Chester Brown Pays For It
May 16, 2011 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Chester Brown's autobiographical works such as I Never Liked You (1.3 MB PDF) placed #38 on The Comics Journal's list of the 100 Best Comics of the 20th Century. In his new graphic novel, Paying For It, he "calmly lays out the facts of how he became not only a willing participant in but also a vocal proponent of one of the world's most hot-button topics--prostitution".
posted by Trurl (46 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Your last link seems to go to a link farm.
posted by boo_radley at 9:10 AM on May 16, 2011

last link is b0rken :( Someone forgot to renew their domain.
posted by clicking the 'Post Comment' button at 9:11 AM on May 16, 2011

Man, first Dave Sim and now this?
posted by to sir with millipedes at 9:11 AM on May 16, 2011

Hm. It's working fine for me. Here is the Google cache.
posted by Trurl at 9:12 AM on May 16, 2011

Even the Google cache link goes to a link farm!
posted by baf at 9:17 AM on May 16, 2011

Because I don't want to be pointlessly mean, again, about this literally cartoonish libertarian, I'll just mention the Red Umbrella project to grand amnesty to sex workers in New York so they'll come forward and talk to the police about the recent killings targeting sex workers in the area because criminalization hurts people in more then one way.
posted by The Whelk at 9:17 AM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

He wants it both legal and unregulated? Ah, libertarians, is there any problem which your solution won't infinitely worsen?
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:18 AM on May 16, 2011 [20 favorites]

Even the Google cache link goes to a link farm!


Anyway, it's a May 10 R. Fiore column in The Comics Journal titled "Some Girls Work in Factories, Some Girls Work in Stores".
posted by Trurl at 9:24 AM on May 16, 2011

Yeah, I get a link farm/inactive domain too. Even the Google Cache goes to an inactive domain page. Refresh your cache and try again, Trurl. You might want to screencap the page first, of course.

That being said, a few points about Chester Brown:

Louis Riel is mandatory reading for every Canadian, or should be, at least.
• I was acquainted with James Turner, super genius artist, for a while a few years back, and he lived in the same building as Brown; apparently Brown was circa 2005 still drawing everything he creates on a wooden block he holds in his lap.
Ed The Happy Clown is one of those things that seemed brilliant at the time, but doesn't hold up that well.
• It is, however, the perfect comic with which to indulge your "Sook-Yin Lee as a naked vampire" fetish.
• The whole "Libertarian!!!" thing seems kind of dumb, given that Brown has absorbed enough Canada Council for the Arts money for his work over the years to choke a tiny horse (including $16K for Paying For It). Mind you, that level of cognitive dissonance is kind of par for the libertarian course.
posted by Shepherd at 9:26 AM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

The TCJ site is down this morning, but should be back up this afternoon.
posted by Catblack at 9:26 AM on May 16, 2011

For those of you who haven't read his work before, he's a fantastic cartoonist, but reading his stuff about his personal life is kind of a 'watching a car wreck' experience. So it's generally understood that you don't take him as an example of how to live.

(Though I am in favor of legalizing it)
posted by lumpenprole at 9:27 AM on May 16, 2011

Well this certainly isn't helping the believe that comics guys are all stunted time bombs of impotent rage surrounded by a confusing world they neither engage with nor understand. Can we just get a ban on memoirs in general until we sort this out?
posted by The Whelk at 9:32 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Quoted from a recent interview with The Toronto Star, regarding his Libertarian Party candidacy and the arts grants he has received in the past:

"If I ever did get elected, I would oppose the Canada Council, so it certainly seems hypocritical," (Brown) says. "But to me, there’s a difference between giving money and taking money. The government shouldn’t be giving out money, but I have no problem taking it if they are giving it out."

