Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being A John

May 6, 2011 | Graphic novels

Paying for it

It’s pretty clear that Chester Brown is a robot. Well, to be fair, he could also be at least part space alien.

Even some of his closest friends and colleagues agree.

Either way, he’s clearly not like the rest of us and is definitely marching to the beat of his own drummer. But since the Torontonian is also one of the most unique and gifted graphic novelists in the world, most people aren’t too worried about investigating the origins of his construction/hatching/etc.

Perhaps the best argument for Brown being built and not born comes in his mesmerizing new autobiographical book, Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being A John (Drawn & Quarterly, 292 pages, $24.95).

The story begins in 1996, when his longtime girlfriend, media personality Sook-Yin Lee, tells Brown she’s falling in love with another man — but doesn’t necessarily want to end things with him and certainly doesn’t want them to stop living together.

With glasses covering his eyes and his slightly gaunt visage betraying no emotion, Brown agrees she should pursue the object of her affection and he calmly tells his friends, Seth and Joe Matt (the other two thirds of Toronto’s Holy Trinity of cartoonists), he doesn’t feel jealous at all.

Then Sook-Yin starts sleeping with her new beau — in the room next door.

But Brown, while he admits his sexual relationship with her is over, says he’s still not angry or jealous. In fact, he’s quite proud of that fact (not that his facial expression changes in the least).

Then the new boyfriend moves in with them.

And that’s when something changes (though not with Brown’s unfailingly stoic face). After witnessing (or at least hearing through thin apartment walls) the ups and downs of a monogamous relationship, he becomes convinced that he never wants to have a girlfriend again; that he’s done with the idea of romantic love.

Clearly, it does not compute.

There’s only one hitch in his plan: Sex.

After nearly three years of celibacy, Brown eventually begins to ponder the concept of prostitution. He believes it could be the perfect solution for a socially awkward man who has no interest in love and no ability to pick up random women.

With a little coaching from a book by sexpert Dan Savage, an emboldened Brown decides he’s willing to pay to satisfy his needs.

And, after a little bit of investigation and effort to overcome paranoia, he finally makes it happen. (Although his facial expressions still don’t belie his feelings about it.)

While most people would be trepidatious to ever discuss going through with this act, Brown, who describes the experience as transformative, proudly shares the details of his first encounter with his friends — including Sook-Yin.

While facing the inevitable barrage of question regarding safety, morality, ethics and the like, Brown counters every blow with his own reasons why this works for him. It’s a pretty impressive evolution from the guilt-wracked young Brown readers first encountered in 1992’s The Playboy.

What follows is a shockingly frank account of the all the prostitutes he saw — 22 in total, usually about one every three weeks — over the next five years.

And while Brown takes very specific care to never show the faces of the women he saw or reveal anything about them that could make them identifiable, the candour with which he approaches this generally taboo subject frankly redefines the graphic part of graphic novels.

Now there is simply no doubt this book is going to be controversial. The open advocation of partaking in the services of prostitutes as an alternative to monogamy likely isn’t for the faint of heart. And while Brown’s rather thorough appendix and notes — most of which read like excerpts lifted straight out of the Libertarian handbook (he’s been the federal party’s candidate in Trinity-Spadina the past two elections) — do make a good case for decriminalization of prostitution, it easy to see how his stance opens him up to criticism.

Brown’s odyssey is undeniably engaging and readers longing for his return to autobiographical tales after the radical departure of 2004’s award-winning Louis Riel are sure to have smiles on their faces — even if he never will.

You must be logged in to post a comment.