Book Review


You're a dirty whore-monger, Chester Brown

Review by Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally posted to

Autobiography is a risky endeavour at the best of times; not only will the memoirist's craft be scrutinized and judged, but so too will his or her character. So it is probably a good thing for Chester Brown that he is one of the best cartoonists of his generation, because he really does have sex with prostitutes.

In fact, his latest book, Paying For It, is all about his decision to give up on romantic love in favour of sex for money.

It has become almost trendy to dabble in the sex-trade. Bookshelves groan beneath mounds of tell-all memoirs and fictions, and even relatively mainstream television has gotten into act, with no less than one-time Doctor Who companion Billie Piper disrobing on a regular business as Belle du Jour. But memoirs and fictions glamorizing the life of johns?

Maybe not so much

It is one thing to admit to taking money for sex; to confess paying for sex, on the other hand, remains quite outside the bounds of polite society.

If Brown doesn't make an explicit analogy between his "coming-out" as a john and the struggles of gay men and lesbians who braved arrest and assault when they refused to any longer closet their sexual natures, Paying For It certainly implicitly invites the comparison, if only by Brown's refusal to be ashamed.

As Brown's friend (and ex-girlfriend) Kris tells him, to most people, johns are "... creeps. Who knows what they're capable of? If I had a daughter I'd be worried about what would happen if she was in the same elevator as one of those guys."

So would you want to read a comic book by and about one?

Money for something

Paying For It
By Chester Brown
(Drawn & Quarterly), May, 2011
Hardcover: 272 pages
ISBN: 9781770460485

Chester Brown began his career in the early 1980s when he self-published the mini-comic Yummy Fur (a complete run of which I am pleased is still in my possession). His early work was notable for its blend of surreal, scatological and slapstick humour, but grew more serious in tone and ever-more sophisticated in execution as he tackled subjects as diverse as his adaptations of the Gospels and, especially, his courageous autobiographical stories, which often focused on his sexuality. Beyond the comic world, he is probably best-known for his biography of Louis Riel.

If posterity has yet to determine whether he will take a seat among comics' immortals, there can be no doubt that Chester Brown is a superb craftsman and a courageous artist.

But neither craft nor courage guarantee success — and a project like Paying For It is sure to be attacked as much for its content and its perceived content, as will its creator, as it will be for the words and pictures which actually lie between its covers.

Even those who support the right of prostitutes to ply their trade legally and with the full protection of the law often seem to run out of tolerance when it comes to the men whose money creates that market in the first place.

A blogger I respect a great deal recently dismissed Paying For It sight unseen.

"Haven't read it. Don't really have any desire to read it. This said, Chester Brown's latest offering sounds like exactly what I was complaining about, minus the 'sensitive' in 'sensitive indie white boy,' with bonus misogyny and libertarianism."

Is Chester Brown really a misogynist? If so, does the fact that he pays for sex in and of itself prove that he is? (That he is a Libertarian is beyond reasonable doubt; he's now twice stood for election as a candidate for the Libertarian Party of Canada.)

If your answer to that second question is "no" or "not necessarily", the evidence at hand — which of course is entirely Brown's — won't answer it definitively; the reader has no way of knowing what facts Brown has opted to omit or to change.

That said, none of his previous autobiographical comics smacked of self-hagiography and he makes no obvious effort here to pander to his readers' presumed prejudices; Chester Brown doesn't seem to much care much whether people like or approve of him or not.

As with a number of the comments to a review at BoingBoing, the above blogger's brief "review" suggests there is a deep-seated contempt for those (men) who pay for sex that is eerily similar to that which bubbles beneath the placid surface of those who can boast of many gay friends, yet who still hold that marriage be reserved for mixed-sex couples only.

Brown is openly fessing-up to an activity — no, he is proudly declaring that he is engaged in an activity that a large cohort of our society considers disgusting and depraved, full-stop.

