Chester Brown

Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown emerged from the mini-comics movement of the mid-’80s and quickly established himself as one of the most original artists of his generation. With his series Yummy Fur, Brown spun long, surreal tales where pop culture, politics, and perversion intersected, and then alternated those stories with earnest autobiographical reminiscences and adaptations of the Christian gospels. After ending Yummy Fur, Brown embarked on an abstract, science-fiction-tinged serial titled Underwater, which he abandoned after three years and 11 issues. He followed that with Louis Riel, a gripping yarn ripped from Canadian history, and his most successful work to date. Brown has been active in Canadian politics as a Libertarian, extending in real life the emphasis in his art on the struggle of the individual against the state. That’s also one of the main themes of Brown’s latest book, Paying For It, subtitled “a comic-strip memoir about being a john,” in which Brown documents his history as a patron of prostitutes, and advocates for legalization. Brown recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the style and meaning of Paying For It, and about the myriad ways his work reflects his life.

The A.V. Club: A lot of cartoonists have explored the more sordid sides of their lives in their autobiographical comics, but unlike many of your peers, you never seem to have any embarrassment about anything you write or draw about yourself, whether you’re discussing masturbation and pornography in The Playboy, your mother’s schizophrenia in I Never Liked You, or your current sex life in Paying For It. Is that just who you are? Do you not get embarrassed? 

Chester Brown: I certainly can. Actually, about a month back, I was playing pool with some people I didn’t know very well. They knew I was a cartoonist, but they didn’t know what I was working on. They asked me about the book, so I started telling them, and I found my face blushing. I was blushing intensely. I thought, “Wow, I hope I’m still not feeling this much embarrassment when I start doing interviews.” So yeah, I certainly am capable of feeling shame about this stuff.

AVC: In the book, you’re not just describing your life, you’re trying to make a point about prostitution. So did you consciously exclude the shame?

CB: I do have those scenes from after that first time in the brothel, where I’m describing the experience to Sook-yin [Lee] and to my friends Chris, Seth, and Joe [Matt]. I’m sure I felt nervous and probably embarrassed during those conversations. Maybe I thought it was obvious that that’s what I should be feeling, and that I didn’t need to explain it too much? Or maybe that didn’t really come through. And maybe it’s also a matter of not wanting to go too much into emotional stuff in the book.

AVC: When you write and draw yourself as a character in your own work, do you see it as “you,” or just a version of you that’s imbued with some of your qualities?

CB: I don’t worry about how accurately I convey my personality. I learned early on that it’s almost impossible to accurately portray yourself. I’m more concerned with getting the events right.

AVC: Is that why you downplay the emotional side of those events?

CB: That could be one of the reasons. But also I find that the type of work I respond to, y’know, when I’m reading novels or watching films or other people’s comics, tends to be more austere. Like, one of my favorite directors is Robert Bresson, who, of course, famously instructed his non-professional actors to not show any emotion. I love that approach. That stripped-down, bare way of telling a story.

AVC: You’ve always had that sense of remove in your work, though in the earlier comics, like Ed The Happy Clown, the illustrations were frequently more graphic or shocking. But with Louis Riel and Paying For It, you seem to have developed more of a physical remove from the characters, in that they’re actually smaller in the frame. Was that something where you thought “This is an effect I want to convey, and this is a way I can do it”?

CB: It’s not so much me thinking about how I want to convey things; it’s more about how I respond to things in other people’s work. With Riel, I remember talking about how much I’d been influenced by Harold Gray, the cartoonist who wrote and drew Little Orphan Annie. That influence has certainly continued, along with being influenced by other cartoonists of the early-to-mid-20th century. In those days, cartoonists tended to draw full characters in the frame and not rely so much on close-ups. Very early on, close-ups were unheard of. At the time of George Herriman, you just didn’t do close-ups. Even Harold Gray, he might do a shot from the waist up, but never a full face in a panel, y’know. For whatever reason, that’s what I respond to. It seems kind of emotionally excessive to really zoom in on a face or a pair of eyes, or things like that. And it probably has a lot to do with my psychological makeup, but I don’t examine that too closely. It’s just a matter of, “Yeah, this is what I respond to, so I want to create similar sorts of work.”

AVC: Do you still read comics? Do you keep up with the new generation?

CB: Certainly with my Canadian peers. I actually have quite a few friends who are younger cartoonists here in Toronto, and know younger cartoonists from around Canada. Do you know Kate Beaton’s work? I love her stuff. She’s got a book coming up soon from Drawn & Quarterly. Not that we’re good friends or anything, but I’ve met her a few times. I’m good friends with this cartoonist Dave Lapp, who lives in Toronto. He’s a few years younger than me, anyway. And then other younger cartoonists I know you’ve probably never heard of.

