TSJ Talks to Author/Illustrator Chester Brown


THE SMOKING JACKET’S EDITOR, MELISSA BULL, IN CONVERSATION WITH CHESTER BROWN, the bestselling author and illustrator of such comic books as The PlayboyLouis Riel and Paying for It.

TSJ: The Playboy was published in 1992, and it’s an autobiographical comic about your teenage experiences with Playboy magazine—buying it, hiding it, whacking off to it, burying it, burning it…  When did you first see a Playboy mag? And how do you go from being embarrassed to buy the publication to writing a book about it?

CHESTER BROWN: I’m sure I would have seen it on the stands and would have been curious, you know, when I was a kid. I remember in elementary school we were putting on a play—we were supposed to be pretending to be adults—and one of the kids had a Playboy. I guess he had gotten it from his father, to pretend like he was an older fellow reading a Playboy. And I remember sneaking a look at the centerfold. But it wasn’t until several years later that I actually got up the nerve to go out and buy my own.

I’d done a few autobiographical strips before The Playboy. But The Playboy was the first time when I went back in time to my experience in the hometown where I’d grown up. And I just enjoyed that so much, trying to tap into my youth. Drawing a comic strip about  it felt very freeing and liberating; exposing something I had been embarrassed about and realizing it’s not that big of a deal.

TSJ: Early on in Paying for It there’s a comic convention where a Playboy model’s on display, advertising pictures and hugs for fifty bucks. The character, or you, realize that paying to have your photograph taken beside a Playboy model and hiring a prostitute are sort of adjacent actions.

CB: I forgot there was a Playboy connection in Paying for It—[that was] Alley Bagette. Although she wasn’t a centerfold, to the best of my knowledge. Which is a shame! She was gorgeous. But yeah. That kind of pushed me in a certain mental direction, to see her at that convention.

TSJ: Was the autobiographical impetus behind writing Paying for It similar to what motivated you to wrote The Playboy?

CB: There was more of an activist intent behind Paying for It. Even though the laws against prostitution aren’t as harsh [in Canada] as they are in the US, and technically prostitution is legal here, I still do oppose the laws we have. I’m for decriminalizing prostitution. So there is that political slant to Paying for It that there wasn’t for The Playboy. Though I suppose even for The Playboy there is the same thing…

TSJ: I think writing about sex is always going to be political.

CB: Actually, Gore Vidal wrote a piece that I remember reading in Playboy about how sex is always political.

TSJ: I was struck by how openly you spoke about the fallacy of romatic love in an interview you gave in the New York Times. And it’s a point that’s referred to many times in Paying for It, when you/the character repeat that you don’t want a girlfriend, but that you believe in an investment in other types of relationships.

CB: Whenever people talk about romantic love they have a tendency to just talk about the happy stuff. There is a lot of suffering in romantic relationships, arguments, etc. Although at the end of the book I do a bit of a turnaround on romantic love, and decide that what I’m against isn’t romantic love but possessive monogamy. To a lot of people in our society the two would be seen as synonymous. But I do see things very differently, as far as that stuff goes. It seemed like a good place to talk about it, this book.

TSJ: We don’t see the prostitutes’ faces in Paying for It. Was this a choice that you made in order to protect the women’s identities? Couldn’t you have invented faces for them?

CB: I started to do that. I sat down and I drew out 23 faces of 23 attractive women. Well 23 women. Not all of them were attractive. I hit a problem which [was], as I mention in the intro to the book, that they were of different backgrounds. Some of them were white, some of them were Asian, some of them were black. If I’d had sex with, say, a black prostitute, should I then in the book depict her as black or should I change that? I was trying to avoid things that could identify them in real life. And that could be a further identifying feature. So that was the main reason for obscuring their faces. Because if you just see a black and white drawing of a body, then that doesn’t indicate skin color. But if you show facial features, then you are getting into showing what their ethnic background is. So it was just a way of wanting to put as little personal information as possible of the people [in the book]. Also I didn’t want to make up things. I wanted to stick as close to the facts as possible. So yeah, it was a way of doing that. Sticking to the facts. Leaving out a fact rather than inventing a fact.

TSJ: Paying for It was certainly an about-face after your hit Louis Riel, a comic about the nineteenth-century Canadian Métis revolutionary.

CB: The Riel book sold very well and it was my bestselling book up until that point. And there was a lot of media attention about that book, at least here in Canada. I seemed to get tagged with the label ‘Mr. Canadian History’ or something.  And I kind of wanted to tear down that image. The good thing about doing Paying for It is that it seems to have reversed people’s mental image of who I am. People aren’t going to be pigeonholing me as just the guy who does Canadian history now.

TSJ: Do you think you’d do more historical comics?

CB: I love reading about history. So dealing with it in my work is something that I’m going to continue to do. I’m not sure what my next project is going to be. It might be historical. Although it might be prostitution-related again.

TSJ: I’ve read that you might be telling the story of one of the prostitutes you know, Denise.

CB: We’ve talked about it and she is considering it. I still haven’t gotten a final answer from her. And I don’t want to push her or pressure her. There’s lots of time for me before I have to get started on my next book. My publisher wants to put out a new edition of The Playboy. Maybe with some notes at the end, maybe a new cover. Acutally, now that I’m thinking about it I’d kind of like to re-letter the whole thing. And then I can get started on my next book, and then Denise will have to make up her mind whether she wants to work on this book with me.

TSJ: When would the new version of The Playboy come out?

CB: I think my publishers would like to have it come out this fall but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to have everything done by that point. Maybe next spring.

TSJ: That last frame of The Playboy is pretty great—a handful of come and a Playboy model.

CB: The playmate was Patty Farinelli. December 1980? [December 1981.] I think she might have been the playmate that was in the issue that had the John Lennon interview that came after John Lennon was shot. Who knows; that’s just trivia. Anyway. She was gorgeous.

TSJ: Did you ever get any feedback from the people at Playboy about your comic?

CB: After we released The Playboy I got a letter with Playboy [header] on it and it turned it out to be from Hugh Hefner. He wrote me a very nice letter about how much he enjoyed the book but that he was kind of concerned about all the guilt and suffering I had gone through as a teenager, buying the magazine, and how this had kind of surprised him because he had thought the sexual revolution in the 60s had changed things and that teenage boys buying Playboy in the 70s wouldn’t be feeling guilt about it anymore.

TSJ: That was sweet of Hef to give you a shout-out on that.

CB: It was.

TSJ: Did you write back?

CB: I did write back, thanking him and assuring him that I was fine, that I got over my guilt.

Related on The Smoking Jacket:
TSJ Interviews Illustrator Evan Munday
Jenny and Her Husband Get a Whore

Buy Paying for It here.