What is strange, is that many of those same people do not (or say they do not) hold the same opinion of the women who provide the services being purchased. Which strikes me as a double-standard which presumes that all women involved in the sex-trade are victims — full-stop again.

Sex life of an introvert

Paying For It begins in 1996, when Brown's then-girlfriend (Canadian musician, actor, director and now CBC Radio host Sook Yin Lee) tells him that she has fallen in love with another man.

Brown accepts the revelation with a weird equanimity and surprises his friends Seth and Joe Matt even more when he tells them that he is okay with the break-up, is still friends with Sook Yin and that he will continue renting a room in her house.

And he adds that he doesn't think he ever again wants to get involved in a romantic relationship. "I've got two competing desires," he later tells Kris, another ex-girlfriend, "-- the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend."

Not surprisingly, as any introverted male can probably attest, Brown's next two years are celibate. It is only when he nearly pays $50 to have a photo taken of himself with a Playboy model at a comic book convention that he considers hiring a prostitute.

A year after that, he takes the plunge and the book's main narrative kicks in, with a chapter devoted to (and named for) each prostitute with whom he will have encounters.

Paying For It includes some frank depictions of sex, but the drawing is not remotely prurient and it would take a peculiar libido indeed to find it erotic. Brown's almost static black-and-white drawings are meant to — and do — support the narrative and and dialogue without drawing any attention to the artwork.

Brown draws himself as utterly expressionless, with an almost cadaverous gauntness. The one-time master of surreal slapstick is, here, quietly observant, with what humour there is coming almost entirely through dialogue.

Perhaps surprisingly, that's enough to carry the book. Brown has an excellent ear for dialogue and the timing to make of conversational irony laugh-out-loud moments.

The chapters are short and straightforward, depicting Brown's anxieties about this new world (will he be caught in a police sting? Will he be beaten and robbed? What about disease?) and his gradual acculturation to it.

Though some encounters are more enjoyable for him than others, he reports his experiences were largely positive and becomes ever-more insistent when discussing them with his friends that no, he is not secretly unhappy nor is he having a mid-life crisis. He insists that he is in fact very happy with the arrangement.

If anything, according to Chester Brown, it is the rest of the world that has a problem. Romantic love, with its attendant rules and expectations of physical monogamy, is "evil".

And that's about it in so far as the book has a plot. Chester Brown opts out of romance and in to 15 or 20 paid sex sessions per year as an alternative.

The book's final 40 pages consist mostly of justifications. Brown is a good writer, but even the best writers are poorly-served by essays in story's disguise. And indeed, once the comic ends there are another 30 pages of appendices, strictly prose — plus end-notes to boot.

Despite the polemics, Paying For It is a solid and surprisingly entertaining look at a seldom-discussed side of the sex-trade. It is also the sort of thought-provoking manifesto sure to start a lot of passionate discussions to go along with the equally passionate out-of-hand dismissals.

It's not comfortable reading; Brown makes no apologies for the selfish aspects of his sexuality, as demonstrated most strongly by his judgements of the looks of the women whose services he is purchasing.

Does that make him a mysogynist? Is there something inherently wrong with the sex trade, or only with the paying party in that equation? Is there something inherently wrong for any individual to decide that romantic relationships are too much work and, rather than opt for celibacy, to pay someone for occasional sexual release?

There is a final twist to the story, which might (spoilers!) gainsay Brown's claims. He is, he tells his friends, now involved in a monogamous relationship, and has been for six years. Money is still exchanged, but he says "I ... probably love Denise," though he doubts she loves him. He believes she is no longer sleeping with other men but claims he would not be bothered if she did.

And so the story ends. Or rather, the book does. Brown's story continues and we can only presume (and hope!) that he will fill us in on future developments.

As for myself, I have no regrets and will almost certainly revisit Paying For It. But, if I could do it over, I might have chosen to pay for the paperback rather than the hardcover.

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