The Toronto Standard examines PAYING FOR IT's extensive endnotes

“Text Appeal” / Toronto Standard / TS Editors / May 2, 2011

If years ago, when I was in college, someone had dubbed me a tape of The Best of Leonard Cohen, I’m not sure what I would have made of the music. There’s a chance I would have become a fan. But I happened to buy an old copy of the LP, the back cover of which is given over to Cohen’s notes on the songs. None exceeds seven lines in length; the shortest is 12 words long. They masquerade as compositional backstory, but really comprise a sly autobiography in prose poems, perfect compressions of wanderlust and good old-fashioned lust. A persona is being erected even before the record is out of the sleeve. (Indeed, it includes a comment on the jacket portrait: “I rarely ever look this good, or bad, depending on your politics.”) Cohen’s notes didn’t deepen my experience of the music, but rather replaced it. The songs took a back seat to the life lived, a life recorded telegraphically but indelibly on that tan back cover. The pleasure, the point, of The Best of Leonard Cohen was not where I thought it was.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the notes of another Canadian artist, also originally from the Montreal area, 26 years Cohen’s junior. Chester Brown is a cartoonist I’ve followed, with admiration and occasional perplexity, for two decades now. His books are remarkably varied in scope and style: the surreal, id-accessing Ed the Happy Clown (1989); the teen-angst diptych of The Playboy and I Never Liked You (1992 and 1994); the miscellaneous stories from 1980 to 1995, gathered in 1998’s collection The Little Man; Louis Riel, an account of the 19th-century French-speaking rebel leader and heretic in what is now Manitoba; and, coming next month, Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John, an unsettling, full-contact approach to the debate over the legalization of prostitution.
How important are Brown’s notes? Just as someone who listens to a burned copy of The Best of Leonard Cohen could reasonably say she’s experienced that album, without ever reading Cohen’s notes, I considered that I had finished Louis Riel upon reaching page 241, the last page of the story proper — the last illustrated page. I had experienced, in all the important ways, Brown’s portrait of this figure and his turbulent times. The notes were just words, whereas words-and-pictures constitute the cartoonist’s art. I did read most of the notes included in the initial (1998) publication of The Little Man, probably because the anthology itself felt pretty thin; as Brown writes in the preface, “I really love some of the work in here, and I really hate some of it, but most of it I’m somewhat indifferent to.” But I didn’t read every word of the extensive apparatus that he erected around the last strip in the collection, “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic.” Title panel aside, the strip is less memoir than a smart, patient, and numbing argument against the classification of schizophrenia as a disease. It’s replete with talking-head psychologists and panels in which Chester stands stock still and delivers his monologue. The notes mainly supplied additional evidence, for page after page.
But two things made me start thinking differently about the status of this paratext. One was the increasing amount of space the notes were taking. The main narrative of Paying for It, his forthcoming book on his experiences as a john, is 227 pages long; what follows—afterword, twenty-three appendices, and notes on both the body text and the appendices—take up an additional 51 pages. In other words, about 18 per cent of what’s between the covers is not “comics,” per se. The story, such as it is, has all the candour, brilliant draftsmanship, discomfort, and humour that are the hallmarks of Brown’s work; but now I wondered whether note-making should also be considered a signature Brownian move as well.
The second thing that made me take a closer look: My sister recently visited Montreal, and brought me something from the Drawn and Quarterly store that I hadn’t seen before. This was the first installment (from 2005) of D&Q’s reserialization of Brown’s first work Ed the Happy Clown, which had originally appeared in installments in his comic book Yummy Fur, then was published as a book (twice). Now it was appearing again in comic-book format, across nine issues, for which Brown would be writing new notes to each of the nine slim volumes.
Revisiting this maiden voyage, now nearly 30 years old, the nihilism and dark humour feel strained, but the three pages of notes to issue one are something of an origin story. We learn that he was 21 in early 1982 and living in a Toronto rooming house on Albany Avenue, working a “low-paying job printing photographs” while trying to be a cartoonist; he tells us that “Ed the Happy Clown” was an attempt to “create in a more spontaneous manner” based on surrealist principles he’d read about, and that he hadn’t meant for him to be a series character at all, let alone his first claim to fame. The long third note is to “Adventures in Science,” an exercise in grotesque whimsy (think masturbating squid). Brown dilates on a nearly invisible attribution attached to the final panel that reads, “Idea: ‘Dr M.’” One of his day-job colleagues, a fellow aspiring cartoonist named Mark, had begun a strip with someone saying, “We were in deep shit when the professor’s brains popped out.” Mark, a/k/a Dr. M., never finished it, and Brown asked if he could “redraw the first few panels and take the strip in whatever direction I felt like.” Mark agreed, and when he saw Chester’s finished artwork, he said, “I give up—I’m never going to draw again.” In the notes Brown wonders why he wanted to appropriate his friend’s idea, confessing he “may have just wanted to show off,” as if to say, “Look at me — I can draw these panels better than you, and I can actually finish the strip.”