AVC: Do you find that you respond to modern work that is similar to yours, much like you said you respond to movies and older comics that are similar to yours?

CB: Hmm. [Pause.] I can like a wide variety of stuff. Actually, now that I think about it, going over it in my head… like, Dave Lapp’s stuff, or my friend Nick Maandag, who just brought out a book called Streakers, they don’t really rely on close-ups a lot, if at all. Yeah. [Laughs.] I guess their work is kind of similar to mine. I guess that’s why they’re friends with me. I suppose I do respond to the work of my contemporaries. Even though you mentioned ways that Seth and Joe are different from me, there are definitely also similarities in our work.

AVC: One thing that’s enjoyable about Paying For It for longtime fans of your work, and Seth and Joe Matt’s work too, is that this almost feels like your last adventure together, since Joe’s moved to the States and Seth doesn’t live in the city anymore. This book is at times like a nostalgic look back to when you all used to hang out and appear in each other’s autobiographical strips.

CB: Yeah, there’s definitely an element of that in the book. Although if I remember right, the book Joe’s working on right now, at least the early chapters are set in Toronto. I think he’s gonna show himself moving away from Toronto, back to the States. So I’m assuming… I don’t think I’ve actually asked him if Seth and I are characters, but I’m assuming we are. Maybe we’re not. Maybe the first scene is set in America. But I expect not. We’ll see. I’ve tried asking him some questions but he doesn’t even want to tell me how many pages he’s done.

AVC: What did you make of Matt’s complaints on Facebook about Paying For It?

CB: I don’t think I read them, but if I’ve heard right, he was complaining that I didn’t, um… What did he say?

AVC: He felt that you distilled his objection to prostitution to his being a cheapskate, when in fact he has much deeper moral objections.

CB: Yeah, that’s accurate. Joe has a very definite romantic side, and I didn’t properly convey that in the book. But of course, the book isn’t about him. He’s a side character. He can’t expect to be fully fleshed out.

AVC: One problematic aspect of Paying For It is that particularly in the appendices—and somewhat in the main text—you seem to make a logical leap from “this is the way of living that works for me” to “this is the way everyone should live.” Is that just a provocation on your part? Do you generally feel that society needs to evolve to a point where our sexual interactions become financial transactions, as opposed to the often ambiguous emotional transactions we currently have?

CB: Well, there’s a two-step thing there. First of all, I’m arguing that prostitution should be decriminalized. And many people speculate about what would happen if it were decriminalized. Lots of people say that nothing would happen, that the way people relate to each other sexually would pretty much stay the same. Some people would still seek prostitutes, and most people would continue to want to be in romantic relationships. One of the conservative arguments against decriminalization is that it would change the way people relate to each other, that it would make people less likely to want to enter into marriage, and probably more people would end up paying for sex. I find myself agreeing with that position. Though when conservatives make that argument, they’re saying, “Therefore, it’s a bad thing, and we shouldn’t decriminalize prostitution because it would change society.” I’m agreeing with them, but I see it as a good thing. I think more people would pay for sex, and I think that would be good.

The way people relate to each other sexually has changed so much in the last 50 or 60 years, certainly in the time I’ve been alive. There’s a much more widespread acceptance of homosexuality, a much more widespread acceptance of divorce. It was unusual in my childhood for married couples to break up; now, it’s much easier and much more widely accepted. So why are people thinking that if prostitution was decriminalized, it wouldn’t change people’s behavior in some way? Perhaps I’m wrong about how it would change behavior, but I think they’re not really considering how society is always changing. And if you change one thing, that’s gonna result in other things changing.

AVC: You do push some buttons, though, when you come up with a phrase like “possessive monogamy” to describe any person who’s in a committed relationship, as though they’re doing something wrong. Can you see why that term would be somewhat charged?

CB: Sure. I’m trying to wind up my readers, yeah. [Laughs.] I’m being somewhat confrontational there. But I don’t see why that’s necessarily bad.

AVC: No, but it is challenging. Somebody who’s been married happily for a long time is bound to say, “But, but…”

CB: [Laughs.] And I acknowledge that there are happy marriages. I think that people who are happily married are in the minority, but even if we say that 20 percent of married couples are happy together, that’s a lot of people. But, you know, that would mean that 80 percent are unhappy, which is even more people.

AVC: Continuing on the topic of politics, you’re running for office again, yes?

CB: Yep, I’m the Libertarian candidate in the current federal election that’s happening here in Canada.

AVC: How’s it going so far?

