How do you follow up a book about giving up traditional relationships in favor of prostitutes?
Answer: You bring the Bible into it.
Chester Brown’s never shied away from sexuality and religion in his work, dating back to such collections as The Playboy and I Never Liked You. In his most recent work, Paying for It, Brown not only chronicled his decision to patronize sex workers, but devoted a large portion of the back of the book to argue about popularly-held views on prostitution.
Now, Brown’s taken his themes a step further with Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible, out this week from Drawn & Quarterly. The book examines a series of stories from Hebrew Scripture and the Christian New Testament, many of which deal directly or indirectly with prostitution. In his annotations, Brown explains how a great deal of his interpretations come from the actual Biblical texts – and what these stories might say about how the Bible perceives sex work.
Newsarama called Brown in Toronto to talk about his new book, its provocative subject matter, how he hopes it will be received, and more.
Newsarama: Chester, what would you want people to take away from Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus?
Chester Brown: Hmmm. Well, it’s clear from my last book I’m an advocate for sex-worker rights. It seems to me that the roots of our society’s prejudice against sex work comes from the Bible. I guess I would, ideally, like people to at least rethink what Jesus was saying.
The Bible was written by a lot of people, and probably most of those writers did oppose prostitution. But I’m arguing specifically that I think Jesus was probably not against it. And that’s the main point.
Nrama: In terms of examining Jesus and the religious interpretations of sex work, what do you feel was most important to your perspective, from your own background and the mass-perception of sex work and religion in today’s world?
Brown: Well, in terms of my background – I was raised in a religious household. In terms of sex work… I remember even in my teenage years, feeling sympathy for what sex workers went through, or what I imagined they went through.
I didn’t judge them negatively – I remember a sex worker who used to walk through our neighborhood, and at least one of my friends had a negative reaction to this woman, and I did not. So yeah, I guess despite my upbringing, I felt about sex workers a bit differently, and by the time I was paying for sex myself, a lot differently. Does that answer your question?
Nrama: Well, it gives me perspective, at least – I grew up in what was not a religious family, and not really knowing about sex work or anything, at least until high school or so. So it’s interesting to me – your examining these themes in your work.
Brown: Your parents were not religious?
Nrama: They went to church growing up, but not when they got older. We got children’s Bibles for gifts, but it wasn’t really forced on myself or my brother.
Brown: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, in our household, we had several children’s versions of the Bible, and my mother read it to my brother all the time. My childhood was steeped in that.
Nrama: Yes, I got that impression from your other work. And it’s interesting to me, because there’s such an interweaving of sex and religion, often in a very hypocritical way – someone who is very ultra-conservative and Bible-quoting will be caught with prostitutes, for example. So your tackling these themes of sex and religion head-on through these close readings of Bible stories in this book are very intriguing to me.
Brown: Hmm. Thanks.
Nrama: I found it interesting how, once they’re reduced to the bare bones of the plot, and stripped of more elevated, literary language, many of these stories play as deadpan comedy.
Brown: [Laughs] Hee-hee-hee! I’m glad you said that! I hope they work on several levels, but if there’s a comedic element, it doesn’t bother me.
Nrama: There’s one bit in Rahab’s story where there’s the line, “Oh hi, Bantic,” and it reminded me of the movie The Room by Tommy Wiseau, where “Oh hi” is how everyone greets each other, and there’s this sort of oddly old-fashioned story of infidelity.
Brown: I know what movie you’re talking about! I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been meaning to. Wow.
Nrama: The story’s literally stripped of its poetry -- it’s no longer in verse, just straight action. You talk about the source material in the back, but I’m curious as to how long it took you to put together this style of storytelling, and how you came to use this depiction.
Brown: Well, I’ve been reading the Bible for …probably 30 years. I’ve been fascinated by the topic for all my adult years. So really, it’s just one of the subjects I read about for my casual reading. For this book, though, I went back and read a lot of books I would have read 25, 30 years ago.
As for my decision to do this book, and how long…from the point where I got the idea to where I finished the script, it wasn’t long, maybe two or three weeks for the initial version of the script. Many things were added later, but that initial script went very quickly, but that was because I knew the Bible so well already, and it wasn’t difficult.
Nrama: You talk about some of the specific stories in the back, regarding how you chose them, and in terms of looking at the genealogy of Jesus as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew. Were there any stories you wanted to include initially but decided against, or others you decided to include later on in the process?
Brown: As far as stories I didn’t include…I think I included all the ones I thought would be relevant, there weren’t any I considered, then rejected, I think.
Well, I did consider Adam and Eve, and then I went, “Well, everyone does that!” I’m glad I didn’t do it, because I’ve read some new stuff since that’s given me a different perspective on the story, and I might do it later on.
I mentioned Mary of Bethany – it did not initially occur to me to do Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Bethany, because based on books I’d already read, I’d assumed Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, even though that’s how she’s popularly presented.
