Editorial, Not Manga

Thoughts on Paying For It, and Chester Brown’s Polemic

My comics reading this week was confined to a few select books, but the most interesting, and perhaps controversial of these books is Chester Brown’s Paying For It, an autobiographical comic dealing with his life as a john (person who hires prostitutes). Paying For It is both a work of art, and a polemic, arguing that romantic love is a flawed societal norm that results in pain and suffering and the “monogamous possession” in marriage and relationships is inherently evil while concurrently trumpeting the truth and beauty of paid-sex relationships. These arguments are political in nature; throughout the story, and also in a lengthy appendix, sets up straw man arguments in order to forcefully (and sometimes ineptly) knock them down.

The book is set up into two distinct parts; first, Brown’s cartooning work, and second, his appendices, where information regarding his opinions, arguments, and research can be found. While I find the former to be a fascinating look at a man turning 40, saddled with personal disappointment in relationships and his conversion into a john, I find the later part to be largely detrimental to the composite whole.

Brown’s initial argument that prostitution should be decriminalized and not regulated is founded in libertarian ideology, and is pragmatic, and fairly solid reasoning. His points regarding the evils of romantic love, as succinctly argues, are:

“more of a personal exorcism than a universal truth, but more specific arguments also grate against lived experience. Readers with any knowledge of substance abuse, for example, may find themselves mystified by Brown’s assertion that dependency boils down to rational choice and has no physical symptoms (appendix 17).”

Other arguments are just as mystifying:

Brown writes with authoritarian energy, making statements as matter-of-fact that can only possibly come from a very certain moral and political belief system. It is his excessive posturing and defiance that leads the author to further argue his points in such a way as to make the entire discourse less of an argument for legalized prostitution and more of a browbeating for any person or group that disagrees with his notions of self, property, sexual liberty, and paid sex. Brown’s insistence that humans are always capable of dispassionate choice is often ridiculous when discussing sexuality. Certainly money is not the key driver of human relationships, nor can it truly create or mend significant personal closeness. Brown’s arguments are played too roughly from his own personal experience, and his assertions regarding pimping, sex-slavery, and coercion are naive at best, and often self-serving beyond believable limits.

These things being said, Brown’s comic, as a separate entity from his appendix diatribe, is actually quite interesting. Brown has an eye for panel composition, and he has distilled his cartooning into the very basics, each character carved as if from stone. Noah Berlatsky of The Hooded Utilitarian has some interesting points on how the perspective and distancing of Brown’s illustrations undercut his point that sex is both spiritual and joyful. I thought that this was particularly interesting, and I resonate with most of Berlatsky’s stated opinions of the illustration, but I am unsure as to whether or not the distance in these panels is intended to distance the reader from the sexual act, show how the act of sex eliminates the ordinary and the mundane, or just make the reader into some sort of voyeur.  The comics themselves are much more open to argument than his writings – his friends and fellow cartoonists argue about the morality and legality of prostitution, and the sex-workers themselves also assault Chester’s worldview. This is welcome, since most of the appendix is Brown being insufferable.

Clearly Paying For It is a complex book; its discussion is relevant, and it stands as a memoir of a life of a middle-aged man trying to find his way both emotionally and sexually. It also acts as a grand humanizer, despite its illogical arguments, of those involved in sex work. The book lends itself to rereading and discussion, which is a great characteristic for any type of written work. I am not a staunch fan of Chester Brown, but I believe that Paying For It was an enlightening reading experience because of all the great analysis and discussion surrounding the volume.

Recommended Reading:

There is quite a bit of discussion around the comics blogging part of the web, and I’m sure I didn’t collect all of them, but here are the discussions that I found particularly interesting or thought provoking.

