Graphic Novels & Art-Comics—Late April 2011

The AV Club Comics Panel    |    Noel Murray    |    April 25, 2011

Twenty years ago, Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown wrote about the history of his porn collection in The Playboy, a series of comics that first appeared in Brown's Yummy Fur before being collected in book form. At the time, Brown was just starting to dabble in autobiography, so his art-style in The Playboy wasn't too far removed from his more surreal, darkly humorous stories. The content may have been less outrageous, but Brown's explicit close-ups of voluptuous Playmates and his own masturbation rituals gave The Playboy an eerie quality befitting a subject often steeped in shame.

Brown's latest book, Paying For It (D&Q), is another autobiographical piece, tracking his recent history as a patron of prostitutes. And "tracking" is the right word here. In keeping with the style of Brown's well-received historical epic Louis Riel, Paying For It takes a detached approach to its subject, telling its story in tiny panels populated by even tinier characters positioned like figurines in a museum case. Brown begins with the moment in 1996 when he broke up with what he calls "my last girlfriend," and then proceeds through his thought process as he decides that "possessive monogamy" is socially regressive, and that it makes more sense to separate companionship and sex. On March 26, 1999, Brown visited his first incall escort. In Paying For It, Brown details the encounter, and ends by writing, "A burden that I had been carrying since adolescence had disappeared. The burden has never returned."

The clinical quality of Paying For It can be a little frustrating at times, as Brown meticulously and exhaustingly documents all the prostitutes he's seen over the years, interspersed with scenes where he argues with his cartoonist pals Seth and Joe Matt about the righteousness of his new attitude about sex. (The book also includes 50 pages of appendices and endnotes, filled with citations both for and against sex work, intended to defuse concerns about human trafficking, drugs, disease, and exploitation.) Whenever Brown crosses over from "This is an arrangement that works for me" to "This is the way everyone should live," Paying For It becomes... well, strange.

But Brown's subject is inherently fascinating-who's not a little curious about other people's sex lives?-and his cartooning skills are as sharp as ever. Even working at a remove, Brown still finds the humor and the drama in his "dates." Some are a little dangerous; some are laughably bad. Paying For It even has a late twist that calls into question a lot of what Brown's trying to say about whether the traditional romantic order is corrupt. Does Brown mean to undercut himself? Probably not, given the barrage of documentation that ends the book. But the advantage of Brown's "watching from a distance" style is that it's open to interpretation, allowing readers to re-raise the questions that Brown may think he's answered.

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