Not long ago, Chester Brown gave a copy of his new book, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, to the sex worker he's been paying for the past 11 years.
"I saw her when she was about halfway through, and she was really enjoying the book," he says of her initial impressions. "And then, the next time I saw her, she'd finished the book. She was like, 'I didn't realize it was all about prostitution. What is your obsession with that subject?'"
Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is a spiritual successor, of sorts, to the acclaimed 2011 memoir/manifesto Paying for It, in which Brown, the brilliant cartoonist responsible for the graphic novels Louis Riel and The Playboy, among others, laid bare his decade-long interest and involvement with sex workers. It was a polemic masquerading as a comic, a passionate and surprisingly heartfelt defence as to why, at least according to Brown, prostitution shouldn't be criminalized or considered immoral.
For his latest book, he's gone back even further in time to bolster his arguments supporting the world's oldest profession, mining stories from the Old and New Testaments that he feels prove not only that "Jesus was in favour of prostitution," as he says, but that "the Virgin Mary was a prostitute," too.
"When I finished Paying for It, I thought: That's it, I've said my piece about prostitution," Brown says. "Actually, when I was doing the appendices in Paying for It, where I was talking about various arguments against prostitution, I originally did have a section where I was going to talk about religious arguments against it. But I'm glad I didn't because then I would have felt weird about doing this book – I would have wasted all that material just in an appendix!"
In a way, the 55-year-old Brown has been building toward this book, which combines a deep interest in Christian theology and sex-work advocacy, his entire career. Readers who've been following his work since the 1980s will recall that adaptations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew (the latter left unfinished) appeared in his early comic series Yummy Fur and Underwater. Sitting in a noisy coffee shop in downtown Toronto on the first day of April, Brown points out that his "interest in the subject goes back even before that. The reason why I wanted to adapt the gospels back then was because I was reading this material so obsessively. So it was natural that, sooner or later, a book like this would happen."
Growing up in Chateauguay, Que., Brown belonged to "a quite religious family. We went to church every Sunday, and my parents read the Bible and tried to instill Christian values in their children." But, by the time he was in his early 20s, Brown had stopped going to church. "I wasn't a serious believer any more," he says.
Then he met a girl.
"She was like, 'Are you a Christian, too?' And I was like, 'Oh, of course! I'm definitely a Christian!' But despite growing up in the religion, I wasn't totally sure what it meant to be a Christian. I thought I should read up about it." Soon after, while visiting his father, he spied a copy of William Scott's 1946 book The Gospel Records on a shelf and decided to read it. "I just found it completely fascinating and absorbing. I was like, 'I want to read more books like this.' So I began haunting the religious studies sections of bookstores and actually reading the Bible myself."
Brown's relationship with the young woman eventually ended, "but my fascination with the subject stayed. And I think part of it is it's one of the great mysteries – like, what did Jesus really believe? What was he teaching? Why was he crucified? Did he claim to be the Messiah? It's all kind of a mystery."
His new book, subtitled "Prostitution and religious obedience in the Bible," includes adaptations of several biblical stories, from Cain and Abel to the Prodigal Son, and, like Paying for It, is backloaded with almost 100 densely packed pages of notes, which are impossible to distill here. "Christianity is the reason why so many people think prostitution is wrong," says Brown, whose argument, in brief, is that Jesus's genealogy as outlined in the Book of Matthew – specifically the inclusion of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – is actually a coded admission that Mary was a prostitute.
"I think the point of whoever put together that genealogy, or at least the reason for putting in the four women before Mary, was they're there to indicate that Mary was a prostitute," he says. "Or at least that's my thesis."
This will no doubt rankle some readers. The book won't be out until next week, and already his long-time publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, is calling it one of the most controversial releases of 2016 – perhaps simply for marketing purposes, perhaps to get out in front of the storm, should one develop. Brown has already dealt with one unhappy reader; he mentions a close friend whom he describes in the afterword as "similarly obsessed with religious matters" and whom he wanted to thank in the acknowledgments. "She was very offended by this book. 'No, I don't want my name mentioned in here. I don't want my name associated with this book.' But we're still friends. She's read the book."
Still, he thinks any controversy will be minimal.
"When I went out on tour for Paying for It, I was expecting that sort of stuff," he says. "Not picketers, but I was expecting, during one of the events, that someone would heckle me or something like that. And nothing like that happened. I mean, there were a few people who disagreed with the book, and maybe would get up and ask me a question and express their disagreement, but it was always done respectfully and politely. So, because of my experience with that book, I'm not expecting hecklers or protesters this time. But maybe this is the time that I'll get them."
A couple of days before our interview, Brown was in what could have been a catastrophic accident: He was on his bike, heading home, when a car door suddenly opened ahead of him. He struck it and was thrown into the street, where he was hit by a car. He was not wearing a helmet, yet he walked away from the scene unscathed.
He throws back his head and laughs, loudly, when I suggest this means God isn't angry with him for writing the book.