Savage Symposium: PAYING FOR IT (Part 2 of 4)

Here's Question #3.  

Question 3: Craft Versus Presentation. PAYING FOR IT has a rigid grid, which is common for Chester Brown’s work, but he’s moved to an eight panel grid for this book, while LOUIS RIEL, for example, was a six panel grid. I personally found this choice (despite the now white bordering) to be incredibly cramped and, because of the smaller panels, “not comic-y”. This isn’t helped, in my mind, by the camera choices, which are a whole lot of middle shots, or repeated shots (virtually every sex scene is staged in the exact same way). Brown also (and stop me if I’m piling on here) simplified his style, to my eye, for the smaller panels -- many faces and figures are barely rendered, and while there is still a fair amount of cross-hatching and whatnot, the overall impression is very different than you’d take from RIEL. Again, purely for this reader, at the end of reading PAYING FOR IT (especially because there’s so much text at the back) I found myself thinking “Just why was this a comic, again?” because I think that I believe that it would have functioned just as well as straight text. I mean, all the way to the point that there’s really only one scene that I can recall as visually interesting, and that involves Brown’s penis. Is my assessment too harsh? Is this “good cartooning”?

ABHAY: I'm not an expert on this kind of thing, but. Like, I don't know if any of this is going to make any sense, but I guess how I think about it: 6-panel grid, you're dealing with square-r panels than an 8-panel, which has composition & storytelling implications, i.e. with the 8-panel, you can do more storytelling via the composition, by putting a character on the left-side or the right-side of a panel.  That's more "meaningful" with a rectangle-- it has more potential storytelling value.  So, as an example on pages 37-41, when Brown's about to go to a prostitute for the first time, he's on the left side of the panel through-out that sequence until he hands the prostitute the money when he "crosses-over" suddenly to the right side of the panel.  Which has a meaning we can read into it, on its own terms.  Is it an intentional choice?  Fuck if I know, but we can think of it as being one as it makes a sort of sense, and write little essays about it, and blah blah blah yay blogs.  I don't know about generally-- like, compositionally, I don't know if there's any difference in applying shit like the rule-of-thirds between the two-- I couldn't tell you that, and just glancing through PAYING FOR IT, I don't see that Brown's a stickler much for rule-of-thirds especially. (Rule of thirds is a camera thing that... you put objects of interests at the intersections of horizontal and vertical 1/3rd marks, and it helps to create a clearer image; I feel like photographers talk about it more though I've overheard comic artists talking about it among themselves, a couple times).

But all that said, I'm not a huge 8-panel fan anymore-- I think it traps artists in "cinematic" language and thinking, solutions.  You know: 6-panel's the language of Kirby and Jeff Smith-- I think it's more of a cartoonist's dialect, than 8-panel which I've always thought writers got off on more, maybe...?  Like, I think you're more likely to hear about Dave Lapham's STRAY BULLETS (which was all 8-panel, of course) from comic writers than comic artists...? Guys who want comics to be movies--  that's what goes through my head when I see an 8; that's the weird prejudice I have. (12-panel-- I couldn't tell you why, but 12 panel seems just really ugly and inelegant to me. I really-- I find those noxious, and I couldn't tell you why. 16's seem like a cartoonist thing and not a writer thing-- I love a 16, but it's ... it's MTV; you look at how Miller used it in DARK KNIGHT and he's just moving constantly-- he's less rigid about his grid than Brown, but the grid still drives him towards this absurd hyperactivity that I'm really fond of. 9 panel... people say the 9's are tough to do-- I can see how that'd be, having to deal with vertical rectangles instead of horizontal rectangles.  So I don't know-- I think this is the kind of shit you need hands-on-paper experience to understand, more than I have).  Anyways, with re: PAYING FOR IT, I think he made the right choice because he needed to linger in scenes, and it seems like he wanted the camera to be more of an objective presence than a subjective one (which I think was a very strong choice, personally); plus, long scenes in limited locations.  6 panel's too dramatic / bombastic for that-- Jack Kirby's WHOREFUCKING DINOSAUR, or whatever, that's what I'm seeing in my head (and it's magical!); 16's too jittery -- imagine watching Chester Brown fucking hookers through one of those Battlestar Galactica cameras, or like it's the D-Day scene of PRIVATE RYAN-- 16's would freak people out too much; 9 panel might have worked but... I just think a 9 would have made it even less visual. I think he'd have lost the benefits of ... a horizontal rectangle is how we actually view the world, so he'd have lost the benefits of peripheral vision...?  Those panels of Brown walking through Toronto, where you can see the setting around him--- I thought those were the best panels in the book...?  I really enjoyed those as drawings.  But I couldn't tell you if it'd have subjectivity/objectivity implications.  I don't think so because... well, one could hardly accuse the "camera" in WATCHMEN of being overly subjective. I don't know.  Maybe I have something against 9's, I don't know.  I don't know.  I always thought the Europeans had the better idea, where if you look at, like, Hugo Pratt, Franquin, Herge-- everything's on 4 tiers, but within any one tier, they'll do 1, 2, 3 panels depending on what they need, so they have the rigidity of a grid and the timing of a grid, but with some flexibility, more sensitivity to story.  It's the difference between classical music and jazz.  But Brown's comics seem like classical music, so him using strict grids makes sense to me.  PAYING FOR IT, it fucking ain't exactly CORTO MALTESE.

