, and personal interaction. He depicts this through interactions with his friends as well as the women that he makes sessions with and a very long Appendices of actual information and figures at the back of the book.

Like I always like to say as a catch-phrase, this is no new idea. Prostitution has been called the oldest profession in the world for a reason. The aesthetics of Brown’s graphic narrative definitely affects how his argument: and story because the argument is merely one facet of the thing. It is flat background with simple small square panels on which the characters are small. The sexual acts are quick and to the point and almost clinical. The sex-workers’ faces are never seen at all–which Brown explains is to protect even the hint of their identities–and he even admits that has changed their names. Some other reviewers have commented on this and I can see different interpretations of how this can be perceived by the reader.

One might say that he is objectifying these women by what he does with them, and by depicting them in his story, yet you can also make the argument that by reducing everyone–including himself–into these small caricatures he shows that the issue is either bigger than all of them or it is something that in the grand scheme of things the universe doesn’t really care about. I myself really feel a little unsettled about sex and the body being treated as a very clear commodity: which is even reflected in Brown’s internal monologues. At the same time, there are also depictions of humanity: of affection, and warmth, and questions. He shows, despite their lack of faces and names that these women are human beings who notice if someone hasn’t been around, who are curious about a person, who sometimes forget to take money, who at times will let it known that they are uncomfortable, have their own loves and insecurities, and, understand that fear can go both ways between client and employee.

Brown makes it clear that for all money is involved, as long as human beings are involved feelings of some kind–even something ideal like basic common courtesy–can always be there. Those little touches are what make this book and what add to the strong themes inherent within it. Paying For It also makes you ask some questions about what relationships actually are.

I think the crux of it for me is when Brown talks about how he hates romantic relationships and how romantic love is a faulty concept that we have built our society around. He goes on to state that romantic relationships breed jealousy and a fear of loneliness that is the price to have emotional and sexual needs gratified. When Brown talked about these romantic relationships, as a few people in society will say, he tends to refer to exclusively monogamous ones: as if the romantic somehow automatically equals monogamy.

The concept of what is “the romantic” is a very fascinating subject that scholars and people have always debated amongst themselves. Brown himself depicts himself as reading a book by Denis de Rougemont called Love in the Western World: an account of how the early “courtly-love” ballads–arguably integral to a conception of romantic love–may have been secret Cathar messages created to symbolize “a particular love for the divine” instead of for a particular individual. Notice how Brown–like Thompson in Habibi–brings in an esoteric element with regards to this dialectic of what love is: something that I’d only realized they both had in common today. Brown himself posits the idea that people did not grasp the hidden message and went with the overt love message of “love with one person in an established relationship” instead.

Like I have been saying a lot throughout this post, it is a fascinating idea but I think one that is not unchallengeable. First of all, Western culture is not a monolith. There are–and there have been–different cultures in its structure. The fact that something like the Cathar movement, though problematic because they were exterminated as heretics–is proof of that. Also, you have to look at how the word “romantic” has evolved: from the sublime and terrifying in Nature, to love between two people, and really love itself. I myself  don’t believe that romantic love is “evil” and that it can be interpreted in many different ways by our era: just as it has changed over the centuries.

It is true that love in a marriage and an established relationship is a relatively new (by some centuries) ideal. Also think about like this: in ancient times, only marriage was seen as a legitimate and lawful sexual relationship where property and political alliances were the key. It is only later that relationships outside of marriage, even those with the proviso of potentially leading to one–became more accepted and mainstream. I won’t even go into the different conceptions of what love is because that is a whole other subject matter.

Brown even admits later that perhaps romantic love isn’t so bad and can be adapted. I do find it very intriguing–however–that Brown and Thompson in talking about two only somewhat-related subjects ultimately go into a dialectic or meditation of what love actually is. One might think that talking about prostitution would exclude any mention of the word “love,” yet Brown manages not only to dissect himself and his own motivations in Paying For It, but he also critiques societal norms with regards to love and sex. Brown seems to ask the question what a society would be like if prostitution was commonplace and fully accepted. I think that such a society would have to have a very radically different idea and attitude towards sex, the body, and love. I don’t think our society is at that stage–and I’m not sure if it ever will be–but it is definitely something to think about.

I also wonder what another account of prostitution would be like from a sex-worker’s perspective: even as a comic. I think that, whatever people may say about Chester Brown and this work, that this was definitely a work of art and meditation. It is probably not for everyone and I can imagine some people having an adverse reaction to it, but to anyone else it is definitely worth pondering over. I myself am still not sure what to think of it, but I would definitely give it a five out of five: for making me think.

Addendum: Someone should definitely do a paper on Plato’s Symposium, Chester Brown’s Paying For It and Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Habibi with regards to love, but that person probably won’t be me.

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