Then I picked up a book about Mary Magdalene, and that got me thinking about her, and about Mary of Bethany. The two of them are usually conflicted in the popular mind; they may have been two different people. But I realized, “Oh, I really should be looking more seriously at Mary of Bethany, because it’s pretty obvious she was a prostitute, despite what I read in the research.” So that’s how I ended up including a chapter on Mary of Bethany.
There’s also the Job section I put in the notes. I’m not sure how far along in the process I was before it occurred to me that Job was, to a degree, relevant, but even though he fit in with the whole question of obedience to God that’s kind of a sub-theme in the book, I didn’t feel that he fit in with those initial stories.
I still wanted that story in the book somehow, so I stuck him in the back with the notes. But I didn’t feel that story quite worked with the front material, in the main sequence of stories.
Nrama: We talked earlier about what you’d like people to take away from this book, but I’m curious as to what kind of discussion you hope it provokes—and also, as to whether you have any concerns about possible push-back against it.
Brown: Oh, I’m definitely expecting push-back! I realize there are a lot of Christians who will not be happy with this, though others will be fine with it. Here in Toronto, we’re doing a book launch in a church, and the minister’s going to interview me afterward on stage.
I had some concerns as to how she would react to the book, so I emailed her and said, “If you read the book and are offended and want to pull out of the event, I understand.” But after she read the book, she emailed me and said quite the contrary, she enjoyed the book and found it very respectful and well-informed.
So yeah, there will be Christians like her who are receptive to it… and there will also be those who don’t like the book. But as to how I would want the book discussed… I hope it will be seen as a serious work of Biblical interpretation. The fact that it’s a graphic novel, I guess some people might simply dismiss it on that basis alone. But I think most readers will see I put a lot of reading into it, and a lot of thought, whether they agree with me or not.
Nrama: I’m curious about the visual style of this. You go with the four-panel stacked look, similar to what a lot of newspaper comics go with these days. And you go with that kind of basic super-deformed look of the characters, except for God and Jesus, who are left off-camera, as it were. I was curious as to how you decided on this.
Brown: Well, you do see God in some panels –
Nrama: Right, but his back’s to us, and Jesus is essentially a disembodied voice.
Brown: Right. Well, I think it’s pretty close to my usual style – maybe a little more cartoony than Louis Riel, or maybe the last book, Paying for It, too. The style has less to do with the subject matter and more with how my work is evolving.
My work’s getting more cartoony, and I think my next book is going to be even more cartoony, in large part because I just bought that big Kaz Underworld collection Fantagraphics put out. That’s an astonishing book, and I’m just completely enthralled by it, and I think my work is going more in that direction.
Nrama: Off that – what are some comics and creators you’re currently enjoying?
Brown: Well, Kaz, obviously – that’s the one at the moment. There’s so much good stuff coming in – in terms of people from my generation, Dan Clowes’ new book is just compulsively readable, I started it before bedtime and wound up staying up much later than I intended, because I was just so involved with the book. And Peter Bagge just had a really great new book.
The younger generation, there’s Michael DeForge, and I mention my friend Nina Bunjevac in the afterward of my book. She’s got a very different look from my style, or the style of Michael DeForge, but with that kind of almost-photographic look to the way she draws.
It’s a terrific time for comics, a lot of great stuff coming out.
Nrama: This being your latest collaboration with Drawn & Quarterly – certainly one that goes back quite a ways – what was the experience of working with them like for this book?
Brown: It was great – I mean, mostly what’s hard is putting the book together. I worked with Tracy Hurren on this, and on Paying for It as well, and she’s just terrific, full of ideas. It makes the process so pleasurable when you work with someone who’s so knowledgeable as far as book production.
Going into the past, it’s always been terrific working with Drawn & Quarterly, going back to the early days with Chris Oliveros where it was a different thing because we were kind of discovering the world of book publishing together. When he started, he didn’t know much about it, and he was kind of figuring it out as we went, and I was part of that process, asking, “Can we do this?” and him going, “Let’s find out!”
Really, Drawn & Quarterly’s only the second publisher I’ve ever been with. But everyone there, from Chris on up, has always seen eye-to-eye with me on what good cartooning is, and putting together a book that’s as beautiful as possible. I have nothing but good words to say about working with Drawn & Quarterly, and everyone there.
Nrama: And obviously, you’re launching this book, but do you have any ideas for what you next book will be at this point?
Brown: Oh yes. I have several ideas right now…probably about four ideas in mind at the moment. And I’m going to see which one appeals to me most when I’m all done with all the promotional duties for Mary Wept.
I’d rather not say what these four ideas are, because you know, you’ll say, “I have this idea…” and then you change your mind, and you get asked for the next 10 years when those ideas are coming out, and they never will.
Nrama: It’s like a birthday wish. If you say it out loud, it won’t come true.
Brown: [laughs] Exactly.