CB: It’s going okay. I’m not campaigning that hard, because I’m also involved in promoting this book. The election kind of happened at a bad time. I haven’t been doing any of the things I did in the last election, like I haven’t gone to any of the all-candidates meetings or debates or whatever. I’ve been kinda hoping that the media attention that this book is getting translates to votes, but we’ll see if that happens.

AVC: What are your expectations when you run a campaign like this? Do you expect to win, or just to draw attention to your causes?

CB: Oh, definitely the latter. I know there’s no way I’m going to win. If I get 1 percent of the vote, I’ll be happy.

AVC: What’s shaped your politics over time? What made you gravitate towards Libertarianism?

CB: Hmm. [Pause.] I can explain the process, I think. I suppose I’ve always been kind of distrustful of government, y’know, as a leftist in my 20s, and an anarchist in my 30s, and a libertarian in my 40s. Even as a leftist in my 20s, I was still coming at my political beliefs from a kind of distrust of government. Although it’s hard to explain why that would result in my being a leftist. [Laughs.] Do you know the writer Robert Anton Wilson? I suppose I first read about Libertarianism when I started reading him in my late 20s. So even though he didn’t shift me into being a Libertarian, he did have that paranoia about government, or certainly a distrust of government. So that was probably a big early influence on how I thought about politics.

AVC: Is there some reason so many cartoonists have such idiosyncratic political and social views? Peter Bagge is a libertarian as well, and Steve Ditko is an objectivist, and R. Crumb has his odd open marriage, and then there’s whatever Dave Sim’s got going on.

CB: [Laughs.]

AVC: Is there something about the profession that attracts individualists?

CB: Maybe because it’s only one person doing it, unlike a film, where you collaborate with people? I mean, novels are written by one person, but there’s an editing process that’s very heavy. I’m not totally sure why, but yeah, cartoonists are not shy about expressing their individual points of view. Also, we all seem kind of crazy. [Laughs.] Every cartoonist I know seems crazy. I mean, you mentioned Dave, but Seth seems crazy to me, too. Joe seems crazy. And I realize I seem crazy to other people.

AVC: Do you work every day, or only when inspiration strikes? Do you have a daily routine?

CB: Well, I’m not writing right now, because the election’s going on and I’m doing promotion on the book. But when I’m actually working on something, I don’t wait for inspiration to strike. I sit down every day somewhere between 8 or 9 o’clock and just start drawing or writing and continue on through the rest of the day. I have a pretty solid work ethic. Unless someone calls me up and suggests I go for lunch with them, I’m here working all day just about every day.

AVC: You don’t do as much illustration work as some of your peers. Was it difficult financially to move away from the serialization model and spend years working on one project, as you did with Paying For It?

CB: Sometimes. For the most part, I haven’t had that hard of a time being able to make ends meet for the last several years. The Riel book sold really well, and it continues to sell. I still do occasional commission pieces, and I got a couple of grants for Paying For It. Certainly, if I can avoid doing freelance work, I prefer to. Not just because it takes me away from drawing comics, but also because it’s just annoying having to deal with art editors, and having to read people’s articles or books or whatever. These days, if I do need to make money suddenly, I prefer to just draw something I want to draw and have someone else sell it for me on the Internet. It’s easier that way.

AVC: Do you see yourself ever returning to serialization, putting out a quarterly or semi-yearly comic?

CB: I think the comic-book market would have to change in some way, because it does seem like the serialized pamphlet is dying, at least for the type of comics I do. And it also seems that way for superhero comics, to the extent that I keep up with that business. So I don’t see that it makes sense to go back to serialization. And I don’t want to. I didn’t want to serialize the Riel book. I did it because Drawn & Quarterly wanted me to. But I had written that book out in script form totally beforehand. And that’s the way I wanted people to read it, all as one work, not chopped up into 24-page pieces.

AVC: What’s on the horizon for you? Do you know what your next project is going to be? Are you going to finish the gospels?

CB: [Laughs.] That seems unlikely at this point. I have stuff I’m interested in working on, and I’d rather work on what excites me than complete projects from the past that I’ve grown bored with.

AVC: So no more Underwater.

CB: Yeah, that’s kind of a dead project.

AVC: Do you generally think ahead about what you’re going to be doing in the years to come?

CB: Usually as I complete one project, I’m definitely thinking about what I should do next. As I was finishing Riel, I did know that I wanted to do Paying For It, and as I was finishing Paying For It, I had a couple of different things I wanted to do. I think I’ve made a decision, but I might still change my mind. I haven’t started actual work on the next project. So no, I won’t say what it is. [Laughs.]

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