The Stranger delights in CHESTER BROWN's PAYING FOR IT

“Dear John” / The Stranger / Paul Constant / May 18, 2011

Early in Paying for It, comic book memoirist Chester Brown is contemplating hiring a hooker. He doesn't know anything about how prostitution works, so he consults a source familiar to Stranger readers—he sits on a couch and scours Savage Love, the 1998 collection of Dan Savage's advice columns, for escort advice. "Make an appointment to meet in a safe, mutually agreeable location," he quotes Savage in one thought balloon. "She'll know what to do. Be respectful, let her lead, use condoms, and tip the lady." Brown looks up from the book reflectively. He watches his cat jump onto the sofa. "He makes it sound so simple and straightforward," Brown thinks to himself. "Maybe I SHOULD pay for sex."

That was in 1999. Brown still pays for sex today, and Paying for It is a polemic arguing for legalized prostitution. Brown has always made autobiographical comics—his memoir The Playboy, about his relationship to masturbation and one particular copy of Playboy magazine is, in some ways, a prequel to this book—but Paying for It is a departure in terms of craft and goals.

Asked about this difference, Brown readily admits the change: Paying for It, he says, is "much more strident" than his early work. "I'm proselytizing in a way I didn't before." With his relationship memoir I Never Liked You, he "just sat down and wrote the memories in order, and it was very easy," but Paying was "structured." It's not strictly factual; for instance, he combines and condenses conversations with friends about being a john. "I would try to think of what the point of the conversation was," he says, "and I tried to structure them in a way to make the [book's] argument." Brown didn't have any models for this kind of graphic essay-writing; as far as he knows, it hasn't been done before.

As Brown's work has matured, his artwork has become more idiosyncratic. The clean, featureless rooms inside his tiny panels are almost a shorthand for the world, with a spare feathering and cross-hatching around the edges of objects to add the merest hint of ornamentation. He draws himself as nearly expressionless in every panel of Paying. Between the single perpendicular lines of his mouth and nose, his lightbulb-shaped head, and the hollow circles of his glasses, he resembles a cartoon grim reaper; give him a robe and a scythe, and he'd be ready to find work in a New Yorker cartoon. He doesn't smile or laugh or betray much sadness. His face is a blank slate, and depending on your mood when you read the book, you could interpret his emotional state as neutral, melancholy, or haughty and aloof.

Brown is at first a bit defensive when asked why he portrays himself with so little emotional color. "I show myself smiling at least a bit in the book," he says. "There are a few times where I show creases in my forehead." After a second, he says, "I guess it is true that there isn't that much [emotion displayed]. I do feel like I'm a pretty emotionally even-tempered person. I don't really hit low lows." Finally, he admits: "I suppose it's a fair representation of my emotional inner life."

Paying is split up into chapters devoted to Brown's experiences with different escorts. Brown hides or disguises the distinguishing characteristics of the prostitutes; he never shows us their faces, instead drawing them from the back or from the neck down, a move that doesn't help in humanizing them. In the introduction, he writes, "Any of the more idiosyncratic views they expressed to me, I've omitted. It's a shame—I felt genuine affection for many of these women and I really wish that this narrative gave a better sense of their personalities." The attitude—a little chilling—does keep the book from toppling over into a macho pile of prurience: While the sex is explicit, only miniaturists will be titillated by Brown's tiny fornicating figures.

But ultimately, a polemic's job is to make a case to a reader, and Paying does. Brown normalizes prostitution; in fact, he makes it into something mundane. It would be flip and inaccurate to say he turns the act of becoming a john into something as dull as buying a carton of milk, but it's not too far away from the truth. The only palpable emotion that can be plucked from the delicate lines that Brown strings onto the page is his affection for the women on the other end of the transactions. Even though we don't know anything about these women—really, even though he's had sex with them, Brown doesn't know anything about them, either—we can't help but throw a complicated mass of emotions in their direction, too, becoming engaged, trying to peer around the corners of panels in order to get a glimpse of the faces that Brown withholds.

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