Paying for Itby Chester BrownDrawn & Quarterly, 272 pages, $24.95.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Paying for It, Chester Brown's latest graphic novel, is an autobiographical work in the same vein as his seminal books The Playboy and I Never Liked You. You'd be forgiven but you'd be wrong. Despite what surface appearances might suggest, the book's autobiographical and personal elements are in service to its larger goals, which is to serve a polemic. A polemic whose ultimate message is: "Prostitution is really, really awesome."
If Paying for It bears a resemblance to any of Brown's previous comics, it's My Mother Was a Schizophrenic, a short essay of sorts in which Brown laid out it methodical and absorbing detail why he felt schizophrenia wasn't a mental illness that should be treated with therapy and medicine but simply a label for aberrant and socially unacceptable behavior that needed to be re-evaluated if not retired all together.
Paying for It takes a similar tack, this time with regards to prostitution. As the book begins, Brown's current romantic relationship has fizzled out, and while he's not feeling particularly distraught about the break-up, he has no real desire to jump back into the matchmaking waters again. Neither, however, does he want to lead a life of celibacy, which puts him in a bit of a sexual pickle. The solution? Start frequenting "ladies with negotiable affections."
The bulk of the book then, chronicles his dalliances with a variety of prostitutes (each one gets their own chapter, some more than one). While his initial, stumbling forays into john-dom are somewhat comical (he rides around town on his bike hoping he'll bump into a streetwalker; he looks under one woman's bed for miscreants) and he suffers from the chiding and disapproval of his friends (particularly fellow cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt, who provide a good deal of the humor of the book), overall the experience proves to be a positive one for Brown. So much so that he starts to completely rethink his attitude towards romantic love. Romance, he posits, only leads to jealousy and heartache and is not worth the trouble. Those suckers who get married or continually attempt to find the perfect soulmate are kidding themselves and signing up for a life of disappointments. Like a born-again zealot (or, perhaps, someone who feels a bit on the defensive), it's not enough for Brown to build prostitution up, he must also tear romance down.
To that end, the final third of the book is taken up by a lengthy series of appendixes and notes wherein he expounds at length on why prostitution should be treated like any other business and even goes so far as to imagine a Utopian future where people see no need to get married or be boyfriend-girlfriend, when they can simply slake their sexual needs via an economic exchange, which would no longer regarded as taboo or shameful, thus perhaps reducing the need for prostitutes altogether.
Obviously these grandiose statements can be tough to swallow, and I can easily imagine a number of readers having loud, visceral reactions to the book (I almost threw it across the room when Brown suggested there was no such thing as drug or alcohol addiction). Brown's at his best when he makes the case for decriminalizing prostitution (not to be confused with legalization, which would require regulation, which in turn would break his libertarian heart) . His arguments -- for example, that more prostitutes would be willing to press charges if harassed or abused -- are sound and his personal experiences suggest that paying for sex is rarely the tawdry, depressing affair we tend to associate it with. If you are a socially awkward, intensely shy man who finds the pursuit of true love to be an excruciating, hopeless affair, then I can see where paying for sex might appear like a healthy, viable alternative.
He's on less solid ground, though, when he discusses issues like why women enter into prostitution, sexual slavery and the afore-mentioned Utopian ideals. Suffice it to say that I find his "I didn't see it, therefore it can't be that big a problem" attitude more than a bit naive to put it mildly. Encounters like one involving a rather young, foreign girl who seems to be in pain through much of their coupling add a bit of tension and raise unsettling questions, but Brown doesn't delve into them deeply enough.
Brown adopts a rigid eight-panel grid structure for he book that he never veers from. As small as his panels are, his figures are drawn even smaller, dwarfed by the minimalist, urban environment. This is particularly during the sex scenes, where they seem to almost be floating in an inky blackness, and threatened to be swallowed up by it at any moment.
Out of consideration for the women, Brown doesn't provide any background detail on the prostitutes he visits, although he does note that he spent a lot of time talking to them and learned much about their lives. He also says he dallied with a variety of ethnic types and hair styles, but -- for fear perhaps that they may be recognized by family or friends -- their faces are all obscured, and all are portrayed as white-skinned brunettes, (though it's worth noting he does take care to denote individual body types, especially in regards to breast size). That doesn't derail the book too badly but there is a palpable sense of something missing, an experience or emotional hole that needs to be filled. I can well understand and respect Brown's desire to show as much consideration to these women as possible, but not having more female perspective in the book, particularly in a book about such a taboo and divisive subject, hurts the book both aesthetically and in terms of his larger points.
Despite my criticisms, Paying for It remains a compelling, even occasionally hilarious book. It's a difficult work in some respects in that while there is material here that will encourage serious, healthy debate, there is also material here that will encourage anger and derision. I just hope the latter doesn't override the former.