I think the sex scenes looking the same was on purpose.  Or should have been on purpose.  Brown has all this anxiety about the act-- he calls it "vaginal intercourse" at one point (I liked that part), but as drawn-- he doesn't draw it as being some crazy big deal.  I liked that choice personally-- I thought it suggested more self-awareness from Brown than the rest of the book.  It's what made the lecture scenes kind-of so sad for me, that he seemed like he had some ability to see what was funny about himself, buried under all that rationalizing. I was more interested in that, his capacity to see himself as a silly person, his humanity than his mere capacity to reason.  But.  Also: I certainly didn't have a problem with repeating panels! Well, actually, those were distracting for me because having an interest in repeating panels, I spent ... I spent more time thinking about how Brown was approaching the repeating panels than I did thinking about the ethics of prostitution.  Brown didn't just copy-paste-- each panel of the "repeating panels" has minute differences-- at least if he repeated, I couldn't catch him (and I would say that I tried unusually hard to).  Which... I guess Brown can't afford a computer or digital art tools-- and has a heightened interset in having original art to sell or display at gallery shows-- but... Those repeating panels are the kind of thing where knowing how to use Photoshop or Manga Studio might have really sped the plow for the guy...

As for whether it "needed to be a comic," or if it took advantage of the form, I think maybe.  I guess some people think it could have just been an essay instead...?  It's not the most visually gratifying comic, no, I'll grant you that.  But I don't think an essay would have been quite as creepy-as-fuck or as clinical in its depiction of the sex work, and the work would have suffered without those things.  He’s trying to “de-mystify” the prostitution experience, and an essay would leave too much to the overactive imaginations of his readers-- and fail for that reason.  Also, with an essay, we’d have been stuck purely with the dreary "I know things" Chester Brown, and ... that wasn't the part of the book I was interested in so...

TUCKER: The only other things I’ve read by Brown are The Playboy, I Never Liked You and Underwater, and I thought all of those ill-prepared me for how uninteresting this book was on a visual level. I think this is a comic because Brown couldn’t have written a book about the same subject and gotten that published. By drawing it--even in this stilted, precious fashion that I freely admit has certainly grabbed the admiration of a wide swath of intelligent readers and critics who I believe are worth paying attention to--he’s able to get away with what struck me as an basic inability to recognize the emotional suffering (potential and/or actual) of the women he encountered throughout the last decade or so that he’s been doing this. I don’t think he would’ve escaped that criticism as thoroughly as he has if he’d been forced to write an actual book.

JEFF: I see your point, Mr. Stone, but I gotta at least partially disagree: Brown is a cartoonist.  It’s all he’s ever done, at least professionally.  Do you really think the reason he’s not gonna do a book of prose is because the graphic novel is easier to slip past the gatekeepers who published and positively reviewed, I dunno, Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?

TUCKER: I don’t think it’s a gatekeeper type situation. I just don’t think there’s anything substantial here that would merit attention if the book were in a purely prose form. Brown isn’t open enough about what’s going on in his life for this to be an impressive (or interesting) memoir, and he hasn’t done enough hard work for this to be a valid political or sociological treatise. This thing only exists because the standards that comics extends towards non-fiction are incredibly low and the field itself is so barren. Basically, if you can spell your own name and draw yourself in a functional, recognizable fashion, you’re going to look impressive alongside the shit that populates most non-fiction comics.

