PAYING FOR IT reviewed by the Winnipeg Free Press

Cartoonist recounts experiences (distantly) as a john

Winnipeg Free Press    |    Kenton Smith    |    May 28, 2011

CELEBRATED Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown has done it again.

In his long-awaited followup to 2003's graphic novel Louis Riel -- winner of two comics industry Harvey awards -- Brown returns to the emotional and sexual ambiguities of earlier work such as I Never Liked You.

This recounting of the artist's experiences as a patron of prostitution is fascinatingly enigmatic (as was his previous work). With Riel, we had to decide for ourselves whether its hero was madman, prophet or martyr.

This time Brown turns the treatment on himself -- to perhaps even greater effect.

As presented, Brown seems capable of considerable self-deception. Yet that's not mutually exclusive with the book's self-representation as an argument for prostitution's normalization.

Regarding the latter, the timeliness couldn't be better after this past fall's Ontario court decision striking down prostitution laws. In any case, this is a rewardingly complex, fascinating volume.

Emotional distancing effects are characteristic of Brown's oeuvre, but Paying for It may take the approach to new extremes, with Brown's drawn face resembling an impassive mask, complete with opaque glasses. (When he obtains contact lenses, his eyes become mere slits.)

What faint emotional expressions break through are conveyed by the subtlest of graphic touches, i.e., one or two slight lines, as when Brown furrows his brows, or ever-so-slightly smiles.

In an early chapter, his then-girlfriend (real-life CBC radio host Sook-Yin Lee) asks Brown if it's OK if her new beau moves in with them. No problem, he insists. Later he tells her he's out having his tree shaken by hookers.

One might reasonably think he's deploying some major passive-aggressive weaponry there. But when Lee leaves later on, Brown sinks into a depression.

What's really behind the facade, though? It's a question equally applicable to the working women he visits. But, of course, he rightfully points out how dangerous it can be to read minds.

And that's the book's spell: we feel forever on the outside, never seeing in.

Yet it remains that Brown may be deceiving himself, because he is soon having communication breakdowns with different women. Just as in a relationship. There are, unfortunately, no quick and easy solutions to sexual (and emotional) satisfaction, especially where two people are involved.

By now comics have already demonstrated they can effectively essay any subject or category. For those whose awareness lags, Paying for It may provide a definitive awakening.

Kenton Smith is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, arts and culture critic and comics enthusiast.

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