It was my experience reading Seth’s graphic novel It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken back in 2015 that introduced me to his best friend and fellow graphic novelist, Chester Brown. I had never read anything of his work before, but am aware he drew a novel based on the real-life story of Louis Riel, which I have always wanted to read. I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago that I had access to Chester Brown the whole time by way of the academic library at the college where I work. I walked into the library one day a few weeks ago to meet up with a colleague when I came across a display of graphic novels – front and centre, was Chester Brown’s Paying For It. I immediately checked the book out of the library.
And I checked it out without actually knowing the subject matter, or what I was about to embark on. I read the rest of the title:
“A comic strip memoir about being a john“…
Paying For It is a frank look into one aspect of Brown’s life over the course of 18 years, namely the subject of romantic relationships, or rather the lack thereof. It begins with a conversation he had with his live-in girlfriend, Sook-Yin (yes, that’s Sook-Yin Lee, former Much Music VJ…), who has fallen in love with someone else and asks Brown if she can “see where it goes”. Brown agrees. While she gets on with this other guy, Brown continues to live under the same roof. As time goes on, and as his feelings for Sook-Yin evolve into more of a friendship, he begins to think about the emotional impact of relationships and decides he no longer wants to pursue getting another girlfriend – ever.
He wonders about what not having a girlfriend could mean – no companionship…no sex…he was pretty sure he could do without the former, but the latter? He knew he couldn’t live without sex, and sooner or later, he figures out he can diffuse that argument by using his wallet. Unfamiliar with the law surrounding prostitution in Canada, he stealthily takes to certain neighbourhoods around Toronto that at one time years ago were known to have street-walkers, only to find deserted sidewalks and Toronto’s finest patrolling the streets. Brown, after some research, finds what he is looking for by way of escorts advertised in the paper and online.
Paying For It plays out like a visual diary, bearing witness to every sexual encounter he had with an escort…and there were many. His panels reveal in graphic detail his thoughts, his conversations with each escort, and what occurred. He checks in with his best friends periodically (one of them being Seth) to talk about his experiences, while they take this as an opportunity to grill him and debate the morals and ethics around prostitution laws. Brown, who believes there should be no regulation, makes this clear in conversation with his friends, and later shares a 50-page written thesis at the end of the book stating his position on the matter, in case we had any question.
Chester Brown’s execution in his panels was clean, simplistic and I really liked his penmanship. He did not shy away from nudity, even depicting his skinny self bare-assed. The escorts were drawn with their faces covered by their conversation balloons and their identifying features changed; Brown’s answer for respecting their privacy.
I couldn’t help but feel sad reading Paying for it. I understand that Brown has happily made his choice where relationships are concerned. But, to be perfectly honest, Brown’s story felt a bit too intimate to me, like I should not have been reading it…yet, like a bad car crash, or a tell-all rag I could not look away or put it down. I read the entire novel (minus the essay) in 2 hours. I felt a bit conflicted reading it, and I had my own internal dialogue around the ethics of prostitution versus the treatment of women in the sex industry the whole time. Thanks to Brown, I also wondered what could possibly be the worst thing that could happen if prostitution were legalized (and I’m still pondering)…
Paying For It is not everyone’s cup of tea, and honestly, the jury’s still out whether it was mine, too.
Paying for it: a comic strip memoir about being a john / Chester Brown
Drawn and Quarterly