I've been reading Chester Brown's comic books since the early 1980s when he self published a mini comic called Yummy Fur (eventually published by Vortex Comics). He's from Montréal and is good friends with cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth.
Brown's latest work is a fascinating 280-page memoir called Paying For It: a Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John (Drawn & Quarterly). It's about his experiences being a customer of prostitutes since 1999. Brown started paying for sex a few years after his girlfriend broke up with him (he stayed celibate for three years after the break-up) and he decided the emotional toll of romantic relationships was too much to bear and swore off ever having a girlfriend again. With some trepidation, he began seeing prostitutes in Toronto.
There is nothing erotic about Paying For It, even though there is some nudity and depictions of sex. Instead, Brown focuses on his inner dialogue while visiting prostitutes ("Why did I care if I hurt her feelings? She lied -- she's not in any way like the description in her ad." "The last few times I've seen Anne I've felt empty afterwards.") and the frank conversations with Seth and Matt, who are at turns bemused and concerned for their friend's practice of hiring prostitutes and his decision to abandon romantic relationships.
As you can see in the sample above, the comic is drawn in small, sedate, panels, and Brown's expression never changes from panel to panel. He appears to be emotionally flat. Robert Crumb writes in the introduction to Paying For It:
Chester Brown is not of this planet. He is probably the result of one of those alien abductions where they stick a needle in a human woman's abdomen and impregnate her. He is a very advanced human. You can tell by looking at the photo of him. Notice how, throughout the book, his facial expression is always the same. His mouth is a slit. He never shows his teeth, never grins, never grimaces. The opposite of my portrayals of myself. Chester Brown's neutrality in the world is, in my estimation, quite admirable. As Jesus said, "Be as passers-by."
In the "Notes" section of Paying For It, Seth writes:
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." The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him. He's definitely an oddball. That said, he is also the kindest, gentlest and most deeply thoughtful oddball I know. Perhaps he is missing something in his emotional makeup, perhaps not. Who can say what is natural and what is learned behavior? I'll say this -- he really doesn't appear to be suffering. You can't argue with that.
A 30-page afterword is devoted to Brown's arguments in favor of the legalization of prostitution. To me, this is not nearly as interesting as the comic that precedes it.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.