JEFF: I agree mainstream reviewing standards are pretty lax: apart from a genuinely good turn of phrase or two (such as referring to Brown as looking like “a praying mantis with testicles”), Dwight Garner’s review in the NYT was about as softball a review as it gets.  Although maybe I’ve been steadily acclimated by Brown’s (and compatriot Joe Matt’s) willingness to previously discuss their own sexuality in detail:  Garner refers to the book as “squeamish-making” which is pretty much how I felt, say, when encountering “The Man Who Would Not Stop Shitting” in ED THE HAPPY CLOWN or Brown showing us all how to “Do The Chester” (as Peter Bagge called it) in THE PLAYBOY (or I NEVER LIKED YOU, I can’t remember which) but which I didn’t really feel here.

As for the six v. eight panel grid, if I remember correctly, Brown in the past used to draw his panels one at time on a separate sheet of paper, and then connect them on the page later.  Assuming he still does so now, it’s highly possible Brown drew every panel in the book then decided on a grid that hit a page-count that allowed him to tell the story he wanted in a format that was still affordable.

I don’t know.  Maybe I’m giving too much weight to Brown’s previous work (work I’ll gladly confess to not having revisited in a very long time, and I should also cop to never being able to get into UNDERWATER, not even a little) but his work has always seemed to be about neutrality and, for lack of a better word, disengagement.

If you read the first five issues of YUMMY FUR when they were published, I think you’d get the impression Brown was an ironic provocateur, putting a man’s head on the end of Ed’s penis, showing a guy shitting until the toilet overfilled, showing vampire girls from Hell cavorting nude...and placing all of that next to New Testament texts of Jesus.  But if you take Brown’s statements in interviews at face value (which I do), he was in fact engaging in an act of purging:  not only from the stuff he considered disgusting (pissing, shitting, body horror, and other stuff that came up while creating ED in a stream of consciousness way) but from religion. Brown had been raised religiously and, up until a certain stage in his life, had believed in Jesus.

While the impulse is to say his New Testament stories are Brown purging himself of religion, it’s more accurate to say he was trying to purge himself of the results of purging religion, if that makes any sense.  His New Testament work is stripped clean of anything that might suggest the stories are untrue, of any of the knee-jerk reactions of a disappointed believer.

Brown wants, more than anything else I think, to be a rationalist, to present things neutrally and cleanly, without judgment. If the text sections of PAYING FOR IT are unbelievably awkward, I think in no small part that’s because Brown has never argued for anything in his art before.  He has hit the age of fifty without ever trying to espouse anything (except, I suspect, in the aborted UNDERWATER), which makes him relatively unique as a creative artist.

All of which is to say:  I think Brown’s cartooning in PAYING FOR IT is perhaps a perfect distillation of Brown’s work, in which he tries, at every opportunity, to withdraw anything he sees as an emotional manipulation of the reader.  The list of what he decides to leave out is pretty mind-boggling when you think about it:  close-ups, panel variation on the page, fucking facial expressions. So for me, the eight panel grid isn’t as emotionally distancing as Brown’s refusal to move in tighter than a two shot.  Brown, Seth, and Matt are barely even cartoons; they’re schematics in a diagram, a notation that allows you to keep track of who is saying what.

I understand why Brian would reject this but I think it’s both daring and intriguing:  what’s left of cartooning when you take out what most people think of as the cartoony stuff? It’s a question we’ve seen Kevin Huizenga and Chris Ware explore, but nowhere to the degree we see here. (Or to put it more honestly, it’s never resonated with me as much as it does here.)

We are able to recognize what’s going on, certainly, and we are able to come to conclusions.  My point is, is if Brown were a lesser artist, we would never be able to see anything but what he wants us to see.  We could only hypothesize on what was going on by recognizing the work’s internal bias and extrapolating its opposite.

But, here, I do think it’s very easy to see Brown in ways he wouldn’t “want” us to see him, or in ways that aren’t what he would think of as germane to his point, but we’re still able to see those things precisely because he has gone to such great lengths to try and bleach out all bias beforehand.  That’s the work of a pretty great cartoonist to me.

CHRIS: I have very little to add here, save to say that the most interesting thing about the art and layout for me was all the empty space at the end of chapters. Sometimes it worked as a void where all the things Brown is choosing not to discuss are hiding. Other times it punctuated what amounted to a punchline. But as often as not, it really just felt like Brown ran out of panels about that particular bit. From what I remember of Brown’s earlier work -- I believe I’ve read I NEVER LIKED YOU and THE PLAYBOY -- he always did a lot with negative space, and I liked the disconnected, almost dreamlike feel it gave to those works. It’d be a shame if the explanation for it was as prosaic as “he was just pasting shit down to fit a page requirement”, but even if that is the sole motivation, it worked with the varied panel sizes and brushstrokes of those other books far better than it did here.