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Graphic novelist Chester Brown in his downtown Toronto apartment this month. A red filter was placed over the flash resulting in the red cast of the photo. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail)
Graphic novelist Chester Brown in his downtown Toronto apartment this month. A red filter was placed over the flash resulting in the red cast of the photo. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail)

Books: Profile

Entering Chester Brown's red-light district Add to ...

As election day draws near, the Libertarian Party candidate for the federal riding of Trinity-Spadina is thinking about getting on his bike to do some campaigning in the wetlands of downtown Toronto.

Not that Chester Brown is expecting to be Ottawa-bound Tuesday morning. A lean 50-year-old with a noggin best described as "skull-like," Brown ran for the same party in the same riding in 2008, earning 490 votes. "Pathetic, of course," he admits with an almost giggly laugh as he sits on the narrow, faintly monkish bed in his bachelor condominium. "But pretty good for a libertarian."

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Brown does, in fact, have a pretty substantial following; just not as a politician. Among the Canadian mainstream, he's famous as the creator of the astonishingly successful illustrated biography of Métis leader Louis Riel. Originally released as a series of pamphlets in 1999, Louis Riel has gone on to sell more than 50,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada since its publication as a book in 2003 by Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly. It earned Brown two Harveys (comicdom's Oscars) plus the heartfelt thanks of librarians and teachers for making Canadian history exciting for "the kids."

There's a new Brown book out this weekend, however, that may test the tolerance of those whose affection for Brown starts and ends with Louis Riel. Called Paying for It, the "comic-strip memoir" tracks Brown's sexual adventures in the past 12 years with more than 20 female "escorts" in Toronto. Smart, unflinchingly honest, frequently funny, occasionally charming - and chock-full of nudity - it's clear we're not in Batoche any more.

For some, this might seem career suicide, a kiss-off of the good-will generated by Louis Riel. But for Brownians who've been fans for 30 years, not just the past eight, Paying for It will be received less as faux pas than welcome return to the unfailingly candid, TMI autobiographical terrain of, say, 1992's The Playboy, Brown's vivid recreation of the masturbatory mania of his teen years near Montreal.

Clearly, Drawn & Quarterly thinks Paying for It will pay off: It's printed almost 20,000 hardcovers, with an introduction by the legendary R. Crumb. According to associate publisher Peggy Burns, "We project 75 per cent of the run will sell in the U.S." - hence Burns's tour next month to cities such as New York and Chicago. Besides, D & Q has always prided itself on being an "artist-centric company: If this is the book Chester wants, this is the book we put out." Lest we forget, she says: "Everyone thought Chester was more crazy when he was doing the bio of the obscure, to most of his fans, Louis Riel!"

During an interview in the laughably cluttered condo that's been both home and studio for the past 10 years, Brown claims not to remember the date he first paid to have sex. A peculiar lapse, that, since Brown's famous among friends for the acuity of his memory. For the record, it's there on page 29 in Paying for It: March 26, 1999. While the liaison (with "Carla") lasted all of 30 minutes and cost the nervous, timid Brown $120 (excluding his $40 tip), the event proved a life-changer, maybe even a life-saver. All of Brown's sex since has been paid sex, in fact - albeit with an intriguing twist in recent years.

Thing is, Brown doesn't just buy sex; he advocates for the practice. Go through Paying for It's 50 pages of notes and appendices and you'll find not only a manifesto for decriminalizing prostitution but an apostrophe to prostitution as a cure of sorts for the "possessive monogamy" Brown disavows. In one of those inversions beloved of libertarians, Brown even goes as far as to declare: "Prostitution should be seen as primarily sacred and only secondarily as a business"; it is "too intimate, too sacred," in fact, to be taxed the same way as any other job.

Brown initially conceived Paying for It - a title he's not entirely keen on since it implies moral and physical "burdens" he claims not to have suffered - as a much larger opus "about my whole sexual history, starting with my childhood. … But when I ran the idea by the ex-girlfriends I'm still friends with, neither was very keen on it, so that kind of put the kibosh on it. I had to narrow down."

The "twist" in Brown's sex life is "Denise," Call Girl No. 21 in Paying for It. More than eight years after their first session, Brown continues to see Denise; in fact, she's been his sole sexual partner for several years, and vice-versa - a state of affairs that, in part, has prompted one Brown amigo, fellow cartoonist Dave Lapp, to proclaim Denise "probably the love of his life." Chester himself admits he loves her, while quickly adding "it doesn't feel like romantic love, or not like the first couple of times I was in what could be called romantic love."

Perhaps the fact he still has to (yes!) pay Denise each time he wishes to have sex with her has something to do with this. Admittedly, the cash outlay hasn't obviated all tensions, but they never "escalate" into the "melodrama"of previous involvements, one of which was with Sook-Yin Lee, host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera. They haven't lived together since 2001, but remain great friends - even though she says she's still "the one person Chester can't do a likeness of." A key figure in Paying for It (and pretty much the only female to keep her clothes on), Lee unhesitatingly endorses her ex's memoir as "a brave, important book, one touching on all kinds of stuff that I think can start conversations that have been absent in the larger cultural sphere."

Another Paying for It staple, cartoonist Seth, serves as foil to Brown's ruminations on marriage and the like. New Yorker cover artist, creator of the Clyde Fans picture novellas, Seth counts Brown as his "best friend." Nevertheless, he believes "Chet's a bit lacking in the emotional range department." Paying for It puts "together a very ironclad argument" for decriminalizing prostitution. "Except for one thing: Chet doesn't take into account that human beings are involved. His argument for prostitution is like this very good system if you happen to have a planet populated by robots."

Brown, for his part, remains unperturbed. If (or when) the relationship with Denise ends, he says he won't rule out resuming the life of john Brown. As for the work, true to his credo of "working against people's expectations," he expects his next project will be "another historical thing. That's all I'm prepared to say right now."

Chester Brown appears at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival May 7 and 8. He's in Montreal May 14 and Vancouver May 18.

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