In other words: Screw You, I Got Mine. Lovely sentiment, that.
posted by spoobnooble at 9:33 AM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]

He needs the money, sounds like he's got an expensive hobby.
posted by The Whelk at 9:34 AM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

I haven't read Paying For It yet, (I haven't decided yet if I want to read it at all), but from reading I Never Liked You, it's clear that he experienced some serious childhood trauma. His whole argument for prostitution seems like an elaborate way of rationalizing his emotional attachment issues. His arguments for legalization may (or may not) make sense, but they're completely besides the point. Chester would be far better off examining why he feels he needs to see prostitutes in the first place.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 9:45 AM on May 16, 2011

His biography of Louis Riel is one of the most entertaining and informative looks at politics/history in Canada. Well worth finding. Always a big fan of Chester Brown.
posted by Fizz at 9:48 AM on May 16, 2011

apparently Brown was circa 2005 still drawing everything he creates on a wooden block he holds in his lap

At the 2010 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, there was a panel consisting of Chester Brown, Seth, James Sturm, Jim Woodring and Daniel Clowes. A bunch of guys around approximately my age, late-40s, who kept circling back to what it's like growing old while drawing comics, a kind of mid-career retrospective for all of them. At some point, one of them mentioned that another artist they all know now draws using a computer. A look of horror came over all their faces, especially that of Seth, who probably had the same look when someone told him a guy with a horse doesn't deliver milk in bottles to your house anymore.

When I wandered through the Festival this year, Brown was there at the front signing this new book. He looked to be doing brisk business.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:51 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

While I do sometimes find myself thinking "I wish this thing that I want to continue doing was legal, and therefore less risky to me personally!", I very rarely assemble a whole political philosophy around that notion.
posted by penduluum at 9:55 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yipe. Googling Chester Brown's ex-girlfriend is super NSFW.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:56 AM on May 16, 2011

I don't know why it is that I have no problem with people doing sex work, have friends who have done sex work, absolutely believe it should be legalized and sex workers protected...and yet every time I read some dude's work about being a client, I am totally, totally skeeved out and want to cry.

Of course, maybe a better industry would generate better clients.

I have a couple of old Chester Brown books and they're creepy and depressing but did not lead me to believe that he was a libertarian. Also, I am kind of horrified that he gets state arts money for his work, given how little state arts money there is.
posted by Frowner at 9:59 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

R. Fiore's review (last link) is pretty ugly.

"Where you saw the prostitutes was on Sunset Boulevard, and believe me, the minute the sun went down it was like cockroaches coming out when you turn off the lights."
posted by Beardman at 10:20 AM on May 16, 2011

> Well this certainly isn't helping the believe that comics guys are all stunted time bombs of impotent rage surrounded by a confusing world they neither engage with nor understand.

They're not?

Okay, that's not helpful. How's this:

Not everybody can be a successful comics artist because it's isolating and labor-intensive; unless you've got a role in a manga production line, odds are on that you would work alone for hours a day without much human contact; if you're an independent, you might not even have an editor, writer, letterer, inker, whatnot, to reality-check you from time to time. You have to be of a disposition that either doesn't mind that or maybe flourishes in it. (The animation industry, at least, has people working in common buildings. Even if everybody's grinding away in their own cubie or office, they still bump into each other to get coffee.)

This isn't the only job that requires that kind of isolation, of course, but it's one of the few where people live like that and set their thoughts down thereby. A lot of comics artists can manage this without their philosophical heads being drawn inexorably up into their philosophical asses. Some can't.

When socially isolated people work as night watchmen at the shopping mall, or as server rack inspectors at data warehouses, or some other low-stimulus job and unleash their wingnutty opinions to the world, they're just Some Guy On The Internet; maybe not anonymous, but possessing any status of consequence aside from being the wielder of an opinion.

When they are artists who produce art, they are no longer Some Guy. They're now This Guy; they have an artistic identity, position and statement. They demand to be evaluated as an individual important enough to be recognized and understood in ways beyond simple opinion-vending. And if that statement is borderline batshit, everything about the artist is up for review: How, in twenty years, does somebody go from Christian humanist (albeit of a certain twisted approach) to Ayn Rand in a blender?

Even if it's rare, it happens often enough. My guess it's because when art is your career you have to have ego enough to believe in yourself and your opinions, and promote yourself forward over others. When you work in isolation -- or even if you are the sort to set up and run businesses and be The Man with employees -- it becomes an easy, lazy step from simple egoism into the Self-Made Man mythos: You're better than everybody else because you, and nobody else, made This Thing (comic book, skyscraper, nation) come into being. Its success was on your terms, despite all odds. When you elevate yourself like that, eventually you can't respect anybody else as much as you respect yourself, and nobody can remind you that you wouldn't have this dream job without socialized health care and a safety net to ensure you're not destitute, because they are no longer as wise as you deem yourself to be.

