Monday, May 16, 2011

Chester Brown on Paying For It at Drawn and Quarterly

It's been awhile since I've posted, and the reality is... I haven't been going out quite so much these days. My time has been dedicated to my own creative projects, rather than consuming that of others.

That said, Chester Brown's launch for his newest work, Paying For It, was irresistible. Mr. Brown is a long time hero of the Canadian alt-comic scene. His life's cannon includes a number of autobiographical works, including this latest examination of his foray into john-prostitute relationships as a way of life. Drawn and Quarterly consistently publishes comics (do I call them graphic novels? comics? so much debate over semantics!) of high calibre. I attended and was glad to have done so.

Packed with new media glasses, beards, and asymmetrical hair cuts, the launch attracted a cache of Montrealers that normally haunts Drawn and Quarterly's storefront. Given the subject matter, I was conscious of the male-female ratio in the room. It was a 50-50 split. Perhaps an interesting comment on the universal appeal of the graphic novel or Brown himself?

Brown showed slides of his comic, presumably the opening chapter in which he breaks up with his girlfriend and begins soliciting escorts, and filled in the dialogue. He then graciously answered questions, many of which were personal or made an assumption that Brown was a scholar on the legalities of prostitution.

The audience was extremely favorable and receptive to Brown's work. It goes without saying that the illustrations are top notch and the work extremely humorous. The biggest laugh came from a scene in which Brown seeks out a street prostitute on his bicycle -- oh those eco-conscious Montrealers. But many of the panels or vignettes were equally amusing, even the ones where no one laughed out loud. The comic is steeped in Brown's signature style. He uses panels of no dialogue to allow the reader time to advance the story at his or her own speed (and build or fill in the lapses as one wishes). He addresses questions about morality as well as his own thought processes through dialogue with the other characters. The backgrounds are living, but anonymous city scenes. The most interesting artistic choice was to hide the faces of the prostitutes -- a conscious choice on his part to give them their anonymity, but perceived as dehumanizing by others, especially since you see their bodies. If he'd invented faces, I am sure there would be an equal critique that he removed their personality and imbued them with his own. I suppose there is no easy solution that satisfies everyone.

What was most striking though is the questions and what they revealed about the audience that Brown attracts. I was surprised, first of all, that no one spoke from the perspective of prostitution as exploitation or asked if he encountered anything in which the woman's situation seemed dubious. The prostitutes he seemed to be involved with were not the drug addled nor abused nor prisoners of the illegal sex trade (listening to the podcast The Red Umbrella Diaries provides a more balanced look into the experiences of sex workers from their own POV). His experience with prostitution seem almost wholesome. Then again, his book is autobiographical, not a definitive political tract. Instead, the audience asked what sorts of hostility he encountered or expected to encounter. I was struck by the fascination for the audience with the mechanics of paying for and affording his lifestyle. The questions that interested me most were asked about his attitude towards monogamous relationships, as I think that this is the driving question behind the book. A heterosexual (I'm assuming) man has chosen to actively reject conventional male-female relationships and uses prostitutes to address his biological needs. Lots of people use prostitutes, even those in relationships do, but very few people choose to abandon the search for emotional and intimate connection with at least one other person BY CHOICE. But here, again, the audience was deferentially polite. How does one ask such personal questions in a public forum, anyway? Some tried, but no one was willing to plummet the depths of awkwardness.

I'm looking forward to reading the work. Perhaps I will report here when it falls into my hands.