Wait, What? Ep. 58.1: The Minor Fall, The Major Lift

Photobucket [Stellar fixed image courtesy of Ron Salas]

Uh, yes.  I am running sorrowfully late again, so I'll have to kinda dash through all this verbal hubbub and let you know the who's who and the what's what:

Basically? It's Wait, What? Ep. 58.1.  It's a little less than an hour.  In it, Graeme and I not only discuss new DC 52 titles like Blue Beetle, Catwoman, Red Hood & The Outlaws (which I called "Red Hood & The Outsiders" which makes more sense but it a mistake), Batman, and Wonder Woman (and more), but also Chester Brown's Paying for It and initial "sweet jeebis, is it pretty!" pre-review impressions of Craig Thompson's habibi. Oh, and there are lots of shrieks from children outside Graeme's window.  (At least he told me they were outside his window....) We apologize about that.

Anyhoo, the 'cast is in iTunes (probably) and you can listen to it here (definitely):

Wait, What? Ep. 58.1: The Minor Fall, The Major Lift

Part two is around the corner, so there's that.

Oh! And, of course, we hope you enjoy and thank you for listening!

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

And here's the big wrap-up to this week's discussion of PAYING FOR IT! I hope you relished it as much as I.

Question 5: And then my last question for you is “Did the argument work for you, or change your thinking on this issue whatsoever?” I mention this because that while I really didn’t much like the underlying book, I’m fairly naturally inclined to be on Brown’s side on this. I live in San Francisco, and, of course we’re known for liberal positions on sex, and I’m all for sex work to be very legal, but I also want to be sure that the workers are safe and healthy and well cared for and compensated. And that almost certainly entails some kind of regulation because humans are messy messy creatures. I’ve never seen a prostitute, and really don’t want to (heck, even the one time I was in a strip club [in Portland, to pick up a keg of beer for a party] I thought it was one of the most dehumanizing experiences of my life -- I can’t even imagine what sex would be like in that kind of transactional way), but I certainly support the underlying notion that consenting informed adults should be able to do much of what they want to with their own bodies. Brown didn’t sway me away from my view of “regulation is needed”, however. I don’t know if you’re closer or farther from me, but did this book change your perception, even fractionally?

ABHAY: Do I think that romantic love and marriage are evil institutions which we should replace with widespread prostitution?  No. No, I think he’s fucked in the head. You know, congratulations to the guy for finding something that works for him, but I’m not attending any church that tithes by the half-hour. As for his other, less obviously batshit arguments-- I thought he had a good response for “wouldn’t you-as-a-kid be ashamed of adult-you.”  The rest are a blur already, though.  When I do bad things, I just do bad things and be a bad person, and I say to myself “well, whatever works,” and that’s good enough for me...?  If I take music off the internet (hypothetically), I don’t spend my time trying to make idiotic arguments about the RIAA being evil, in some weird attempt to make myself feel better about being a fucking thief.  I’m too busy listening to free music and enjoying the sweet, sweet fruits of crime. Hypothetically.  Brown really reminded me of those people, the “I’m not stealing-- I’m sticking it to the RIAA” crowd, so shrilly insistent on their nobility, even though no one really cares how noble they are and plus they get to listen to free music.  See also, potheads who say things like “it comes from the Earth.”  So do tarantulas.  Theft, hookers, strippers, drugs, arson-- those things should just be their own rewards.

TUCKER: I do think the way prostitutes and sex workers get treated is fucked, and should be changed. I thought that it should be legalized before I read Paying For It, and I still feel that way after reading it. On the subject of regulation--I just feel like that’s a waste of my time to engage with. Do I think aliens should be allowed to come to Earth? Sure I do. But I’m not going to continue that thought experiment past that “sure I do” and start coming up with a bunch of future magic rules regarding these visits, because it’s a pointless exercise. If Chester Brown cares that much about sex workers and legalization, let him continue on the roads to changing the rules surrounding it, and let him propose various kinds of regulatory or non-regulatory solutions to those legalized prostitutes who live in the future. I’ve got my own pet issues that I worry about and donate money to and wish more people cared about, and I’m content to focus on those.

JEFF: I think trying to argue for the legalization of sex work by talking about a john’s experience is absolutely 100% the wrong way to argue for it, but it seems to be the approach johns go for, time and again.  I’m no expert on the subject, but hasn’t it been pretty definitively established that any culture in which sex work is illegal punishes the workers much harder than they do the customers?  Even in states here in the U.S. where johns have their pictures telecast on late night TV, that’s nothing compared to the women who end up even more openly shamed, charged with crimes, and just generally shat on.  Arguing that sex work is legal because it would make the lives of johns easier is such a fucked up and entitled argument. It sounds like someone arguing for the more humane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses because it’ll make the food taste better.