Thankfully, the friends of mine who are successful comic artists are healthily grounded. Then again it would be harder to consider them friends otherwise.
posted by ardgedee at 10:21 AM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]

Brown was on Q a few weeks ago to talk about this. I only heard the wrap-up, but the whole interview is here if you're curious.
posted by maudlin at 10:26 AM on May 16, 2011

He wants it both legal and unregulated?

Most sex workers feel the same way.

There are a whole host of problems associated with regulation, the article alludes to the desperate and soul destroying work conditions women have in Nevada, which is one of the most obvious examples of a regulated market in prostitution.

But that's not all. One of the main concerns is that a state-regulated system would exclude a whole pile of potentially desperate women.

What do they do then? Compete on other criteria. Such as reduced price, willingness to engage in unprotected sex or anal, etc.

And of course, the biggest problem associated with regulation is that those women who are excluded will lose the protection that the others enjoy. They'll be working with men who *want* to buy sex from the most marginalized and stigmatized women. But they won't be able to either negotiate or deal in the safe areas -- they'll be forced to do that in social and geographical isolation.

Rather than regulation, a better approach is 'tolerance zones', which are properly policed, and the women are protected, but everyone has the ability to freely negotiate their price and terms and conditions. People who are concerned about things like frequency of checks for STDs will be able to find people who cater to their needs, while more marginalized workers will also be operate in relative safety and protection.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:29 AM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am kind of horrified that he gets state arts money for his work, given how little state arts money there is

Why is that, because of his political stance, his subject matter, or his medium? $16k isn't that big a chunk of the Council's budget (yet), and there is still plenty left over for Geostationary Bananas Over Texas.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:36 AM on May 16, 2011

Most sex wosrkers feel the same way.

posted by Astro Zombie at 10:42 AM on May 16, 2011

I've always assumed that Brown is still angry at the nanny state because his stuff was targeted by Toronto police under obscenity laws that existed back in the 80s (it was illegal to sell or possess pornography that showed an erect penis).

When he started doing comics, it was about the last career to go into if you wanted to live high off the hog at the public's expense. I doubt that he's received very much compared to the millions that has gone towards production seed money for film, television and music. He has every right to be proud of the tremendous work he's accomplished and I really admire his single-mindedness and devotion to his craft...


I'm a middle aged Canadian animation industry done and all the libertarians I know have had universal health care, stringent public health and safety laws, and a heavily a subsidized post secondary education (annual tuition under $1000). It was in place when they were born, so they don't appreciate the vision and sacrifice of the generation that set it all up for them to enjoy
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

spoobnooble: "In other words: Screw You, I Got Mine. Lovely sentiment, that."

I am not a libertarian, but I don't see the problem with that, honestly. Politics does not happen in a personal sphere. His refusal to take the money that is being offered to him does not change the policy one bit. You can be against the speed limit and still respect it or against taxes and still pay them. This is not different.
posted by falameufilho at 10:53 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Chester Brown's - um - eccentricity should surprise no-one who made it to the end of The Playboy. As if it could get any weirder, for several years, he's apparently been monogamously faithful to the same call girl, described by a friend as "probably the love of his life."

But seriously, folks ... can we separate the man from his art? I don't need to shake hands with the guy, but this looks like something I want to read. Thanks for posting.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 11:01 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

His ex is Sook-Yin Lee from Shortbus? Man, I need to drop this playwrighting crap and start drawing comics.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not a libertarian, but I don't see the problem with that, honestly. Politics does not happen in a personal sphere. His refusal to take the money that is being offered to him does not change the policy one bit. You can be against the speed limit and still respect it or against taxes and still pay them. This is not different.

Yeah, but there's still a difference between those things and what he's doing. This would be more like saying, I'm glad this heart surgery saved my life, but because I'm against heroic medical measures, I think this heart surgery should be outlawed.
posted by anazgnos at 11:38 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I miss the days when he used to draw himself as a little bunny chastising Harvey Pekar for reading Ayn Rand.
posted by cazoo at 11:43 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll qualify that: Most street sex workers of my acquaintance. Which adds up to maybe a few hundred over the last twenty-odd years.

