In his discussion earlier today, Matthias Wivel argues that Chester Brown’s Paying For It includes an implied sacred component. Pointing to the use of distant views and the wormhole effect Brown uses in many panels, especially those depicting sex, Matthias argues that Brown presents a God’s-eye view of his own life, universalizing and consecrating his own experiences.
many scenes are viewed from above, from a kind of “God’s eye-perspective.” The peepshow aesthetic of the tiny two-by-three paneling seems to be for the benefit of an omniscient viewer, who at times loses interest and lets the eye wander, decentering the compositions. Chester walks, talks, and fucks under the scrutiny of a dispassionate oculus, darkening around the edges. It is almost as if he is inviting a higher judgment to balance out his own.
Sex scenes are privileged by even greater distance. They are uniformly denoted by a throbbing glow in the dark, blocking out the surroundings (this is worked to hilarious effect in chapter 2—the sequence where Chester keeps stopping, with the banal details of the surrounding room appearing each time). A necessary way of avoiding the interference that overly graphic renditions would create, this approach lends universalism to these scenes, threading them through the narrative as its central, ‘sacred’ constituent.
Brown’s cartooning has struck me as invoking this kind of higher order since at least, and unsurprisingly, his 1990s Gospel adaptations, which routinely employed a similarly elevated perspective, pared-down panel compositions, and suggestive framing to great effect.
It’s an interesting argument…but one that I’m afraid I don’t find especially convincing. I certainly agree that Brown is using a distancing mechanism. But I don’t think that distancing mechanism needs to imply a God or a sacralization. On the contrary, it seems to me that the eye you see through when you look at Brown having sex is not the eye of God, but the eye of porn. It does not provide a deeper insight, or a spiritual glow. On the contrary, the distancing turns Brown and his partners into rutting meat dolls, robbed of inner life or soul (you can’t, notably, see their eyes.) The distancing is not a means of handing control over to a larger power; it’s a way of enforcing control; of nailing human emotions and interactions down like butterflies in a sample case. It’s the expression not of spiritual insight, but of sadistic gaze.
I think this has some interesting implications for Matthias’ other arguments. He suggests that some critics of Paying For It (especially me) have focused on the polemic and failed to respond to the formal successes of Brown’s work. Those formal successes are (in a nice reversal) precisely the spiritual successes; they are the ineffable which give life to the comic. Or, as Matthias says, “[Brown’s] power to imbue any scene with an ineffable sense of meaning is one of his great gifts as a cartoonist, a gift few critics have attempted to critique or explicate, and which Spurgeon addressed sensitively in his review.”
What Matthias doesn’t seem to consider is the possibility that critics haven’t attempted to explicate or critique this gift in reference to Paying for It because the gift isn’t there. Brown’s grids, his simplified figures, the often mechanical stillness of his figures, the cadaverous death’s head of his self-portrait…it’s not, to me, suggestive, or spiritual, or ineffable. It’s ugly, routinized, and intentionally flat, almost desperate in its eschewal of beauty or resonance.
I do agree with what I take to be Matthias’s position that the blankness of the art has a thematic meaning. The art’s frozen distance undercuts Brown’s polemic, calling into question his claim that prostituted sex is joyful or spiritual.
The problem for me is that I don’t have much desire to see ugly, boring truths depicted in ugly, boring art. I’m not that interested in Chester Brown per se, so watching him work out his fairly transparent control issues by systematically draining his art of life and joy doesn’t appeal to me that much. Matthias sees this as a lack of sensitivity to the formal achievement…but surely it could also be simply a different evaluation of that achievement. Matthias sees God in the interstices of Brown’s routinized panels, and declares that those who don’t see Him are insufficiently attuned to the spiritual. Perhaps. But still, I look at Paying for It and what I see is the machine clanking and pistoning, grinding out hollow banality because hollow banality is what libertarians and autobio comics alike use to keep the ineffable at bay.