And maybe that’s why Brown assembles everything into PAYING FOR IT in the way he does: he believes any dude will gladly pay for sex if we can just get rid of the social stigma, the restrictive laws, and the lie of romantic love.  Therefore, if he can appeal to men about the benefits of legalized prostitution, the world will change for the better (because men are the ones who run the world and they’re going to be the ones who will make the change, right?), not just for johns,  but for sex workers as well. I dunno.

I do think that by showing sex work from the point of view of a john, he makes some stellar points why people should not engage in sex work. Although he doesn’t dwell on it, Brown goes from a guy who tips at every encounter to a guy who thinks, in mid-coitus, “Unfriendly, not very pretty, no blow job -- no tip for this one.”  He starts as a guy who thinks, “In the future, I’ll try to limit myself to ten minutes of sex in a thirty minute appointment,” and becomes Mr. “That she seems to be in pain is kind of a turn-on for me, but I also feel bad for her.  I’m gonna cut this short and come quickly.” [Emphasis is mine.]   When our encounters with fellow human beings become economic transactions, bit by bit we unlearn what’s important about interacting with other people -- and what’s important is literally, just that, interacting with other people -- and begin making sure the economic transaction is worth our money.

The point of paying for it is to make sure we get what we want, but over time the human interaction in sex work becomes something beside the point, as we slip down the rabbit hole of obsession and fetish. Maybe Brown didn’t continue exploring the path of “hey, I really enjoy hurting women while having sex,” but I think it’s safe to assume there are johns in the same situation who would and have: because the other person’s say in it is already (at least partially) compromised by the money, and your sense of compassion is already that much more eroded by all your transactions -- you’ve already gone from “In the future, I’ll to try limit myself...” to “...and come quickly.”

Another problem with turning human interaction into an economic transaction is it further distorts and complicates human beings’ ability to be honest with one another.  Sex workers will sometimes not want to have sex with you, just as lovers will not always want to have sex at the same time, but a sex worker will not be the lover that pushes your hand away and tells you why it’s not going to happen.  Sex workers have to have sex, because that’s what they do.  It doesn’t stop there, as we all know:  sex workers have to have sex when they don’t want to have sex, and most of them feel pressured by various forces (the money, the view of themselves as good at what they do, the knowledge you will not come as quickly if you don’t think they are enjoying themselves) to convince you they really want to have sex and they want to have it with you.

We pay a price as human beings when we force ourselves to go so heavily against everything we’ve been hardwired to feel. Many soldiers suffer from PTSD when they go, again and again, into the place in themselves that requires them to survive, to act contrary to every instinct that is telling them to flee.  And I think it is the same for many sex workers who force themselves to act contrary to every instinct and become something for you to fuck, again and again, no matter how they really feel about it.

Most of us get depressed when we have to smile at the asshole at the other end of the counter and all he’s doing is saying something incredibly stupid about who’s stronger, Hulk or Thor, or when we have to laugh at something our stupid boss tells us.  That horrible fake smile the check out person at the grocery store gives us when they hand us our change?  The look in their eyes that reveals they dislike you deeply while they’re thanking you for their business?  Brown thinks a future where being greeted by that smile and that look when we open the door to our bedroom is a really good one.  He doesn’t mind a world where we’re depressed about smiling or laughing, because he’s free of the burden of working up the confidence to talk to an attractive woman.  It seems like a spectacularly bad trade to me.

For a guy who insists that he sees sex as a deeply spiritual, Brown apparently doesn’t believe in a spirituality that requires personal sacrifice -- or as he puts it when one of his prostitutes argues for romance, “Yeah, effort.  Romantic love is work.  Call me lazy, but I don’t want to do the work.”  Although I feel sex work should be legalized and regulated, there’s a lot to recommend the world of effort -- where even when we fail to connect, we learn something about ourselves, about other people, about the way the world works.  Otherwise, we all risk becoming whores, not in the “sex for money” way of it, but in the way Henry Miller defined it in Tropic of Cancer, in the way I thought of the term when I saw Chester Brown’s face at the back of his book, his kind and not-unhandsome face which many women wouldn’t require payment to caress (unlike some of the damaged and ugly people who would never know intimacy if they weren’t willing to pay), his satisfied, reptilian face that would rather pay for it than get to know a woman he didn’t find attractive, or work to keep loving a woman he did:

Germaine was a whore all the way through, even down to her good heart, her whore’s heart which is not really a good heart but a lazy one, an indifferent, flaccid heart that can be touched for a moment, a heart without reference to any fixed point within, a big, flaccid whore’s heart that can detach itself for a moment from its true center.  However vile and circumscribed was that world she had created for herself, nevertheless she functioned in it superbly.