Which isn't a reflection on my personal appetites, but I've worked on a range of projects both locally and nationally. Not only is this the view most commonly expressed by workers themselves, I'm pretty sure it's also the view that most advocates working in that area prefer as well.

That said, you don't have to Google far to find the same view expressed by sex workers internationally.

For example.

posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:45 AM on May 16, 2011

I doubt that sex workers want it unregulated : All benefit only from other sex workers being tested for STDs, like anyplace that legalizes it. A great many benefit from pimping being illegal, which is almost ubiquitous in Europe. And many benefit from brothels being regulated like in German speaking countries. There are sex worker unions in Germany you can ask if you want it from the hore's mouth, but I vaguely recall them liking stronger regulations actually.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:48 AM on May 16, 2011

Having known my share of sex workers in the past, many of whom were street prostitutes, I can say that almost all their lives were worsened by lack of regulation. And having been somebody who worked my entire life, and has seen the history of unregulated business in America, if sex workers would benefit from lack of regulations, they would be the first ever.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:50 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

fwiw, and I'm not expert, I have heard the same as PeterMcDermott has, and Nevada is always pointed to as how NOT to do legalized prostitution.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:51 AM on May 16, 2011

The difference I've heard is in "legalized" vs "decriminalized." Apparently "legalized" ends up translated to "micromanaged." Decriminalized makes it like all other businesses, which still have regulations but aren't controlled to the extent that Schedule 2 drugs or the Nevada prostitution biz is.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:54 AM on May 16, 2011

I can say that almost all their lives were worsened by lack of regulation.

Their lives are worsened by the criminalization of their work, not by the lack of regulation.

Most street sex workers probably wouldn't qualify for employment in any of the 'regulated' environments. Their lives tend to be chaotic, possibly exacerbated by drug use, etc. They want to drop in and drop out as they choose, rather than show up at the 9-to-5.

The lives of these women wouldn't become magically 'safer' under a regulated environment.

All benefit only from other sex workers being tested for STDs

I daresay if regular testing gives sex workers a market advantage, then in a decriminalized market, you'd see more of them tested.

Aside from that, I don't see any reason for compulsory testing of sex workers than I do any other section of the population. Why should the hooker be subject to compulsory testing, while the John comes and goes as he pleases?

A great many benefit from pimping being illegal, which is almost ubiquitous in Europe.

A great many women of my acquaintence bemoan the ways in which their boyfriends are inevitably criminalized as 'living on the earnings of prostitution', simply because they happen to share living accomodation.

Prostitution is legal in the UK. Pimping is illegal. We see hoardes of prosecutions of sex workers for relatively trivial offences (eg, street soliciting, working more than one to an apartment, which transforms it magically into a brothel, and thus illegal) yet prosecutions of pimps are extremely rare. Make of that what you will, but having the state micro-manage the sale of sexual services says nothing at all about the existance of pimps. If anything, it just tends to legitimize the services of a new class of legitimate 'businesspimps' a la Nevada and Australia.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:08 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Umm, you mandate STD tests for prostitutes because john's visit multiple prostitutes. You're free market solution will just create an awful lot of AIDS cases.

In fact, you'd actually rather test the John's since male to female HIV transmission is way easier than the reverse, but that's unrealistic and excessive. In particular, you should not regulate consumers when regulating the business suffices because you'll need to regulate the business anyways to effectively regulate the consumers.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:23 PM on May 16, 2011

I can't read R. Fiore's review, it's too smirky. I like Naomi Fry's review at TCJ much better.
posted by subdee at 12:24 PM on May 16, 2011

One of the other oft-cited problems with criminal "living off the avails" laws is the inability of prostitutes to hire security guards. This has been a source of contention between prostitutes and police in several Canadian cities.
posted by bonehead at 1:17 PM on May 16, 2011

Seth's quote in the article Elizabeth the Thirteenth linked above was interesting:
Chet doesn’t take into account that human beings are involved. His argument for prostitution is like this very good system if you happen to have a planet populated by robots.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:42 PM on May 16, 2011

Umm, you mandate STD tests for prostitutes because john's visit multiple prostitutes.

Lots of people have sex with multiple partners. Why don't we mandate STD tests for everybody? Why single out sex workers?

You're free market solution will just create an awful lot of AIDS cases.

