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By all appearances, Chester Brown and Craig Thompson put out two of The Most Important Graphic Novels of 2011: Paying For It
. Both were eagerly anticipated, original works by critically acclaimed autobio cartoonists, extensively promoted (Thompson is still touring) and covered by major media outlets such as NPR. Though, on the face of it, these books are diametrically opposed — Brown's autobio comic catalogs his experiences with prostitutes, while Thompson's graphic novel is a fantasia about two soul mates, an Arab woman and a black man — I noted, as have others (http://www.comicsbeat.com/2011/09/27/people-are-talking-about-habibi/
), that Brown and Thompson have similar preoccupations, and are working through similar concepts: the separation between love and sex, sex and the spiritual, are concerns from their previous works that have come to the fore. I would argue that, though Drawn & Quarterly and Pantheon would like readers and critics to believe that these are Serious Books, worthy of critics' attention and readers' dollars, they're also something else — something I'm going to try to define as Dick (Graphic) Lit.
Apparently, Dick (Graphic) Lit is black and white on the inside, and coded warm brown on the outside, in contrast to the crude Photoshop coloring of superhero comics, the sleek blackness of a cut-above prestige project, like a Hellboy
or an Absolute edition, and certainly far removed from the aggressive pastels that often characterize manga volumes. (Target employs this same trick; "chai" indicates Yoga Mat for Non Girly Dudes.) Both Paying For It
sport relatively simple brown covers, overlaid with a richer red/orange and both focus on a male/female couple. On Habibi
, it is the star-crossed lovers, Dodola and Zam (aka Cham). Dodola, who drives much of the book's action, stares defiantly out at the reader; she holds Zam protectively. Zam, her adopted child/eventual mate, lies on her breast, a position that suggests both of his roles. (On the back, they are older, and their position is reversed, although Zam's expression is more sad than angry.)
Paying For It
literally bears Robert Crumb's seal of approval; the lettering is reminiscent of his own, and his name, when his introduction is announced, is second only in size to the title's and the author's. Underneath the text, and only slightly obscured, is one of the book's eight-panel grids; it shows Brown and a prostitute negotiating their encounter. When the dust jacket is removed, the book is blue, with a single panel of Brown and a woman kissing; the "a comic-strip memoir about being a john" subtitle is in his thought balloon. Obviously, both comics are going to deal with male/female relationships, but the brown reassures that, like a "chai" yoga mat, men needn't be embarrassed being seen in public with them.
Paying For It
reads like a cross between Sex and The City
(both Candace Bushnell's book and the TV show) and Steve Ditko's Avenging World
. Like Bushnell, Brown acts as a "social anthropologist." They both rely on "composite" characters; for her, it's Manhattanites, for him, it's the prostitutes he frequents as he purports to represent the voice of the "john." There are pages and panels in Paying For It
, funny ones, which could be right out of Bushnell's book: Brown wondering how he's going to pick up a hooker without a car, and then setting off on his bicycle, trolling for one with no success. As if taking their cue from the TV show, cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt play the Charlotte and the Miranda, respectively, to Brown as they stroll around Toronto, hang out in diners, talk about Brown's relationship troubles, argue and support each other. (Can single heterosexual men in their 30s find satisfying relationships with women?) These are the liveliest sequences in Paying For It
; Seth's gestural smoking indicates the broadest movement and emotion in the book. (More on that later.) Like Carrie Bradshaw, Brown is obsessed with "shopping," pointing out the features (and flaws) of each woman, like Bradshaw detailing what's so special about a particular pair of strappy sandals; he's the ultimate consumer, thinking about other users' feedback and composing posts for an escort review website, rating their friendliness level, even while with the prostitute in question — and when he's disappointed, he wants his money back. He's a conscientious customer, too, polite, money all ready to go. Like Sex and the City
, Paying For It
promises sexual frankness and an unsentimental view on societal mores, but doesn't quite deliver.
If Paying For It
is the Sex and the City
TV show, then Habibi
is a little bit like that Sex in the City
movie, set in "Abu Dhabi": it's all excess, larger-than-life, Sheik of Araby
reverie. Thompson tells the tale of Dodola, a child bride who prostitutes to feed herself and her ward, Zam. The two live in a desert, in a world part Orientalist, part modern and polluted. They separate when she is captured and put in a harem; they reunite after he has chosen to become a eunuch. Though Habibi
is obviously fictional, it's hard not to see shades of Thompson in both Dodola and Zam — at one point, she muses that "I'd always felt detached from my body," echoing Thompson's "Since a child, I was always displaced from my body," from his autobio gn Blankets
. If Paying For It
fancies itself unsentimental, Habibi
(floridly) imagines itself romantic; it dallies in romance novel territory, and it's difficult not to read "rape fantasy" into a sequence where Zam falls into a group who voluntarily castrate themselves for rather ill-defined "spiritual" and "ascetic" reasons, and castrates himself as well because he associates sex with dirty prostitution. Though, it seems the prettiest eunuch prostitutes for the good of the group, leading Zam to bravely offer to whore himself after the previous prettiest dies (after apologizing for "judging"), and then he's captured and carried off … and so forth.
