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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


In MADNESS TO OUR METHODS I addressed some of the questions about the applicability of different types of criticism to different types of works, even by the same author.  Since the essay was inspired by critical debtate over the proper way to approach Chester Brown's graphic novel PAYING FOR IT, I showed how Brown himself had produced works that had strongest affiliations to three critical persuasions-- YUMMY FUR to archetypal criticism, THE PLAYBOY to aesthetic criticism, and LOUIS RIEL to ethical criticism.  At the time I wrote the essay, I hadn't read PAYING FOR IT, whose descriptive subtitle, for anyone who's not heard, proclaims the work "a comic-strip memoir about being a john."

Now that I've read PFI, this essay will follow up some of the ideas expressed there.  I wrote:

If as I suggest Spurgeon's review is in essence an aesthetic one, then one may conveniently label the type of criticism Heer and Berlatsky stump for to be "ethical criticism." Based on descriptions of PAYING's subject matter, and on my acquaintance with earlier Brown work, I can see some validity in either approach. However, given that the work's content is both biographical and hortatory, in all likelihood the third-named critical orientation, that of "archetypal criticism," would probably be a bad way to analyze PAYING in that such narratives tend to put forth a very low level of symbolic discourse.

That said, if PAYING is indeed amenable to both ethical and aesthetic criticism, not all such works, even by Chester Brown, are so well-balanced.

Back then I was giving PFI the benefit of the doubt in saying that it might be equally amenable to both forms of criticism, though given that it was one of Brown's autobiographical efforts, I doubted that the archetypal form would be espeically applicable.  Now that I've read it, I think the aesthetic approach advocated by Tom Spurgeon has nearly no application whatever. I've certainly seen examples of Chester Brown work which possess the quality Spurgeon calls "quiet insistence."  But I don't see any of that in PFI.  It's possible that Spurgeon sees something there that I don't.  It's also possible that he's allowing for some "carry-over" from other Brown works to affect his judgment.  Neither verdict matters all that much, to be sure.

My reason for not seeing this "quiet insistence" is chiefly due to Brown's choice of format, in which all or most panels in PFI are about 1 1/2 inches by 1 inch.  I found this to be an effective size for communicating the discursive ideas of his topic but not for communicating anything pertaining to mood or tonality.  I've only read one Brown interview given to MOTHER JONES on the subject of PFI, which doesn't comment on his format-choice.  However, the interviewer does ask:

MJ: Why did you choose to depict the sex instead of fading to black or doing one of any other artistic sleights of hand?

And Brown responds:

CB: I suppose I could have. There were a couple of instances where what I'm thinking during sex was relevant, so I might as well show myself having sex. I could have gone from a shot of the bed to just showing the ceiling and my thought bubble. Or maybe just show the feet. It just seemed, sex was taking place—why drag the camera someplace else in the room?

The thought struck me that in a sense, by choosing such tiny panels for PFI, Brown had not so much dragged the camera to another part of the room as he had changed the lens-size.  I can't be sure until I come across Brown commenting on the matter, but the tiny size strikes me as an ideal way to literally "reduce" the subject matter so that it becomes ipso facto less prurient in presentation.  (Brown does comment that while it wasn't odd for him to draw himself having sexual encounters, he does get some interesting reactions showing the pages blown-up for slideshow displays.)

Now, while I think PFI proves fruitless to analyze from both archetypal and aesthetic approaches, the ethical approach is a different animal.  As far as I can tell, most of the critical reactions to PFI do take the ethical approach, frequently slamming Brown's ideas as unworkable and the like.  Brown has anticipated all or most of these reactions, for the appendices to his memoir assails most if not all of the familiar arguments against the decrimininalization of prostitution.  For the record, Brown, a libertarian, is also against the legalization of prositution, arguing that this would simply create a "black market" for sex workers, which would in turn maintain the associations between prostitution and criminality.

I'm not going to debate any of Brown's theories of decriminalized prostitution here.  As a critic I defend Brown's intellectual discourse on the same terms that I defend Dave Sim's.  Whether or not an artist succeeds in proposing an ethical schema that has real application to society or not-- a goal which more noted authors, such as Ezra Pound, failed to do-- the work may remain significant purely in terms of the technique the artist uses to make his salient points.  As a pluralist I can condemn any number of ethical opinions on an individual basis, while maintaining the POV that even bad ethics can make for great storytelling.

I wouldn't precisely call PFI "great," even within the confines of autobiographical comic books. But even recognizing some of the default errors of libertarianism, it's still a work that demands one's full attention in debating/refuting it.

ADDENDA:  I will note in passing that according to Brown's memoirs his encounters with prostitutes in Canada were amazingly restraind and-- to resort to that old Canadian stereotype-- unfailingly *polite.*

And on the purely practical side of things, that's probably why, even if decriminalized prostitution *could* work in Canada, it would probably never work that well in the United States of America-- for one simple reason:

Americans are thoroughly addicted to the art of screwing each other over for a buck.

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