You get that a free market already exists in most parts of the world, right? Outside of sub-saharan Africa, here is no tidal wave of men being infected by having sex with women anywhere.

You overestimate the willingness of sex workers to have sex without condoms. Most sex workers understand the risks in what they do and protect themselves accordingly.

But I'm not seeing why you feel it isn't incumbent on men who visit prostitutes to take responsibility for their own self-protection? Why you feel that the responsibility has to lie with the sex worker?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:50 AM on May 17, 2011

It's incumbent upon the prostitutes because they're the ones operating a business, just like collecting sales tax.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:22 AM on May 17, 2011

I'm posting really really late, because I just read Paying For It, and enjoyed it quite a bit. It serves a couple of purposes, and I think some people might avoid the comic because they hear somebody say something like, "It's just about x," and not realize that it's useful along multiple dimensions.

a) It's a concrete, detailed memoir, heavy on logistics. That means it acts as something as a how-to. Mr. Brown has mutliple questions at the beginning of his experience that he finds the answers to, and he shows us the process. This part is as fascinating as any "How It's Made" kind of story. Obviously, the answers to these questions are most important to people who are considering visiting a prostitute.

b) It's an argument for the full decriminalization of prostitution, and against the stigmatization of sex-for-money. The sequences where Mr. Brown defends prostitution, and argues against regulation are written in a completely different style from the rest of the work-- Mr. Brown abandons self-criticism during these parts in order to forcefully argue his position. The final section of the book is just text, and rebuts many (all?) of the arguments for intolerance and criminalization. Certainly, all of the arguments made in this thread are dealt with (and dealt with well, in my opinion); after reading it, the comments in here feel a little like going back to kindergarten. Sources seem a little cherry-picked, but this is definitely a must-read for anyone seriously interested in talking about prostitution. By the way, Brown's libertarian leanings are really irrelevant to this; yes, decriminalization is what a libertarian would argue for, but even non libertarians feel that complete deregulation is appropriate for some aspects of life-- as mentioned, you don't have to be a libertarian to believe that promiscuity shouldn't be outlawed or regulated (via mandatary STD checks and registers of promiscuous people).

c) It's a survey of prostitutes themselves. There is no shortage of memoirs by prostitutes; the problem is that a memoir offers only a single viewpoint. By offering his experiences as a john, Mr. Brown helps illustrate how diverse prostitutes are. Yes, there are prostitutes who don't seem happy to be in the position they are in. There are self-loathing prostitutes. There are naive prostitutes. There are reluctant prostitutes. There are also prositutes who seem to enjoy the work (or at least, enjoy it as much as they would any other employment). His concrete and self-critical style nets him a lot of credibility here, where credibility is essential. The author is not afraid to show us parts of himself that he knows will lead to a lot of people hating and judging him, and that makes me feel it's unlikely that he fools himself into thinking that everybody wants his dick.

d) Finally, it's a recommendation. It doesn't sound like Brown thinks he's very typical, but it sounds like there's a part of him that thinks that there are other people similar to him. He argues against possessive love, and maybe I'm being charitable to Brown here, but it feels different than his arguments for decriminalization-- it feels like he allows that possessive love is maybe okay for some people, just not for him and his ilk. Brown found something very wonderful in sex-for-money. He found something that he was looking for, something that he considers sacred, and there's an oddly compassionate feel to this work, because he doesn't want other people to suffer because they're too afraid or ashamed to pay for sex. He wants them to know that it might just be what they need; he wants them to know that they don't have to be so afraid; he wants them to know that it's okay.

By the way, I really really enjoyed the Fiore piece. Unusually insightful and witty. There was a comment on that page by a person who said that they would read Paying For It after one of the prostitutes involved wrote about their experiences, and I wanted to comment on this. As I mentioned above, there are plenty of memoirs from prostitutes, but there are no other memoirs from clients that I know of. While prostitutes and friends continue to argue for social acceptance and decriminalization, so often, this reaches people's ears transformed into a cry for pity.

As long as johns are demonized, there can be no acceptance of sex work. If johns are exploiters, then sex workers are necessarily the exploited, those that are too naive to look after their own best interests. That's why I find Paying For It part of the necessary next step in greater acceptance of sex work.
posted by nathan v at 10:58 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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