“And then,” Brown writes, “I went and stole his girlfriend.” The woman in question is Kris, who will appear as a character once Brown starts creating autobiographical strips; here we learn that it was in fact Kris who encouraged Brown to self-publish the first issues of Yummy Fur. “I might still be working in that photo-reproduction shop if she hadn’t,” he writes.
I liked this behind-the-scenes maneuvering more than anything else in the book, and indeed the notes to this fourth incarnation of Ed the Happy Clown pulled that Leonard Cohen trick: I began to see the artist himself as the real hero, and the fictions within as so much scaffolding. The comics — the initial product, the point of all his artmaking — were no longer the main attraction.
So as I read (or reread) all of Brown’s notes, I thought of them as intentional rather than optional. Brown writes them out in his own meticulous, microscopic hand. The steady flow of words is staggering — page after page of tightly spaced sentences. (Indeed, when I say a “page,” the actual wordage in most cases is likely three to four times as much as you’d fit in the same space with a ten-point font.) In contrast to the spontaneous construction of Brown’s early Ed stories, these give the appearance of steady, deliberate thought, but the more you read, the more surprising they are.
His book The Playboy was noteless, but the 185-page I Never Liked You had two pages’ worth in its 2002 printing. “I’m writing the following for those of you who wondered when and where things happened,” he explains. The affect soon feels off — abrupt and concrete after the limpid, flowing narrative we’ve just emerged from. One example: At the book’s conclusion, shy, confused Chester makes a feeble excuse to avoid going out with a girl he likes, telling her that instead he’s going to stay home and put on the new Kiss album, which he’s bought but hasn’t listened to yet. “According to page 29 of Black Diamond 2: The Illustrated Collector’s Guide to Kiss,” the notes tell us, the album in question is Love Gun, which was released “either June 7th or June 17th 1977,” thus giving a very tight window during which the encounter could have taken place.
What’s good enough for the reader — an acceptable approximation of reality — doesn’t suffice for Brown, who, like a scholar of his own output, documents dates and times with an exactitude that Brown the artist knew to leave out. But in the final note, Brown writes that the original 1994 dedication (which still stands in 2002) was to his girlfriend, Sook-Yin, with whom he had a relationship between “late 1992 until mid-1996.” The author photo — Brown with long hair, standing at the side of the frame with eyes downcast — was taken by Sook-Yin in the summer of 1993. The earnest original dedication (and its later reinforcement) are a way of indicating that the teenaged Chester, like most of us, outgrew his awkwardness around affection — a happy ending, if you like, to a story brimming with aggression, repression, and insanity.
Though 2003’s Louis Riel is biographical rather than autobiographical, and its story arc grandly tragic, its imposing 27 pages of notes turn out to be oddly inviting. On the one hand they function traditionally as citation, definition, and clarification. But many of the notes point out the liberties that Brown has taken in depicting Riel and his struggle to secure land rights for the people of the Red River Settlement in the 19th century, whose existence is thrown into chaos by the machinations of the Canadian government and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
A prose memoirist might downplay the messy or dreary aspects of real life with a quick preface saying that some names have been changed, the timeline has been tweaked, and certain characters are composites, but Brown is almost hilariously punctilious. Of page 13, panel 5, he writes that a man named McDougall “arrived in Pembina by ox-cart, not stage-coach.” I’m not sure why I drew stage-coaches — there is a note in my script specifying ox-cart.” He notes that he loves the name of “Major-General Thomas Bland Strange,” who wouldn’t have been at a gathering in April 1885 — where, nevertheless, Brown has placed him. What initially appeared to be a somewhat sober, dignified, doggedly fact-based story is, by Brown’s own design, showing cracks.