Savage Symposium: PAYING FOR IT (part 3 of 4)

Question #4: Question 4: Structure of the argument and choices of presentation.  I don’t know if I would have thought this if it weren’t for the appendixes, but it seems to me that Brown undercuts his own argument pretty deeply. I absolutely believe that the ending of the book really trumps much of what Brown was saying throughout, but that’s not even what I’m talking about. I’m thinking more of “most sex workers aren’t slaves” or “...aren’t on drugs”, yet as I was reading the book I thought “that woman is a sex slave” and “that one is clearly faced on something” -- and this is Brown reinterpreting through comics a recollection he had based on a jotted note on his calendar, presumably intended to support what appears to be a conscious argument. So, like, if I’m getting this feeling at a fourth-hand distance, what must the reality be like? Further, I’m not even sure that Brown picked the best examples to support his own argument -- if you really want to establish that these transactions are healthy and sane, then shouldn’t you be showing all sides of it? Most of the women were maddeningly not-people, and I kind of want them, not the customer, to tell me that they are safe. So, my question becomes: did the choices that were made of what and how to argue work for you? Not “do you buy the argument?”, mind -- more that if the argument is well constructed.

ABHAY: I didn't spend too much time with the appendices.  As a life-long Democrat, I'm rather predictably more favorable towards hearing about prostitution than Libertarianism. My family crest has "Prostitution, not Libertarianism" on it, with pictures of Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy underneath.  I got a big whiff of "the market" off the appendices and ran the other way.  Banging whores I want to hear about, but the elaborate rhetorical edifices that libertarians construct around their orgasms-- no thanks.  That's really not of significant interest of me. Especially not when Brown's "argument" relies in part on Canada's socialist health care system taking care of, e.g., the probably-underage hooker screaming "Ow" over and over while Brown fucked her.  The market and property rights didn't make sure that her pussy was okay after whatever Brown subjected it to; socialist health-care did.

There's one, though-- Appendix 3. Which-- I don't judge Brown for having sex with women for money, at all, in the slightest-- but I judge him for writing Appendix 3 because I think it's some fucking astoundingly silly shit.  I think early reviews have been exceptionally kind maybe to the point of sycophancy with respect to Appendix 3.  Appendix 3 is the one about how Chester Brown thinks the universe might operate when prostitution is "normalized"-- here's just a tiny quote from it:  "The next day, Mary tells her friends about the date.  They all have sex for money too, so none of them are shocked."  It goes on and on about Mary the Hat Clerk who Fucks For Money (Whose Mom is Also a Prostitute ... Because, I guess, Hey, All Women Are, Deep-Down...???).  And it's him describing this enchanted wonderland, Chester Brown's Whoresylvania, this magical gumdrop land where everyone is thrilled to be selling their bodies for money, rainbows sell blowjobs to marshmallows, Snuggles the Dryer-Softener Bear will kick-fuck you to climax for $100 a half-hour, et cetera.  I was not sympathetic to Appendix 3, but I suppose I imagine freedom as being something more than letting poor women decide how much they charge people to fuck them-- I guess I'm a dreamer, that way.

The other one that jumped out at me was Appendix 14 ("Exploitation"), where...Here's a quote:  "Yes, some prostitutes are exploited when most or all of their money is taken by pimps, but not all prostitutes are exploited."  That sounds reasonable-- I'd like to believe that's true, that "not all prostitutes are exploited."  However-- like Brian, I had the same reaction that...  at least a few of the prostitutes Brown actually fucked?  Exploited!  So exploited! I don’t think I agree with Matt Seneca’s argument that ALL of the women in the book are exploited-- but the foreign women raised what I hope are obvious issues. Brown seems oblivious to the fact he's promoting the benefits of being a white guy who has impoverished third world women chauffeured to his country to reduce the cost of his sexual degeneracy.  Maybe someone who worships the market blindly would be okay with the West literally ejaculating onto the faces of the Third World, but I don't know if "some are exploited, some aren't, derpdy-derp" even begins to acknowledge an iota, a sliver, a fucking fraction of the issues of consent that raises...?

