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Review: Paying For It

Chester Brown
Drawn And Quarterly
$24.95, 292 pages

by Melissa Gira Grant

Paying-For-It We know by now that men don’t go to prostitutes only for sex. For those men who are there to buy the experience of acceptance, sex is just a narrative device, forming the perimeter of the act. This is how Chester Brown illustrates sex with prostitutes in his new graphic novel Paying For It. Once he has paid a woman for sex and he’s stripped naked, the individual women’s rooms fade to a storybook black entirely inconsistent with his unflinching eye for all sex’s detail, but – this allows him to halo their bodies in light, dividing their skin from the dark. Maybe it’s just one way of showing the isolated moment of orgasm in a comic strip. The light always comes back on, and all too human conversation follows. There’s nothing idyllic about these exchanges. It’s not his point. Paying For It is prostitution in all its boring, everyday splendor. Unlike most contemporary prostitution myths against which its positioned, there are no victims and there are no saviors.

Chester Brown writes with the career client’s understanding of the practicalities of commercial sex. His project here is not too different from the one taken up by regular clients of prostitutes around the world: that of cataloguing their experiences by partner, date, sex acts performed, cost, and how much they enjoyed it. In his search for new prostitutes to hire, Chester Brown writes that he comes across websites where clients post these stories in a review-format, but distances himself from the behavior – one he himself engages in with Paying For It. It’s not just for the sake of cold record-keeping that he documents his time with prostitutes. If that was all Chester Brown – and those other clients – needed in order to make sense of what prostitution means in their lives, they could just use a spreadsheet.

There were two types of regular clients I encountered as a prostitute. One sees prostitutes over and over because he accepts the interchangeability of sexual partners when one’s aim for sexual partnership is self-centered; that is, it’s not one of mutual partnership, but a quest for self-definition. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s precisely what one should pay a prostitute for. Another type of regular client seeks a transcendent experience he ascribes to the individual attributes and skills of the prostitute he is with in that moment. He is a more traditional lover sort. He believes that the potential of sex – and of uncovering his selfhood – is in the body of the prostitute. He is buying not one perfect sexual act that will reveal the self, but one perfect state of being that will yield perfect sex.

Paying For It introduces us to – or, Chester presents himself as – the first type of regular. He wants us to believe that he’s telling us his story not to boast, but so that he might understand himself. His prowess, as he experiences it, is as a truth-teller. His heart is no less in his pursuit of coming into comfort with himself, even if he’s not willing to share his emotional life with another human being. Chester Brown portrays a man capable of that kind of opening up: early in the book, he goes through an unconventional sort of breakup with his live-in girlfriend, who continues to live-in and take other lovers. (She’s Sook-Yin Lee, the actress who portrayed a woman on a similar quest in John Cameron Mitchell’s landmark sex movie Shortbus.) The rapid cycling through of Chester Brown’s sex partners – and that he pays them – may make him come off like a man in search of kicks, but he’s just gone looking for himself. And he shows up, in nearly every frame, as consumed with the ritual of finding paid sex as he is coming to terms with what his actions say about the kind of man he is, the kind of men all men are.

Mercifully he makes few pronouncements about the kind of people that sex workers are. He puts this right up front in his story: he doesn’t want to out the women he hires, so he doesn’t draw their faces or include any information that might identify them to a reader. While this can seem like a dehumanizing choice, especially given how often the media defaults to such blurring and cropping in its depictions of prostitutes, in Paying For It, it’s an ethical consideration. Chester Brown rightly limits his gaze to himself, and some friends who consented to appear and be quoted. (In the appendices, he even gives them space to respond to his portrayals.)

Where Paying For It falters is less a problem of Chester Brown’s scope as a storyteller, and more a matter of how a book like this lands in such a limited field. Every book about sex work bears far too much importance, when there are so few that resist universalizing prostitution out of one person’s experience. (One that does this very well is another graphic novel: Rent Girl, by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin, which has big and contradictory things to say about prostitution, and is still a deeply personal and particular story.) When Chester Brown winds up the book with two too-fast conclusions, one romantic and one political, he’s doing what feels like an about-face, a play at repositioning what came before as a moral tale of the kind he has opposed to this point. Then, once he drops the curtain on his story, he tacks on a call for the decriminalization of prostitution. It’s not that I disagree – but I went cold with his hasty proposal of a legal framework, as a coda to a story far more moving than any debate on prostitution. It would take nothing away from the rightness of his story, and how nakedly he tells it, to simply let it stand as his own.

Melissa Gira Grant is the co-editor of Coming & Crying, a collection of true stories about sex. She's written about prostitution, politics, and technology for Jezebel, Slate, and The Guardian (UK).

Brian McFadden Lands New York Times Gig

This Sunday The New York Times will unveil its newly redesigned Week In Review section, which will include editorial cartoons by Brian McFadden, creator of the weekly comic strip "Big Fat Whale."

McFadden says he will doing a weekly comic "that hopefully makes a point or two while also being funny."

"The strip will cover something topical, but it can be anything from the week's big story to something that slipped through the news cycle's cracks," McFadden said. "As long as I have something unique and funny to say about it, I can make a comic about it."

As part of the redesign the Times will drop its long-running roundup of syndicated editorial cartoons and replace it with work commissioned exclusively for the paper, which puts it in line with how they handle columns and essays.

