It's not that getting dumped by his girlfriend soured Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown on the notion of romantic love, exactly. Because to sour on something, one would have to, at some point, feel strongly about it. And given the facts on evidence in Brown's latest autobiographical comic, the guy's not much for strong emotion. No, the Chester Brown we glimpse through the tiny black and white panels the artist arranges with such exacting precision is a creature of intellect. His approach to sex, in the wake of his girlfriend's rejection, is one of cool logic, dispassionate conclusions — and some very literal cost-to-benefit ratios.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say "price-to-benefit" ratios, as Paying For It is a memoir of Brown's experiences with prostitutes over the course of the last 14 years. There are a great many of these trysts, each one making up a separate chapter. Brown alternates these explicit but entirely unerotic depictions of sex with scenes of himself in conversation with his cartoonist friends about his prostitution habit.
Brown believes that prostitution is a logical and healthy choice for him, and the women he engages, to make. His friends disagree, for a host of reasons. Paying For It is, at its cool, affectless heart, an argument for a deeply unpopular position, and as such it seems destined to become one of the most controversial memoirs of the year, graphic or otherwise.
A self-portrait by cartoonist Chester Brown, author of the new graphic memoir Paying For It. (This image is not part of the Paying For It story.)
A self-portrait by cartoonist Chester Brown, author of the new graphic memoir Paying For It. (This image is not part of the Paying For It story.) Chester Brown
But even when Brown is lecturing his friends (and thus the reader) on the connection between 12th century troubadours and the fallacy of romantic love, Paying For It intrigues. It's never less than absorbing to note the way an excellent and deeply thoughtful cartoonist like Brown frames his assertions and employs his skill at visual storytelling to argue his point.
Because again and again, a puzzling but doubtlessly intentional tension arises between Brown's text and his imagery. Consider, for example, his stated aim to depict the many women he's paid to have sex with him as accurately as possible, using as much of their own words as he can recall from his notes. Yet, to protect their identities, he changes their names, hair color and — in his most unsettling and fascinating choice — he depicts them with their heads turned away from the reader. This, of course, cannot help but reduce these very different women, and their stories, to a series of literally faceless, interchangeable objects. Brown knows this, just as he knows that by continually choosing to depict the sex as he does — so that we suddenly find ourselves at a far remove, gazing down at two tiny copulating figures suspended in inky blackness — he's causing us to view the sex as clinical, joyless and repetitive.
There's also the way Brown depicts himself — an po-faced creature with cadaverous cheekbones and a mouth like a Hangman blank. When a friend suggests that prostitution should be regulated to ensure that the women get regular medical treatment, Brown's reaction registers not on his impassive face but in a thought balloon, which roils into a violent thunderstorm of libertarian outrage.
Inside his tiny, cramped panels, Brown asks questions, challenges assumptions and interrogates long-held cultural, sexual and political positions without ever seeming like a mere contrarian. But a lengthy prose afterword, in which Brown tackles various anti-prostitution arguments by noting that they are founded on sweeping assertions that do not hold true in all cases, is more didactic – and less engaging.
Are his arguments successful? That will depend on the reader, of course. But as a demonstration of the limitless narrative potential of the comics medium, its ability to tackle some of the most difficult and loaded questions of our time, Paying For It delivers. In the end, however, I found myself more concerned with how, and not if, Brown made the case he set out make.