Plus: I just think it's ludicrous that Brown removing any indication of the race of the prostitutes, that people are buying this ad copy that he's somehow "protecting the women" rather than himself.  Toronto's maybe the most multi-cultural city on the North American continent-- who the fuck thinks that anyone is out there saying to themselves, "Aah, the fact that Chester Brown drew the girl saying 'No Speak English' with Asian features means that it must be Susy Kwan, and I must punish her!  Your time is nigh, Suzy Kwan!"-?  That city is bursting with minorities-- Chester Brown's not outing any of them with "No Speak English."  For me, removing the women's races spoke to something darker than that.  He's drawing this comic about him running around buttfucking all these whores, but then, like, oh, saints preserve us that anyone might think there are any racial implications to the whores he's selecting.  Heavens forfend!  "Buttfucking the hookers, I applaud, but let's not bring race into this.  That would offend my delicate sensibilities."  I think doing that was a way of closing off any consideration that Brown was not just a heroic participant in the market, stabbing his property rights into dry vaginas with his half-erect penis, but also to prevent the reader from recognizing Brown as being the beneficiary/perpetrator of imperialism.

(Plus, on just a I’m-a-Creep level: I guess I was curious what kind of girls he sought out once given a level of choice that he'd not had in his life previously?  After the Knives Chau character dumped him, did he seek out young Asian girls to obtain a weird sort of revenge that he couldn't admit to himself?  Maybe I was the only one that had that question, but ...)

But do I think any of that "undercuts his argument?"  Oh, I don't know.  I don't know that I care too much because I'm not especially invested in the argument-side of what Brown was doing. I certainly don't care if guys go to see prostitutes-- I guess based on the foregoing that I’d prefer for people to buy local, though, as it turns out.  And I don't care if it gets decriminalized or regulated-- though I think I'd probably wind up preferring regulated since I live in the actual real world, and not Brown's Whore-Epcot, where we'll all get paid by the Canadian government to draw comics and we can pay the checkout girl at Anthropologie $100 for a half hour of analingus.  The city I live in decriminalized marijuana but failed to regulate it, and that’s had pluses & minuses-- based on that experience though, I suspect I’d prefer some efforts at regulation. There’s something to be said for zoning, at the very least (though I did enjoy when drug dealers converted the KFC in my neighborhood into a “pharmacy”). But besides that, I guess since I didn't need persuading to Brown's point-of-view, the question of whether his arguments do or don't hold up to the reality he's presenting didn't really matter to me, as I viewed this 40-something year old guy's need to even "make arguments" to feel good about the lifestyle he found for himself as maybe being the true tragedy of the piece, far moreso than the peculiarities of how Brown obtained sexual gratification.  It's a comic about a guy who keeps telling himself he doesn't care what other people think and then spends the entire comic proving otherwise.  It succeeds for me maybe despite Brown, not because of him...?

TUCKER: I don’t know how much further I can go down the “I think this book is crap evidence for anything serious” road without seeming like I hate Brian, Chester Brown, comics and myself. I don’t! And yet, the appendixes are curdled with stuff where Chester just says “nah, it ain’t that bad” and then he footnotes some book he read that he introduces by explicitly saying that it agrees with his point of view, and I’m left wondering: what the fuck? Guys like Steve Coll make sure to footnote page numbers and present actual quotes when they’re writing about war and corporate crime, hell, the guys who wrote the Kurt Cobain bios I read in high school even took the time to tell you where the actual words “Kurt really loved shooting up heroin” came from. Chester writes things like “human trafficking: not a big deal” and his footnote says “the best book I read about how human trafficking wasn’t a big deal is called ‘human trafficking is not a big deal’ and you should read it”. Man up, dude. Where’s all this information coming from? Who said it? Why are they right? What page is that line you’re quoting from? Take this appendix and compare it to the backmatter of any serious non-fiction book on anything--the superrunners of Africa, the original Friday Night Lights, a book about the collapse of AT&T--and you’ll see a pretty major difference in terms of what rules you’re supposed to follow when you’re playing the research paper game.

JEFF: Although I feel like I’ve been the designated Brown apologist throughout this discussion, the appendices are indefensible, plain and simple.  Everything Tucker says should be printed on a slip of paper and inserted into every edition of the book.  Unlike in the cartooning section of the book where I think Brown is in control of every choice he makes and presents exactly what he wants, I really can’t imagine Brown wants to present himself as a sloppy researcher truly uninterested in being challenged on what he thinks (or giving people the materials to do so)...and yet that’s precisely how the Brown of the appendices comes off.  They are, to put it lightly, a horrible misfire that undercuts the majority of the book.


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.



