Montreal Mirror calls CHESTER BROWN an honest john

“An Honest John” / The Montreal Mirror / The Montreal Mirror / May 12, 2011

There's a strange tension that kicks in as you read Chester Brown's latest comic strip memoir, Paying for It. The book is an unblinking, brazenly honest account of the author's own experiences as the client of prostitutes. You'd think there'd be something downright dirty about such a tome-and there is-but Brown himself is this unassuming, gentle, nerd-next-door type. On the line from his Toronto apartment, Brown concedes he wanted his minimalist drawings to convey a certain ordinariness about prostitution and the act of paying for it. His mission was twofold: on the one hand, to demystify being a john through his own honest confessions, and to question the widely held notion of romantic love. "Sure, there have been moments when I've felt a bit funny about it," Brown acknowledges of his racy subject. Several weeks ago he found himself playing pool with a few people he did-n't know that well. "When I told them I was working on a book, they asked what it was about. I could feel my face turning bright red as I explained it."
The book begins with radio personality and actress Sook-Yin Lee ending her relationship with Brown. While he's a bit sad, he actually takes it very well, even agreeing after some time for her new boyfriend to move in with them. It's at this point that Brown begins to wonder why people invest so much time and energy into the quest for romance, and how possessiveness and expectations all but doom any romance between any two people. It's a highly cynical perspective-though many would agree it's rational-but then Brown decides that paying for sex is really a great way of getting it, without any of the complications that come with a conventional het relationship. Paying for It includes conversations he had with Lee and various friends and peers, as he argues his points quite cogently. Sex through prostitutes, while occasionally leaving him with an empty feeling, works well for Brown, and he's fine with it.
"Some of my friends were like, 'Okay, go ahead and do it. But why do you need to talk about it, let alone write an entire book on it?' It shouldn't be shrouded in shame," Brown says, noting that prostitution is the world's oldest profession. "A lot of prostitutes have written about their lives-some positive, some negative. I thought it was time for the john's perspective."
Brown likens his john-pride movement to gay liberation. "When I was a teenager, much like many my age, I was very homophobic. But I loved David Bowie. When I learned that he was bisexual, I thought, 'He's slept with guys? Maybe it's okay to sleep with guys.'"
Brown's encounters with sex workers-from early anxious meetings to regular trysts-are all told, though he made the choice never to depict their faces. He didn't want to possibly infringe on their privacy, but the obscuring of faces also has the odd unintended side effect of dehumanizing the women as well. "I drew a number of faces," he recalls. "But then I was changing the race of some of the women. Then I realized that I wanted this to be as accurate as possible, so the best thing was just not to draw their faces." Needless to say, it's strange to be having a discussion about comics that sounds more like a debate about documentary filmmaking ethics.
Brown has already got a great deal of press over his book's sensational and controversial central focus. And there are heavy-hitters on board: Robert Crumb pens the introduction, and the book flap includes endorsements from the likes of Mirror sex columnist Sasha and a gaggle of academics.
"I just hope people will completely rethink their ideas and attitudes towards prostitution. Prostitutes can be a comfort. How is that bad?"

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