You only get this if you read the notes. One in particular, buried on page 259, threatens to throw the whole narrative topsy-turvy. About a nefarious conspiracy depicted in the story, Brown writes:
I’ve made the McLean/Sprague-theory part of my strip, not because I’m convinced that it’s true (I honestly don’t have a strong opinion on the matter one way or the other), but because it makes [Prime Minister John A.] Macdonald seem more villainous — villains are fun in a story, and I’m trying to tell this tale in an engaging manner.
Brown follows this with an unexpected revelation:
Incidentally, even though I think that Macdonald was capable of abusing his power, I don’t think that he actually was a villain. I disagree with much of what he did and stood for, but I recognize that he tried to do what he thought was best for the country. And, quite frankly, I’d rather have lived in a state run by John A. Macdonald than one run by Louis Riel.
Reading Louis Riel, a reader’s sympathies are with the title character, and when he meets his end, one might be forgiven for cursing in the direction of Prime Minister Macdonald, who contrives from the very first panel to grab as much land for Canada as he can, no matter the human cost. Riel’s heretical and hallucinatory bent make him a natural Chester Brown hero — or so we would imagine. That Brown — in his notes and nowhere else — champions the official over the visionary is perhaps the most heretical thing of all. His history is a performance. As in Brown’s explicitly autobiographical work, truth is elusive, and subject to change.
Paying for It, Brown’s new “comic strip memoir about being a john,” is exactly what the title declares, and more, and a little less, and more again. Brown depicts his whoring as a long-fused, utterly rational decision following the dissolution of his four-year relationship with the aforementioned Sook-Yin in 1996. The tone is tantalizingly intimate and detached, as he’s initiated into Toronto’s red-light culture. He becomes an expert in the world — from how to solicit and how much to tip, to what the cryptic abbreviations in the Yelp!-style reviews of local hookers mean. He debates regularly the ethics of prostitution with his friends, the cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt, who serve as our stand-ins. They’re shocked not only by Brown’s habit, but by his increasingly strident statements against monogamy. “Keep repressing those emotions,” Seth tells him repeatedly. Brown draws his own face to look like a skull, as though the loneliness he can’t accept has whittled him down to next to nothing.
As uncomfortable as the subject matter is, there’s a delicious, knowing irony in the story’s resolution, when Chester finds himself in a long-term, monogamous, mutually respectful and satisfying relationship with a prostitute named “Denise.” “So if I’m not against romantic love, what do I oppose?” he wonders, then decides, “I’m against…possessive monogamy.” A few pages later, he explains, for the umpteenth time, his latest view of prostitution to Seth: “[P]aying for sex isn’t an empty experience if you’re paying the right person for sex.”
That’s the last panel of the graphic narrative proper, and such a mouthful of a sentence that the reader is surprised to turn the page and find it blank. In a way it’s the perfect ending to this challenging book; we get the impression that Chester will keep reformulating his views on romantic love, probably letting his pronouncements erode as his relationship with “Denise” deepens. (By book’s end, in summer 2010, Chester has been monogamous with her for six years.) It’s smartly ambivalent.
Then come the 23 appendices and notes, where Brown can push his argument for the legalization of prostitution for as long as his writing hand doesn’t cramp. Brown isn’t interested in ambiguity or art here — the pamphlet-like tone bears similarities to the notes for “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic.”
But the mask slips a few times, most dramatically in the final appendix, where Brown presents the notes that his friend Seth made upon reading the book. Calling attention to his appearance on page ten Seth says, “I often jokingly refer to Chet as ‘the robot.’ In posing a question to him I might quip, ‘Perhaps I should ask a person who has actual human emotions instead.’” In a long note regarding a scene where Chester grows incensed by Seth’s hidebound views on prostitution, Seth rebuts: “It’s a bit of a broken record listening to these arguments over and over again. I gotta say, it tires me out. I really couldn’t give a shit about most of these issues.” As Brown, in the appendices, becomes an unimpeded, less engaging version of the character in the main narrative, Seth steps in at the last minute to cut him down to size.
There is genuine warmth in Seth’s notes. They humanize the robot, flesh out the skeleton. “The funny thing about Chester,” Seth writes in the last paragraph of the appendices, “is that out of all the men I know he’s quite possibly the one I think would make the most considerate boyfriend or husband for a woman…and yet he is the one who picked the whoring. It’s a funny world.” As any memoirist must, Brown has concealed parts of himself in Paying for It. Is it robotic, or very clever, for him to let someone else fill in the blanks?

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