Chester Brown is no shy guy. Even though the slight and soft-spoken cartoonist admits to having difficulty talking up girls, his catalogue of raunchy and political comics reveals a loud, confessional and political artist pushing the pen.
Brown, the author of the highly acclaimed biography Louis Riel, is returning from an almost decade-long hiatus to premiere his widely anticipated graphic novel about sex work, Paying For It. The book, to be released in May by Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly press, is an autobiographical account of Chester’s experience employing prostitutes after his breakup with actor and director Sook-Yin Lee in 1996.
“I had just gotten disillusioned with the whole romantic-life game. For a while I wasn’t sure what I was going to do as far as sex was concerned. I knew I didn’t want a girlfriend, and I really didn’t have the social skills to just pick up women. I was celibate for a couple years, and then I was like, ‘Why not pay for it?’” says Chester, whose book details, at something of a distance, a variety of encounters with sex workers over the course of the last decade. The book also includes a couple dozen pages of Chester’s notes arguing for the decriminalization of sex work.
“I came to the conclusion that prostitution should be decriminalized, as opposed to legalized. The main difference being I don’t think prostitutes should be required to have to get licences. Imagine when homosexuality was essentially decriminalized in the 1960s if, instead of that, the government had said, ‘Well, okay, gay people can have sex as long as they get licences.’ It’s ridiculous.”
Brown is an outspoken libertarian and is on the ballot in the upcoming federal election as the Libertarian candidate in the riding of Trinity-Spadina. He is the only candidate who is out as a john.
But the night before the election, the cartoonist will not be out campaigning. The official book launch for Paying For It will be held the evening of May 1 at Goodhandy’s, presented as a pre-event for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), which takes place the following week.
“It’s a huge honour for Goodhandy’s to host Chester’s launch,” says Todd Klinck, co-owner of Goodhandy’s and an outspoken proponent of sex work. “So few clients of prostitutes are brave enough to be open and positive about the client-hooker relationships, and that’s what excites me most.”
The Goodhandy’s event will be no small affair. As a superstar of alternative cartooning, the release is already generating a lot of buzz, and the launch party will be the centre of attention in the comics world.
“For years, Chester’s been away working on this book, and there’s been a phenomenal explosion of interest in graphic novels and comics since he released Louis Riel,” says Christopher Butcher, TCAF’s festival director and manager of local comics haunt The Beguiling. “This book is really going to reassert him as the North American cartoonist to pay attention to.”
And attention is just what Brown wants to bring to this issue. Sex work has been simmering in the news since Ontario courts struck several laws related to prostitution in September, only to have the decision appealed by the federal government. “When that all happened in the fall, I was wishing that the book was out at that point,” Brown remembers. “But I hope it becomes influential enough to become part of the debate.”
Butcher, who is organizing and promoting the book launch, sees this as a real possibility.
“We’ve been reaching out in the queer community and in areas where street prostitutes operate,” he says. “Chester is deliberately trying to engage a community which is outside of the typical reading audience, and they’re going to come to the work. At the same time, the press that Chester’s book is getting is really going to help mainstream this argument.” Let’s hope it does.