A Chester Brown Notebook – Jeet Heer

DWYCK: Sacred and Profane Love

Slowly Paying For It: God and the Machine – Noah Berlatsky at the Hooded Utilitarian

Untitled Chester Brown Article – Matt Seneca

The Comics Reporter Review – Tom Spurgeon

NY Times Review – Dwight Garner

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Review

Review: A Zoo In Winter

Over the past three years, I have come to admire the work of Jiro Taniguchi. Through The Quest for the Missing Girl and A Distant Neighborhood, I have come to appreciate Taniguchi’s masterful draftmanship, his unique stories, and his strength as both a writer and a cartoonist. Of all his great qualities throughout books adapted by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, I have noticed one key feature, one slight detriment to his impressive works: Taniguchi has a difficulty creating people. His characters are impressively constructed, but like the craggy cliffs and towering skyscrapers he so ornately crafts, they are inscrutable. It is hard to understand their emotions, and their faces are mask-like in quality. And while the beauties of the scene that surround each character are readily apparent, the beauties of the characters themselves are often hidden behind a wall.

In A Zoo in Winter, Taniguchi sets his sights on himself – and thereby, other people.  The focus he puts into drawing the emotions of his characters is equal if not greater than the usual care he devotes to mountains and background bustle of a living city. You can’t tell a memoir (or as close to it as Taniguchi is going to get) without talking about other people, and this is a welcome change for Taniguchi. The book is a de-masking of sorts, and the end result is captivating.

The main character, Hamaguchi, works at a textiles manufacturing company, harboring future dreams of designing custom textiles and being an artist. He spends his time alone, or, when forced, with the daughter of his boss, taking her on excursions. He unwittingly aids and abets her elopement, which causes him to eventually quit his job. After leaving the textile manufacturer, he moves to Tokyo. From there, he takes on a job as a mangaka’s assistant, and becomes part Japan’s comic trade.

We see Hamaguchi struggle with his past – his interaction with his older brother is especially telling, since Hamaguchi is unwilling to believe that he and the old world of his family could ever  be able to connect. His brother, 10 years his senior, descends from what seems like on-high to this 18 year-old artist, and becomes, for a moment, a benevolent, nonjudgmental force in Hamaguchi’s life. This moment of A  Zoo in Winter is especially interesting, because it forces Hamaguchi to develop as a person. He is forced to reconcile his past with his present, and in the end, proves to his brother that what he is doing is something he loves to do. His brother, for his own part, is trying to care for both mother and brother, and in a way that hurts neither of them. It is a well-crafted moment.

As Hamaguchi stumbles from one project to the next under a major mangaka, he is introduced to other aspiring writers, call girls, bar matrons, and revolutionary folk-singers, all of whom redefine the world of Hamaguchi. At points, he loses track of his world and becomes a part of dive bars and nightclubs, full of alcohol and vigor. As he recovers from his poor behavior, he learns the hard way that people are complicated, sometimes broken things.

Hamaguchi’s relationship with his art is a fickle thing. At times he seems divinely inspired, and at other times, is found staring at walls, completely stymied. The newfound manga career of Hamaguchi seems to be at a standstill for quite a bit of time – Taniguchi assures us that this introduction to manga is not a brilliant adventure (like the pages of Bakuman might suggest), but a slow, bumbling journey. Finally, Hamaguchi finds purpose and love in a brilliant mind and a pair of frail arms. His budding relationship and his often child-like behavior when things don’t go his way are very true to life, and so appropriate for his age. He is immature and naive, but still tries to bring his best to the drawing table, and to his relationship with Mari. Together, he and his muse devise a story that can make it to the pages of “Shonen Holiday,” and through her kind and gentle persuasion, he is able to find himself as an artist.

The story of Hamaguchi may be a semi-autobiographical account of Taniguchi and his beginnings as a mangaka, but it delves into the mind and heart, expressing the strength and creativity of the human spirit in its relationship to love. Along the way,  A Zoo in Winter tells us that we must not be afraid to humble ourselves, find ourselves, and live with ourselves. More importantly, it teaches us that we must find the courage to and conviction to live with others.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. A Zoo in Winter makes its international debut at San Diego Comic-Con, July 21st-24th.

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News, Personal

Hello World! Happy Holiday!

Hello readers! I have returned, a married, slightly more tanned blogger. My first week of pharmacy residency has just wrapped up, so now things are getting a little less hectic. Expect content to start rolling out again next week. I have so much I want to talk about. :)

For all American readers, have an excellent Independence Day holiday weekend.

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