Savage Symposium: PAYING FOR IT part 1 (of 4)

As part of the 10th anniversary of The Savage Critic on the web, and since we had such a great time last year doing it with WILSON, we've decided to try and do several Savage Symposiums this year, leading with one "mainstream" and one "alternative" title. Abhay is leading the superhero one, which should see print in about two weeks, and I ended up leading this one, for Chester Brown's PAYING FOR IT.  

I asked the gang five questions, the first two of which are presented here for your reading pleasure. A question a day will follow through Friday.


Since we didn't know what our reactions would be until after the book (s) were released, I found that I wasn't a huge fan of PFI, and my questions are generally pretty bitchy. That said, I think you'll find this to be fun reading.


I suck REALLY hard because I've got no art for this, and if I have to go find some (or, more likely, scan it myself) this won't get up for another few weeks...


Anyway, enough preamble, let's get to it!


Question 1: Memoir Versus Polemic. PAYING FOR IT is subtitled as “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John”, but I actually wonder how much you found that to be true? Perhaps this is an issue of definitions, but (to me) a “memoir” doesn’t try to lead one to a point. I think that it is true that memoirs don’t need to be as strictly honest as one expects of an autobiography (or as Will Rogers said, “Memoirs means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do”), but PAYING FOR IT strikes me much more as a constructed argument that attempts to use the autobiographical form, than a memoir in and of itself. Plus, it pretty much cuts away right when it gets to what I felt was the most interesting point of the memoir -- how does a monogamous paid relationship actually work? Anyway, am I splitting hairs here? Does it succeed as a memoir? Does it succeed as a polemic?

JEFF: A good set of questions here, Bri, and I think it’s not that you’re splitting hairs with the book so much as trying to [and hopefully this will be my only exasperating pun] find a convenient hole to put it in.

Certainly, Will Rogers’ definition of a memoir doesn’t jibe with the current use of the term and hasn’t for at least a decade, if not longer. In fact, it’s probably more true to define today’s memoir as exactly the inverse:  the memoir is the refuge of drug addicts and alcoholics, adulterers and participants in incestuous relationships, crooked cops, career cheats, wastrels, rakes, and -- worst of all -- writers with literary ambitions.

But just because your definition is outdated doesn’t mean you’re wrong.  One of the many, many problematic aspects of PAYING FOR IT is that it’s neither one or the other.  It’s a memoir and it’s a polemic, and it’s not just an argument for the legalization of unlicensed sex work, but it’s also an argument against monogamy and romantic love, to boot.  (And based on how Chester Brown draws himself, you could also imagine it’s the weirdest Mr. X story ever told, but maybe only I did that.)

PAYING FOR IT  is like Thoreau’s Walden except with blow jobs instead of trees, and Walden generally doesn’t get dinged for mixing its autobiographical elements with its polemic ones.  I think PAYING FOR IT’s failures (and its successes) transcend whether it works as a memoir or a polemic. As you point out below, Brown’s admissions and adherence to his definition of a memoir end up puncturing some of his most crucial arguments.  But what appears to be your take on the book -- “PAYING FOR IT is a polemic, and a bad one because the things Brown shows contradict his points” -- show an impressive lack of generosity toward the creator.  Maybe it’s a bad polemic because it’s not supposed to be a polemic?

But then, that does beg the question -- what the fuck is this book, anyway? Having that question unresolved makes this book absurdly hard to write about in more than the most superficial way. I hope I can get a better take on what it might be and how it functions as we proceed.

I will say this, though:  PAYING FOR IT has given me a lot to think about and I think that makes  it, at the very least, a “not-failure.”

ABHAY: I don’t think I read enough memoirs to have strong “genre expectations” where they’re concerned.  I think it succeeded for me as a memoir-- just maybe not one concerning prostitution. For me, it’s a story about this guy, growing old alone, alone except for some equally, uh, “eccentric” artist friends, and his desperate need to rationalize to them something unusual he finds that makes him happy, however little they seem to care.  He can’t accept just being a quote-unquote “bad person,” or accept that Joe Matt’s stepmother judges him, or simply keep his personal life to himself—the story is his struggle to make what he’s doing not only acceptable, but “right”, morally correct, until at the end, he’s “succeeded” and reasoned & rationalized & pontificated his way to something almost resembling a happy ending.  As a story about prostitution, I’m not sure if it meant much to me.  But as a story about people’s need for acceptance, just to be accepted as you grow older, maybe about friendship—looked at that way, I suppose that I think it succeeds quite a bit.  I think it’s a very sad comic, though. I don’t know that it succeeds in a way that Brown intended, to the extent that matters.

