Chester Brown is recalling the first time he started to doubt his Christianity. At 11 he read the book jacket of The Passover Plot, a book which frames the crucifixion as an elaborate hoax by a drugged Jesus who "rose from the dead" once the effects wore off. Brown was forever changed: "I felt dizzy. I walked home in a daze, wondering ‘How can my parents believe what they believe?’"
The Montreal-raised cartoonist behind sequential art classics as Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel and I Never Liked You, is bald save for a frizzy mane of hair. He has the pensive demeanor of someone with a clear command of themselves, but his eyes flicker with the memory of that dust jacket. Brown is still a Christian, though his faith isn't in an adherence to rules or laws. In fact, he's willing to put a fresh perspective on some of the contents of the Holy Bible.
To that end, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus positions Jesus Christ as pro-prostitute. It follows 2011's Paying For It, an autobiographical chronicle of Brown's experiences hiring sex workers (Brown has been seeing the same sex worker for 13 years). He's unrepentant, but certainly not alone in deviating from doctrine. "I think most people make up their religion in their heads," he said, when we spoke at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in mid-May. For Mary Wept Brown collected Biblical parables with direct and interpreted references to prostitution, a task aided by his lifelong study of all things Christian, resulting in one of the most provocative and spiritual comics of the year.
In your book, people who go against God’s word and make their own path are those who are embraced by him. Do the concepts of sin and repentance have any place in your interpretations?
Brown: It’s my argument that Jesus didn’t believe in the concept of sin. Right and wrong to him related to love. The more loving you are, the more you're connecting to God and the better that was going to be for everyone around you. The less loving you are, the less you’re relating to God. That’s why my interpretation of the Book of Job is in there, it’s a view of God that sees him as uninterested in the laws of Moses and what we think of right and wrong.
How do you feel about the rise of religious fundamentalism all over the world that goes against your view of a loving God?
Um, well, obviously I’m arguing for a different way of relating to religion and a different way of relating to God...it’s hard for me to say that I see it as bad, because I do think that everything happens for a reason, but I hope that we’re moving towards a world in which people understand that what God wants from us is to be more loving, not people who follow a set of religious laws or rules.
It’s hard for you to see religious fundamentalism as bad…?
[laughs] I’m not sure that I see anything as bad. This is a good world. This is God’s world. Everything happens the way God intends it to happen, I think.
So I suppose you’re not interested in art that combats religious fundamentalism, which is how I took Mary Wept.
Well, you’re not wrong to see it that way. Sure, it is against the fundamentalist point of view, and if it changes the mind of a particular fundamentalist, I would be happy about that.
In your book, you suggest that Jesus saw paying for prostitutes as an act of charity. Doesn’t that interpretation insinuate sex work is somehow rooted in a lack?
I see a specific sex worker on a regular basis. Some people might see that as me exploiting her situation; that she apparently needs the money I give her in order to live. The truth is if I stopped seeing her she would survive. She has a day job, and she’d be able to make some kind of arrangement in her life. Of course some people might—and they certainly have in the past—argue that she’s exploiting my need for sex. The truth is that neither of us see it that way. We’ve been seeing each other for 13 years, and this is just a way of us giving to each other.
Often we help each other in ways that aren’t in any way related to sex or money: If she needs help moving furniture around her apartment, or she'll make food for me if i’m coming over, or whatever. It’s a relationship that goes beyond what a sex worker and client is about. The relationship between sex workers and clients can be about two people who have affection for each other, giving each other something rather than exploiting a need.
Your previous book Paying For It was controversial to some in the sex worker community. What do you feel your responsibility is to listen to these criticisms and respond to them appropriately?
We all have to be sensitive to each other’s criticisms and points of view. Of course I should be paying attention to what sex workers say, and I think sex workers should also be interested in what clients have to say about sex worker rights. We’re both involved in this struggle, although I think that clients should be more involved than they are. I suspect [sex workers are more involved] because they’re more likely to identify as sex workers: that’s their source of income, it's their career, their identity.
A guy who is married might see his sexual identity as much more caught up in being a husband than someone who occasionally visits sex workers. Guys like me who only pay for sex, who first and foremost identify as clients of sex workers—there aren’t that many of us. I suspect we’re a minority of sex worker clients. It’s natural that there aren’t a lot of clients of sex workers out there on the ramparts, so sex workers can’t rely on us as much to stand by them calling for their rights the way we should be.