In a pop-culture landscape where everyone is fighting for attention, Chester Brown gets it without even seeming to try.
The Châteauguay-raised cartoonist’s cult status changed dramatically in 2004 when the influential and groundbreaking Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography made him one of the first figures to cross over from the the indie realm of alternative comics into mainstream reading lists and conversations. Meanwhile, in the comix world that nurtured him, a world he helped define, he is a serious star. At last weekend’s Montreal Comic Arts Festival in Parc Lafontaine, fans lined up for an hour or more in the scorching sun to get his signature.
Brown was last in the public eye in 2011 with Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John, a book that generated extreme reactions with its frank and dispassionate treatment of a subject many still consider unfit for public airing – the title indeed refers to the author’s preferred means of procuring sex – and its advocacy for the rights of sex workers.
“I hadn’t been intending to do any kind of followup (to Paying For It),” said the 56-year-old Toronto resident, talking last week in the spacious new Villeray headquarters of his longtime publishers Drawn & Quarterly. Armed with an infectious high-pitched laugh, he’s more congenial than his self-portraits might lead you to think. “I thought I would do a very different book.”
What Brown ended up doing is now with us, and Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in The Bible is, as planned, a very different book. Yet it’s a followup too, or at the very least a complementary companion piece. Going back two thousand years and more in search of the roots of what Brown calls our culture’s “whore phobia,” the new book reinterprets a range of parables and stories from the Old and New Testaments, emerging with a thesis – in Brown’s words, that “Jesus was arguing that prostitution is a good thing, something that benefits society” – sure to put the cat among the pigeons every bit as dramatically as its predecessor did.
For Brown, the road to Mary Wept started early. Growing up in a Baptist household, he heard children’s versions of Bible stories read aloud by his mother, and attended church every week for as long as he lived under the family roof. Like many of his generation, he drifted away from religion in early adulthood, but he found himself drawn back in when he met and fell in love with a young woman.
“She made it clear that she was a Christian,” recalled Brown. “And she asked me, ‘Are you?’ I said ‘Oh, yeah, definitely.’ Then it occurred to me that if I’m identifying as one I should know what that means, because despite growing up in a religious family I didn’t feel I understood what it was really all about. One day I happened to be visiting my father’s place and saw a book called The Gospel Records, by a biblical scholar named William Scott, published in the late 1940s. I thought ‘Maybe this will tell me something.’ I found it absolutely fascinating – where and when and by whom were the gospels written, why these people wrote them, arcane theories about the relationships of the gospel writers to each other. I wanted to continue reading things like that and I have, along with the Bible itself, ever since.”
It’s not a claim idly made. The new book’s bibliography runs to more than fifty titles, and all that reading clearly accustomed Brown to thinking of the Bible not as a monolithic rulebook but as a living, malleable thing, open to deconstruction and interpretation. It’s a theme that runs through the Mary Wept, I suggested.
“Well, the Bible is so many things,” Brown said. “Definitely there’s part of it that is a law book. That’s mostly what the Torah is – the laws that God supposedly handed over to Moses. Many people see (the whole book) as this set of rules you’re supposed to obey, but I think the Bible is largely made up of writers who were disagreeing with each other, both about what laws were the correct laws, and also, I think, whether or not we should even be following laws from God, or whether God wrote those laws or wanted us to follow them.”
What specifically spurred Brown into writing Mary Wept was an interpretation he read of the enigmatic Parable of the Talents, in which seemingly the least responsible of three slaves entrusted with a master’s fortune – he literally spends his whole stake on prostitutes – gets rewarded. In Brown’s telling, the final panel has the master saying: “Unto everyone who has, shall be given. But from him who has not shall be taken away even that which he has.” Looked at from one angle, it could read as social Darwinism, a justification of the worst abuses of free market capitalism. Brown sees it differently.
“I think it’s about the wisdom of the individual,” he said. “If you have wisdom, then you get everything, and if you don’t have wisdom, you see life as a game in which you’re the constant loser.”
Not surprisingly for someone who self-describes as a john and is thus directly affected by prostitution laws, Brown keeps up with the legal developments.
“It looked like things were heading in a hopeful direction when the Supreme Court knocked down the sex work laws in 2013,” he said. “But then of course the Harper government re-criminalized using a different set of laws. On the positive side, it did seem to me that many of the media reports from around that time had the rights perspective, and the term sex-workers, in their stories. No longer do they just talk about them without including their voices. But as far as politics right now go, I don’t think Justin Trudeau is eager to repeal the Conservative laws. The one thing I’ve heard him say on the subject is that he considers prostitution to be a form of violence against women. So I’m not optimistic for progress on that front during his time as prime minister.”
There are, to be sure, people who will say that the words prostitute and prostitution themselves are part of the problem.
“That idea is out there, for sure,” Brown said. “I can see why a lot of sex workers think that way. But I don’t know that coming up with a new term – though I like the term sex-worker – would make the stigma go away. Then the new term would become the stigmatized term. I certainly hope we get to a point where sex work is no longer stigmatized, but you know, I still like the older words. I like prostitute, I even like whore. These words have history, and we can’t just dispense with that and walk away from it completely.”
Given all that has happened since that old girlfriend asked if he was a Christian, it feels right to ask Brown how things may have changed for him on the spiritual self-definition front in the years since. Would he still describe himself as religious?
“Definitely. I believe there’s a God. Whether or not I’m Christian, it’s the word that makes the most sense to me. And I’m clearly obsessed with it. Understanding the words of Jesus means a lot to me. I don’t consider Jesus to be the son of God, at least not the way Christians have conventionally understood that term, so if there are some Christians who would claim I’m not one, I would understand. The designation isn’t that important to me.”