Chester Brown is no stranger to attention. Thanks to works like “Louis Riel,” “The Playboy,” “Yummy Fur” and “I Never Liked You,” the 51-year-old cartoonist has attracted a considerable fan base, won two Harvey Awards and was recently inducted into the Canadian Comic Creator Hall of Fame. With Drawn & Quarterly’s publication of “Paying For It,” however, Brown has taken an even bolder step into the spotlight having created a graphic novel focusing on his personal experiences as a “john” that lays more than just his opinions on the line.
After all, doesn’t admitting you pay prostitutes for sex land you in jail? “It’s legal when the women comes to the john’s home or apartment. So, everything I do in the first half of the book is illegal, but from the second half on, everything is legal. And the last illegal act in this book takes place in 2001. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is, but I’m not that worried,” Brown explained in May to a giggling crowd on the Montreal leg of his book tour.
Many of his answers during the Q&A portion of the event were met with a mix of giddy admiration and overwhelming, even prying curiosity from the assembled fans. Brown’s preference for paid sex over more traditional boyfriend/girlfriend intimacy led to questions about his budgeting strategies (“I did have to be careful — it’s very easy to get in way over your head, financially”) and whether or not he gets a discount for having chosen to be monogamous with one prostitute in particular (short answer — no). In spite of all the interest, he did manage to hold a few details back from his inquisitive audience.
“It’s interesting how curious everyone is about ‘Denise,’ the woman I’m currently sexually involved with,” Brown told CBR News from his Toronto home. “At the Seattle event, someone asked me about ‘Denise’s’ taste in comics — that one took me by surprise. Since I’m trying to say as little about her as possible, I politely declined to answer, but I suppose I can say that, as far as the arts go in general, she has excellent taste.”
Protecting the identities of the sex workers who figure into his story was always a priority to the author. “I obscured (their) faces and left out personal details about them to keep them from being identified,” he explained. During the book tour, Brown defended this decision, stating, “There are fictional elements to the book, but I wanted to keep that to an absolute minimum. So, I felt more comfortable omitting details rather than inventing details. Some people have complained that that might seem to dehumanize [the workers], objectify them. I didn’t see a way around it.”
Charlotte Shane, an escort contributing to titsandass.com, took greater issue with something else entirely. Shane stated in her review that while she may agree with Brown’s argument for the decriminalization of prostitution, she simply wouldn’t want him as a client. “He’s the type of johnI religiously steer away from, and that’s largely due to his immersion in review board ‘culture.’ It doesn’t take too long for Chester to start cataloging the physical attributes and sexual performance of every woman he sees in anticipation of going home and writing about it for other dudes. Even his non-prostitute-seeing friend asks, don’t ‘prostitutes […] expect a measure of privacy and discretion for their johns?’ And his (temporary) regular tells him she doesn’t want to read the reviews because they’d make her uncomfortable, but Chester is not dissuaded.”
With few elements of his personal life off-limits for discussion, you’d think Brown might regret having opened up about this aspect of his life. Instead, the cartoonist seemed to feel it was a price worth paying to bring more awareness to a practice often swept under the rug. “I wasn’t that interested in writing about myself,” he said. “I wanted to write and draw a book about prostitution. I considered shaping my experiences into a fictional narrative, but it felt dishonest to not admit that I had a personal stake in the issue.”
It’s that personal touch that has left many applauding his latest work. “If I was to judge by the audience reactions to my public readings and by the people who spoke to me while I signed books,” Brown told CBR News, “I would conclude that everyone loves ‘Paying For It’ and that there’s strong support for decriminalizing prostitution. But, obviously, that’s not the whole story.”
Those hoping to see Brown’s latest creative endeavor make the transition to the silver screen are unfortunately going to be disappointed. “The film rights to the Ed (The Happy Clown) story have reverted to me. It looks like that film will not get made,” Brown said of his “Yummy Fur” character before nearly altogether ruling out a movie version of “Paying For It.” “It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood adaptation that would stay true to the book’s political message. That would be a problem for me. I doubt I could be convinced to sell the rights to an American company — filmmakers would be very tempted to turn the ‘Denise’-and-Chester story into a variation of ‘Pretty Woman.’ The reality of our relationship is nothing like that film.”