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