So, I think I differ with most of the reviews I’ve seen in that I think cutting away from the “most interesting point” was the best choice Brown made.  I’m not sure if this is intentional or not by Brown but...  by doing so, he presents this relationship with this woman he “loves” as being secondary to telling Seth about it.  I think it’s a more meaningful and telling detail that we saw THAT instead of him expressing his love directly to his employee.

(I don’t know.  It’s that weird thing with memoirs where… are we supposed to judge his life?  He’s selling his life. But I know people get queasy about that sort of thing, and heck, I suppose I do too…)

As a polemic though, I’d suggest it’s a failure.  But come on:  how many people are really buying this comic with an open mind?  Political art in general for me-- there’s always that thing of “congratulations on blowing the minds of the well-meaning liberals trying to impress one another with how cool & laid back they are.” Still—he’s debating Joe Matt and Seth…?  Clarence Darrow’s not really breaking a sweat with those two, by the looks of things.  To succeed as a polemic, Brown would have had to have engaged with the world around him, and talked to educated, engaged people with differing viewpoints on the issues, instead of beating-up on straw men.  He’d have to have been Joe Sacco, instead of drawing himself lecturing Seth. Plus:  Brown presents himself as being a broken weirdo riding a bicycle.  I don’t think it really challenges reader’s prejudices to find out that broken weirdos bicycle to-and-fro brothels.  (That absurd scene of Seth telling Brown to “get a girlfriend” – sure, sure, there are probably acres of Canadian women, waiting for a hoser with a Schwinn ten-speed to pedal into their lives.)  While it’s perhaps true that odd guys like prostitutes, it’s certainly been my experience that way, way more guys than fit that  description have paid for sex, just thinking of people I’ve known or met, friends of friends, etc. I’ve known a wide range of guy-- most of whom I’d call “decent” and “normal”-- who’ve paid for sexual encounters, and none of them have been like Chester Brown.  Hell, it’s been ALL of our experiences, thanks to Tiger Woods.  Eliot Spitzer.  Hugh Grant. Etc.  I think Chester Brown damaged his case by virtue of being Chester Brown...?  Maybe that’s cruel, though.

TUCKER: I thought it succeeded as a memoir under the most basic “googled a definition of the word” rules. This is some stuff Chester Brown did, some conversations he remembers having, and his personal beliefs on the subject of prostitution. That’s enough for it to be a memoir, in my book. I’m inclined to agree with Abhay in that I think this story ends up being a lot more about the fact that Chester Brown has some unusual and unpopular beliefs that end up making this a memoir more about how Chester might be a pretty unusual person than it does a book about prostitution or any other subject he might have planned on. I’m going to forget about the appendix and remember Seth calling him a robot, basically.

On the question of whether its a polemic or not--I can see where people might say that it is in terms of the way Chester presents his belief system, but I just can’t take it seriously, and I’ll just go ahead and say that I find it absurd that anyone else would do so. The appendix to the book reads like one of those 9/11 truther websites, only this is about why human trafficking isn’t that bad because Chester underlines the word “want” in the phrase “they want to be trafficked”, and the hits go on from there. I wasn’t totally surprised by the junior high school library card essay club nature of the notes half in the back--by the time I’d gotten there, I’d already seen the way Chester “debated” these subjects with his friends--but I was still a bit surprised at how much effort seems to have been put into presenting a dilettante's attempt at rationalizing his behavior as if it were on the same level as a Pulitzer winning investigative team. Early on, Chester shoots down a perfectly good argument from Seth (in the Odysseus/romantic love discussion) by asking if Seth has any stories to back it up. When Seth says “if there is one, I don’t remember it”, Chester chooses to use Seth’s lack of proof AS proof...for the Chester Brown point of view. That’s the kind of “argument” going on here, and while I’ve got zero problems with that as local color for a memoir, and would go so far as to say that re-reading all of the Seth scenes alongside Seth’s own appendix makes it an even better memoir, it’s one of the main reasons that I don’t see any reason why someone would engage with this thing as a political animal. I’d point anyone towards Seth’s own words who argues differently.

CHRIS: I'm going to bypass everyone else's definitions of memoir and look at PAYING FOR IT based on what I assume is the reader's expectation for any memoir, be it a conquering hero's victory lap, the confession of a scandalized figure, or Some Quirky Person's Quirky Story: to get some insight on the subject of the memoir.

