The latest from Toronto comics artist Chester Brown revisits numerous Bible narratives in a way that radically renovates token interpretation. Revisiting the tales of Cain and Abel, the Talents, and the Prodigal Son, Brown reconsiders the riddle of God’s favour, emphasizing the ways in which God repeatedly rewards rebellion and dismisses or even punishes blind obedience. In his telling of the stories of Tamar, Rahab and, most especially, of a Virgin Mary who isn’t a virgin at all, Brown attempts to dignify female sexuality as a viable negotiating tool instead of a source of shame. With his exploration of the story of Bathsheba in particular, Brown validates a woman’s desire to be sexually satisfied.
These are stories not only of sex, but also of tribalism, violence, betrayal and agricultural debates. The drawing style throughout Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is very much in line with Brown’s previous works, which include the scatological serial Ed the Happy Clown, his visionary biography Louis Riel, and Paying For It, his memoir-polemic about being a john that makes a pretty solid case for the decriminalization of sex work. These comics are spare yet detailed, cute and explicit, very readable for a general audience and, no doubt, incendiary for a conservative Christian audience. The comics are followed by an afterword and many pages of notes that are highly scrupulous about citing sources and acknowledging precedents.
Brown, who has ran for office with the Libertarian Party of Canada, is always an amiable interview subject: polite, articulate, and not at all shy about his opinions. We spoke over coffee last week in Toronto.
VUE WEEKLY: How did you first encounter Bible stories?
CHESTER BROWN: I grew up in a religious household. A go-to-church-every-Sunday family. My mom read books to us a lot, book of all kinds, but most especially Bible stories.
VW: Were you a believer as a kid?
CB: I believed throughout childhood. The first crisis of faith would have been maybe at 10 or 12. I came across a book called The Passover Plot by Hugh Schonfield. It was a big bestseller at the time. The thesis of the book was that Jesus had faked his death. He had been drugged on the cross, pretended to die, and was then revived later. As a kid I found this very convincing. I thought, “Maybe everyone around me is wrong!” That hit me in a big way.
VW: Have you read the book since?
CB: I have. It’s interesting. The guy was a serious scholar. He knew his stuff. I ultimately think it’s all a bit unlikely.
VW: I should find that book. I have these friends, not Catholic at all, but their eldest child, Henry, is on the autism spectrum. As a way to get more discipline in his life they decided to send Henry to Catholic school. But soon after starting Catholic school, Henry, being rather outspoken, would begin announcing to anyone who would listen in class and on the playground that “Jesus is stupid.”
CB: [Laughs] Wow.
VW: His theory was that if Jesus was so clearly capable of helping people he should have stayed alive longer instead of letting himself get crucified. So maybe Henry should read The Passover Plot.
CB: Smart kid.
VW: Did you have an illustrated Bible?
CB: More than one.
VW: Did they have an impact on you? Do you have cartoon images of Jesus, Mary and Moses in your head?
CB: Not really. I never copied those drawings. I liked to draw pretty regular kids’ stuff. Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. Batman, Superman. I wasn’t drawing Jesus as a kid.
VW: After this initial crisis of faith, have you gone through life believing? Have you felt confused about your spirituality?
CB: I never went as far as defining myself as an atheist. I’ve gone through my agnostic phases. For the most part I’ve believed in the existence of some sort of god. I’ve gone in and out of defining myself as Christian. Even now it’s mostly just that I can’t find a better term for what I am.
VW: Polemic seems to have become an animating factor in your work.
CB: Yeah. I’m not sure it’s going to stay like that. I love a lot of comics that aren’t polemical. Fantagraphics just published this big collection of Kaz’s Underworld comics. I bought it and I love it. That’s not political at all. He doesn’t have a particular ideology he’s pushing. And I think maybe I should be doing more stuff like this. But who knows? I’m not sure what’s next for me.
VW: The most memorable scene for me in Louis Riel was Riel’s mystical experience. I’ve been thinking that there’s sort of a trajectory here. You write a biography, one politically contentious on account of its subject alone, one that contains spiritual material. Then you write Paying For It, which has an overt polemic, and then we arrive at Mary Wept, which merges both the political and the spiritual. How does that sit with you? Are you still taking the same pleasure in making comics that you did as a kid drawing Mickey Mouse? Or have you moved onto a different sense of purpose?
CB: There is still a great satisfaction in simply drawing and getting a book done. It was enormous fun, diving into the Bible world. And the originals were larger than those of, say, Louis Riel, so I had more space to draw in. I think I enjoyed drawing this book maybe more than anything in my whole career.
VW: You get to draw God!
CB: Exactly. And it wasn’t just the drawing that I enjoyed. I’ve known these stories since childhood, so getting to do my versions of them was fun too. To do them with my own spin. My ideas about prostitution and whatnot.
VW: Did you find yourself identifying with Matthew? I think of the section in Mary Wept where Matthew is working through writer’s block. Of course, he makes a compromise that you don’t have to make. He just hopes that “people who have eyes to see” will read the subtext.
CB: That part of the book was definitely the most autobiographical, right down to the incident with the young woman. That’s based on something that happened to me. I was passing by a woman asking for change. I gave her five dollars, and she started following me, asking where I was going. She propositioned me the same way. Only, unlike Matthew, I said yes. I couldn’t have him say yes because I needed him to go back home and start writing.
VW: I have to imagine that a significant portion of your readership might feel uneasy or even hostile toward Christianity, while a lot of people who identify as Christian could find the text really incendiary. Are you anticipating an angry response?
CB: When we did the promotional tour for Paying For It I was assuming I was going to get heckled. Which never happened. Many people disagreed with the book, but they expressed their disagreement politely. Because that seemed to go OK, I’m not too nervous about the Mary Wept tour.
VW: The whole theme of God rewarding rebels seems cause for grumbling in some circles, but it’s the suggestion that there’s anything less than virginal about Jesus’ mom that could really set some Christians off. Have you already found yourself in heated discussions with people who have strong feelings about this stuff?
CB: I do have one friend in particular with whom I was debating these issues while working on the book. She’s much more conventionally Christian than I am. She believes you’re supposed to obey the lays of God and that the Virgin Mary was a virgin, not a prostitute. I remember expressing that idea to her with great trepidation, but we’re still friends. We’re actually getting together tomorrow night to go see Risen.
VW: You’re of a generation for whom alternative comics would not have seemed like a viable career. Did you have anything to fall back on?
CB: I had nothing. In my early 20s I had a regular, minimum-wage day-job. Then I started self-publishing my own mini-comics. I thought this was what my life was going to be. It’s not going to get any better than this. Then the offer came from Vortex Comics and things started to work out. But even if it hadn’t, I knew I was going to make comics the rest of my life. I guess you could call it a vocation. V
Available in April
Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus
By Chester Brown
Drawn + Quarterly, 280 pp, $24.95