The two books seem very different, visually; since Brown wants to make his pro-prostitution argument appear logical, he works very hard not to titillate. The reader is often looking down on Brown and his sexual partner as they neatly perform sex acts on beds that are barely mussed, as if viewing them in an operating theater. Brown's attempts to compartmentalize love and sex are reflected in his rigid eight-panel grids, with small, closely grouped panels set off by wide margins, giving the impression he's got it all sorted and cleared away. Thompson, like a greedy magpie, overstuffs his book with a style inspired by French brushwork, Arabic art, and early comic-book caricature (unfortunately, he seems to be drawing some of his black characters from early comic books/strips, too), bedazzling his own rather simple lovers meet/separate/reunite yarn with Bible and Qur'an stories, folklore, myth and borrowed symbolism. But, like Brown, Thompson wants to find patterns, make connections, impose order, chart the universe; he can't resist the impulse to catalog either (the changes in Dodola's body while she's pregnant
, etc.). Brown and Thompson have done their homework, and they want to show it off.
Despite their divergent aesthetic philosophies, however, both Brown ("I'm not trying to seduce you") and Thompson ("Would you like me to seduce you?") are fond of The Word; not only do they support their arguments with literary examples, they both cartooned two very similar sequences, of grids with words, sans images. Charles Hatfield talked about Thompson's sequence at length over at tcj.com
(a sequence which calls back the masturbation sequence in Blankets
, where sex, drawing and handwriting are all connected); in Paying For It
, a sequence like this occurs at the beginning of the book, when Brown's girlfriend, Sook-Yin, tells him she's interested in pursuing another sexual partner. The panels turn black as the two discuss it. This is so private that Brown, who (apparently) discloses the length and appearance of his penis in this book, and draws almost every panel of himself and his sexual encounters in areoles, as if in a spotlight, can only tell, not show. Brown budgets carefully — his money, his time and his orgasms. As this sequence suggests, he's absolutely miserly with depicting emotion. As Crumb points out in his introduction, Brown's — and essentially everyone else's in the book, especially the prostitutes, whose faces are obscured by their hair — have little to no facial expression. Paying For It
can be reread as only a study in slight changes or variations in expression, such as the awkward grin of Sook-Yin's new lover as he meets Brown, or her slight frown as she asks Brown not to bring prostitutes into her house. If, as Seth tells him over and over in the book, Brown is repressed, it may explain the emotionally voyeuristic relationship he and Sook-Yin seem to settle into (that's the only way I can think of to describe it). Although he occasionally shows the "Brown" character as irritated or petty, emotionally speaking, he's largely a cocktease.
What really seems to make both Habibi
and Paying For It
"Dick Lit," though, is that in these works, both Brown and Thompson organize their (and their characters') identity around love and sex. Both present themselves as sensitive males; Brown, in particular, tells himself "he shouldn't care what other people think," but he does; he wants the prostitutes to think of him as friendly and benevolent (he makes mention of nice clean towels he has to offer them); he wants others to see him as cool-headed and reasonable. (I first approached Paying For It
in the context of comics like Michelle Tea and Lauren McCubbin's Rent Girl
, and books like Shawna Kenney's I Was a Teenage Dominatrix
and Diablo Cody's Candy Girl
; all explored the feminist writers' firsthand experience with sex work. As such, Chester Browns' Paying For It
does, in fact, shed a little light on the experience of one "john"; but, like Crumb's intro, often seems to hinge on the anecdotal.)
Whether Brown or Thompson succeed in these works in their aim to separate love and sex, sex and the spiritual, is up for debate. In Thompson's case, this is most definitely informed and intertwined with his religious upbringing (explored at length in Blankets
); it's trained him to separate love and sex. Both Brown and Thompson, as autobio cartoonists, are driven by the need to confess, if nothing else, to alleviate guilt. (Some of Thompson's guilt appears to be of what is termed the "white liberal" variety, as he projects himself as an Arabic woman, a black man, toys with gender roles, and worries about the environment). But what is clear is that neither want to separate sex and cartooning, at least for the moment. In another humorous sequence (for a Ditko-style polemic, Paying For It
manages to be a lot funnier than Habibi
's humor is largely … ineffective), Brown, although initially trying to maintain anonymity with similarly pseudonymous women, can't resist giving one prostitute a copy of one of his graphic novels. Brown is capable of changing his sexual identity to the point where he can tell the world he sleeps with prostitutes; what he can't do, and what Thompson can't do, is think of himself as anything other than a cartoonist.
 If this is not enough, there are blurbs by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman on the back cover. Gaiman reinforces the book's importance; Moore insists the book requires rereading. Given much of what Moore said about his own Lost Girls, I can see him responding very well to the non-erotic ritual in the book.
 It's bad to buy into stereotypes, but as depicted here, Canadians do seem really polite.
Habibi images ©2011 Craig Thompson
Paying For It ©2011 Chester Brown
Blankets ©2003 Craig Thompson
Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.
Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010