On that level, PAYING FOR IT didn't work for me as a memoir. I knew going in that Chester Brown was a Canadian cartoonist that championed the patronization of sex workers over monogamous romance. I knew he was friends with Seth and Joe Matt, and that he used to date that lady from MuchMusic. I think I even knew he was a libertarian. If the reader didn't know any of that, they can read the dust jacket of the book or skim his concise Wikpedia entry.

Brown's decision to minimize any aspects of his life that didn't involve being a john is understandable, if frustrating. Like Abhay, I think his conversations with Matt and Seth were the most illuminating and engaging narrative spine. But to structure the book as essentially a catalog of all his paid orgasms, and then seemingly take pains to genericize all but the Yelp Review-iest portions of said orgasms made large stretches of the book a slog for me. For an act that he posits is so 'sacred', he might as well have written a 'memoir' about all of the times in the past eight years that he's scored cocaine, or shoplifted a book, or shit in someone's hat. Actually, I bet all of those would have more variety in their telling. Unless of course Brown decided that to 'protect' others that he would draw all of the hats as a Seth-style fedora, and change the names of the stolen books.

As a polemic, it succeeded in feeling like a polemic. But I had the same reaction as Tucker to the level of argumentation. It didn't help that a few years ago I read Against Love: A Polemic -- at the behest of a Canadian girl, now that I think of it, what's with Canadians? -- and it covered much of the same ground, except it was written by a college professor who understands how to argue and cite resources. I didn't find it any more compelling than Seth's argument, but I could at least admire the structure.


Question 2: Entertainment Versus Argument. I’m not certain that I’ve read anything much like PAYING FOR IT before, primarily because I think that it mostly functions as an argument above all else. This isn’t why I, as an individual, read comics (or, for that matter, consume most other media) -- it isn’t that all work would need to be fiction, but more that non-fiction work should either be properly objective (like, say, LOUIS RIEL) or “entertaining” (like, say PYONGYANG or even PERSEPOLIS). Even in cases where it’s clear that the author has a clear point of view on what they are discussing (say, MAUS), I expect to be “entertained” by the story. Does this make me a obnoxious reader? Is this expectation fair to the work, and were YOU entertained by it? For me, I really flashed back to CEREBUS #186 more than anything else, and thought “am I supposed to be enjoying spending my time with this?” I can’t ever imagine reading this again, whereas I go back to my first four examples on a fairly regular basis.

JEFF: Aughhhhhh!  Can I just say that for a moment, here?  Aughhhhh!

I think your questions do a fantastic job of laying down a framework for discussing the book, B, but I’m finding myself reacting more to your framework than to the book itself.  Let’s just say that there are three levels of struggle going on with me here:  (1) I’m struggling with whether your very common-sense definitions are inappropriate just for this book, or for art in general;  (2) I’m struggling with how to define PAYING FOR IT, which is great at resisting classification and terrible at accepting it; and (3) I’m struggling with whether I can consider the book a success even if I decide it fails at what I decide it’s trying to do.

Whether or not entertainment was PAYING FOR IT’s intent, I was entertained by this book.  I was entertained by how Chester Brown looked like Mr. X.  I was entertained by how much Joe Matt came off as selfish, insecure, more than a little weaselly, and yet still fully rounded as a character. I was especially entertained by Appendix 3, in which Chester Brown creates the world’s worst argument for prostitution by imagining a future in which everyone has sex with anyone they don’t find abhorrent as long as they are paid -- it was like reading a Jack T. Chick tract from Bizarro Earth!  I was entertained by CB’s drawing of himself in tighty-whities.  I was entertained by the time I spent trying to imagine how Brown might score on tests for mild autism.  I was entertained by the idea Brown thinks he knows the lives of sex workers because he’s been a john, and how that might be similar/dissimilar to the way viewers might think they know the life of a creator because they’ve beheld their art.

Entertainment isn’t the right word in many cases here.  Maybe it’s something like “engagement”?  For example, I’m reluctant to say I was “entertained” by the scene in which Brown admits to being turned on by the woman who keeps saying “ow!” while he has sex with her -- but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was...I dunno, enthralled?  Trying to figure out why Brown would admit such a thing took up a certain amount of active thought, you know what I mean?  Is Brown trying to portray himself in a neutral light?  A positive light?  Is he trying to play “fair” with the reader?  Was he totally unaware of how dehumanizing it is to portray every sex worker as faceless?

