Chester Brown’s Paying For It, an autobiographical graphic novel, takes his usual honest-to-a-fault self-reflection and carries it into a subject that, for too many and possibly to the detriment of society and social rights, is still quite taboo—prostitution. More specifically, the moral, ethical, and social conundrums of what it means to pay for sex, and whether or not the perception of the relationship between a John and an escort can ever be normalized, let alone decriminalized.
Brown decides early in the book, after an unconventional break-up with then-girlfriend Sook-Yin, to explore the possibilities of a life without romantic attachments, but with fairly regular sex via escorts. He suggests that it’s the concept of ownership (deliberately manufactured or unconscious) relayed through romanticism that infects an otherwise normal personality—creating jealousy, stress, disharmony, mistrust—and drives people into the depths of romantic or personal self-destruction the likes to which few escape unscathed. Throughout 33 perfunctory chapters, Brown and fellow cartoonists (and regulars in each others’ works) Seth and Joe Matt discuss the issues and pitfalls associated with prostitution and paid-for sex in general.
It’s worth noting that Brown is an advocate for the decriminalization and social acceptance of prostitution—a case that he extends into the book’s detailed appendices. The personal discoveries he comes to throughout the book are made possible by the fact that he forced himself to overcome a stigma that he’d held onto his entire life: that it is inherently wrong to pay for sex. That prostitution is wrong, and that escorts and Johns alike are somehow “less” than others. With this barrier passed, he is free—in mind and spirit—to pursue a life void of romantic entanglements. Following his first encounter, Brown continues down his monogamy-free path with an interesting mixture of scientific curiosity and a teenage boy’s need for physical satisfaction; he has all the eagerness of a puppy with a bone (no pun intended… maybe), yet maintains an almost analytical detachment—at least in his illustrated self—from the escorts he meets.
The illustrations are clean and very spare, with little in the way of extraneous detail. When compared to his other works—most notably Louis Riel and I Never Liked You—it’s easy to see that maturity has brought confidence to his work. As uncomplicated as the individual panels are, his composition deserves special note. No escorts’ faces are ever seen, yet they are hidden in organic ways, never forced, through the structure and set-up of each scene. This is Brown’s work, after all. It’s his personality and discoveries of self on display. He’s always consciously respectful of the escorts and their need for privacy—both in real life and within the pages of this book.
Paying For It is at times unflinchingly honest. That and its somewhat-delicate subject matter may turn off some readers. But those who decide to sink a little further into the mind of Chester Brown will be privy to a discussion that few are willing to have, yet so many seem willing to cast judgement upon.