On Paying For It by Chester Brown

Prostitutes aren’t passive puppets, and most johns aren’t dictators. – Chester Brown, Paying For It p. 236

Chester Brown is not a prolific guy. He only has six published books in his 30+ years of being an active cartoonist, mostly autobiographical. His earliest work was short comics, little stories that have strange premises. In one, for example, toilet paper takes over the world. In the early 1990s, he transitioned into telling stories that were about his childhood and his emotional development. I think the two critical works of that period are 1992’s The Playboy and 1994’s I Never Liked You. It’s important, I think, to understand that everything Brown has every published has built on what came before it; The Playboy, for example, tells the story of Chester’s fixation on a Playboy centerfold who is busty and brunette–a fixation that later causes him to be fixated on a young woman, shown in I Never Liked You.

It’s not just symbolic layering, though. The two books mentioned above also show the development of Chester as a child–unable to tell his dying mother that he loves her, speechless around girls, and unable to understand the actual close relationships that he has with women. All of these things, I think, come into play during the narrative of Paying For It. As Brown’s cartoonist friend Seth says in the notes at the end of the book

The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him. He’s definitely an oddball. . . . Perhaps he is missing something in his emotional makeup, perhaps not. (255)

So there’s that. Paying For It is a book about Chester Brown’s paying for sex. I enjoyed the book, for the most part, and it’s definitely different from what he has done before. Each chapter is either a conversation about the ethics of prostitution between Chester and a friend, or it is the story of Brown paying for, and having, sex with women with various names. The former sections are often polemical, and as Seth says in the notes, they often place Chester as the “force of reason” in a world of injustice. The actual content of the comic, like most comics, is simply to be experienced. Brown is unafraid to show every little bit of his life, including living with an ex-girlfriend while being “out” about being a john. Every panel in the comic serves Brown’s thesis: everyone should be able to buy sex, and there is no such thing as unethical when it comes to buying sex.

And maybe for Brown that’s true. The last fifty pages or so of the book are devoted to appendixes, notes, and a bibliography. The appendixes are short essays on a variety of topics dealing with prostitution. Titles like “Johns Don’t Buy Women” and “Self-Respect” give you a feel for the content. I have to admit, Brown does a great job of explaining and convincing me of his argument, and for his specific place in the world (he doesn’t try to make all-encompassing statements) he has a very strong argument for decriminalization of prostitution. The notes that follow the appendixes are as revealing as the notes in his former books–painstaking explanations of certain scenes and panels that make Brown’s reflection of reality all the more real and fleshed out.

The last thing I have to say about the book is that it is obviously influenced by the comics that are being created right now. Brown’s work has gotten smaller, more clear line, and the long, wiggly lines are gone. Everything extraneous is gone; everything in a panel feels intended, purposeful, and streamlined. I had a strong Chris Ware feeling when I read the book, but somehow crossed with Joe Matt. Dirty but smooth, painstaking. Brown is only getting better with age, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with later in life.

Like Seth, I think that Chester Brown is too committed to a libertarian property rights framework, but his specific application is appealing, and more than anything, the book left me thinking about prostitution and how it functions in the legal world. The book is beautiful, smart, and funny.


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