For that matter, why does he think someone will recognize a sex worker’s face from a caricature?  Why does he think he can’t create new faces, new names?  Why does he tell us he drew “their bodies accurately, or as accurately as my memory allows”?  If Brown sees sex “as  sacred and potentially spiritual” (as he tells us in Appendix 15), why does he remove every emotional component from his sexual encounters?  Why does Brown have a nimbus of light in many of his panels, but not others?  Why does every sexual encounter have that nimbus?  Is that his definition of the spiritual?  Why does that book end with the picture of Brown?  Why did I shudder when I saw it?

These considerations don’t “entertain” me, but I find them engaging as hell.  And I feel a certain appreciation for Brown for allowing me to consider these things because he stays so true to...whatever the hell he’s staying true to.  Because he stays true to it, I’m able to come to some conclusions I wouldn’t have been able to if Brown had been more willing to manipulate me or prevaricate.

ABHAY: I think I’d classify it as a “personal essay.”  Those are pretty common.

I don’t know if I’d call PAYING FOR IT “entertaining”, but I’m not sure if we all have the same definition of that term.  (Especially as I’m not a PERSEPOLIS fan).  But it’s a provocative piece of work, and maybe that has its place, too.  I think it’s more provocative and suggests more for the reader to think about than a number of the other comic memoirs I’ve read (e.g. FUN HOME, say)-- and so I would think at least some select audiences would find it “entertaining,” by virtue of that fact. There were a few pages where I was creeped-out by what he was showing or the fact he’d made the comic at all, namely page 1 to the final page that I read.  I think I had the same reaction as Jeff to the author photo.  I went “UGH” or “YIKES” a couple times out loud.  Whether that’s “entertaining,” or we need a different word for it, I don’t know, but I have no regrets. (Seth’s line about Brown & Joe Matt was certainly funny).  My reaction to most comics is “What were they even trying to do?  Why did they even bother? Why is this taking place at an AA meeting?” So, I prefer being skeeved-out to feeling nothing. And I definitely got to feel skeeved-out lots and lots, so.

And heck, some of the jokes were funny—I certainly hope that Brown bicycling away from his “conquests” was meant to be humor, at least.  Enough of it was funny to me that I guess I took the non-lecture chunks to be intentional black comedy and not something unintentional.  Though, I thought there was some fine unintentional comedy, too.  You know, part of the comedy of PAYING FOR IT for me is that Brown’s looking at the rest of the world, saying “Look at how crazy all these OTHER assholes are.”  I think that’s fucking hilarious.  It’s funny for me that Brown can’t abandon his need to judge the rest of the world, no matter how shitty his life gets-- the Good Lord knows that’s the road I’m on, so here’s to the good life! Did Brown intend it as a comedy, that the ultimate endpoint of the world-view expressed in alternative comics is a bald man thinking the rest of the world is crazy while he grunts over his imported sex slave hiding her face with her hair so she doesn’t have to see the skeletal rictus he calls an O-Face?  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  Is it technically comedy when you’re the only one laughing?  I don’t know.  I don’t know.  Are we supposed to judge his life?  Here we are.

I don’t think I’m interested enough in the subject matter to have sought it out for myself if we weren’t doing this. There’s an old Dennis Miller line, back before he became so awful— something like “The most interesting thing in the world to me is my orgasm, and the least interesting thing in the world to me is your orgasm.”  You know, I bought the Winshluss PINOCCHIO the same week—I’m much more taken by that.  I thought that was significantly, significantly more impressive.

Since I didn’t need persuading on the issue of prostitution-- I’m basically okay with whatever people want to do—for me, it’s nothing I’m especially excited about because the book didn’t add to much more than an exercise in “Look at me.”  Maybe that’s true of all memoirs; I’m just not a memoir guy-- I’m too self-centered. I get my “Look at me” needs filled quite sufficiently by the internet.   This comic would be very impressive if the internet doesn’t exist—but as it does... You can read the diaries of a prostitute at the McSweeneys site, not exactly a hotbed of lasciviousness—discussion of such things is not particularly hidden from view or noteworthy.  And the act of an artist revealing something startling and unseemly about their lifestyles for their commercial gain—shit, I don’t know why anyone would find that very surprising.  I suppose these things are rare for comics but … so is intelligence, wit, craft, not-hating-women-constantly, charm, originality—shit, once we start making that list, we’ll be here all fucking day.  And-- and I don’t know.  I’m rambling.  Sorry.  So, in conclusion, I think Frank Miller said it best when he said, “Whores.”

TUCKER: It’s probably worth mentioning that I only read and decided to participate in this questionnaire after reading Abhay’s above response.

BRIAN: And I just want to jump back in here and second that Winshluss PINOCCHIO recommendation...

TUCKER: Lemme third that one for you. That Pinocchio book is incredible.