A new Chester Brown comic is always an exciting proposition, and a relatively rare treat. Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus (a title that will take on a different meaning once you’ve read the book) is an account of prostitution and religious observance in the Bible. This follows on from 2011’s Paying For It, a disarmingly frank account of Brown’s own use of prostitutes and argument for sex worker rights. The format here is one with which his readers will be familiar - the comic narrative is followed by lengthy handwritten notes and references providing explanation and adding depth to his argument.
The main body of the book consists of a series of Biblical stories, starting with "Cain and Abel". Some are accounts of women who were prostitutes, and some of women who were sexually forward. Some focus on men who slept with prostitutes, and the first has no references to sex at all, but explores ideas of religious obedience. There are a couple of parables which address more than one of these themes, and there’s also an account of Matthew writing his gospel. Many of these stories are presented dispassionately and without explanation (until you get to the notes, at least), but by the end of the comics section a clear thesis has emerged, explicitly stated in the last two chapters.
Brown’s art demonstrates such mastery of his talent. His pacing is flawless, and the skilfully crosshatched panels and characteristically impassive characters match his restrained and subtle storytelling, where hair flows but emotions do not. For example, comparing the story of Tamar to the R. Crumb version, this is pretty minimal, with a blank, dispassionate presentation. God’s violent killing of Onan in Crumb’s account is replaced with a simple ‘Onan dies’ panel - we see considerably less smiting from Brown’s God as that’s not relevant to his argument.
Once we’ve read the 170 pages of comics, we get to the handwritten notes. There’s a typically open account of his own religious beliefs and his gospel interpretations over 20 pages, followed by a 75 page notes section (which includes the story of Job as a comic) and then a bibliography. This adds weight to his argument, but I’d imagine many will skip or at best skim it. In this unique work which proposes that God prefers free thinkers to the blindly obedient, and that many key Biblical women were sexually forward or sex workers, Chester Brown reminds us that he is a truly original voice in comics, who uses his immense artistic and storytelling talent to propose carefully thought out, challenging ideals.