Asked how it feels to land at the nation's biggest newspaper, McFadden said, "I don't think it's fully sunk in yet." The gig is scheduled to last a few months with the intent of the space rotating to other cartoonists.

In a statement to Editor & Publisher, Op-Ed page art director Aviva Michaelov said, “There are more terrific cartoonists out there now than ever before. I hope this feature can be a stage to exhibit their talents.”

"I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself to succeed," McFadden said, "so when it comes time to pick the next person for the gig, another alt-weekly cartoonist will be at the top of the pile, instead of the bottom, with the escort ads."

-Matt Bors

New Cartoonist: Mehedi Haque

The latest addition to our cartoonist community is Mehedi Haque from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has been working as a political cartoonist for New Age, a daily newspaper, for 8 years. His great work will add another perspective to our ever-growing platform. You can see his first published work for Cartoon Movement here.

The Nisoor Square Shootings by Dan Archer

Today Cartoon Movement publishes a groundbreaking work of comics journalism by Dan Archer. "The Nisoor Square Shootings" is a multimedia comic that allows readers to move through a real-life event, seeing things as they unfolded from multiple perspectives.


In September of 2007, employees of the military contractor Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square, Baghdad, sparking international outrage. Charges against Blackwater were controversially dismissed and the incident drew attention to the role contractors play in the Iraq War more than any other. The case was reopened in April.

Based on eyewitness testimony, photo references, and numerous reports, Archer recreated the time line of the shooting, breaking down the chaotic events into an accessible multimedia comic that showcases the power and capability of graphic journalism on the web.

Review: The Influencing Machine

Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld
W. W. Norton & Company
$23.95, 170 pages
Book trailer here

by Sarah Jaffe

Influencing_machineThe Influencing Machine is more than graphic nonfiction. It's a media studies course in itself, distilling a solid chunk of what I and thousands like me studied in journalism school into about 150 pages of art, a book that is itself a lecture.

Of course it took a person like Brooke Gladstone, who breaks down the myths and mistakes of the media every week on NPR's On The Media, to make this book happen. Working with Josh Neufeld, the artist behind the heartbreaking A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Gladstone's media manifesto provides valuable background critical for understanding the problems and possibilities in this particular moment in journalism.

The use of Brooke's image throughout the book, as a guide through both history and theory, works visually the same way her familiar voice works on the radio; as a comforting presence that adds  personality and allows perspective on recent events, while making the distant past come alive. There's humor aplenty—even a vintage dirty joke or two.

  Particularly when it comes to complicated theory and research about media's effects, the comic format shines.  Susie Cagle's work with infographics has shown that comics are actually a great way to break down numbers, illustrate statistics, and generate interest in otherwise wonky subjects. That works here as well, particularly with the illustration of Daniel Hallin's “Spheres of Influence” using a donut.

But the comics format also allows Gladstone and Neufeld to insert the personalities of the theorists, putting a face to the largely thankless work of communications research and media criticism. It also, of course, allows them to pass subtle judgment, poking subtle fun at Jeff Jarvis's “full disclosure” on his blog by portraying him  in an X-Ray machine or putting Clay Shirky in the Lotus Position, the Buddha of the Internet.

Can illustration ever be “objective”? Well, Gladstone doesn't think objectivity is possible in the first place, and she tosses the very idea aside with this book, the very existence of which is a statement in favor of point of view and personality in reporting. And yet she makes a good case for the continuing need to verify facts, provide context, and not mislead news consumers—particularly with an illustration that adds perspective to the famous photos of Iraqis destroying a statue of Saddam Hussein. Many have probably heard the debunking of the myth behind that story, but the wide-angle view of the square provided here gives a more visceral feeling to that truth.

The tone of the book is largely upbeat, particularly on the ever-present question of whether new media technologies are changing our brains (constantly the subject of Op-Eds and speeches by people who make their money in older technology—like, er, books and comics, as well as radio).  But Gladstone and Neufeld do leave us with a few worries.  Particularly about the “photoshopification” of society, and the growing ease of faking photographs making photos themselves less trustworthy.

“The big threat of photoshopification is not that we will believe documents and photos that are fake,” says comic-Gladstone, standing on a literal soapbox. “It's that we'll find it easier to disbelieve documents and photos that are real. When it's convenient.”

The next panel is a small but jolting rendering of that famous Abu Ghraib photo, of a hooded prisoner standing on a box with wires clipped to his fingers.

The book works this way many times—using a simple cartoon to call up the visual memory of something striking, poignant, or horrifying.  Often these are small, unadorned panels, the last one on the page, forcing you to pause and consider what those images really mean.

The introduction explains what Gladstone means by The Influencing Machine. It's a psychological phenomenon, documented throughout history, of paranoid patients convinced they're being controlled by a machine.  It's a great metaphor for the press, of course the biggest “influencing machine” of all.  The problem with it is that it falls by the wayside as the book wades into its material, returning at the end for the discussion of new technologies. The “influencing machines” of social media, after all, are being blamed for lack of attention span, credited with fomenting revolution, and of course, are currently in the process of screwing up another Congressman's career.

If the point here is that, as Gladstone quotes comic-book hero Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility,” then the book does a wonderful job preparing the reader for that responsibility. Unfortunately, it then seems to imply that all we can do about the media is shrug our shoulders and watch it change—and watch it change our lives. “We get the media we deserve,” says comic-Gladstone, but do we? Who deserves it? Did the people of Iraq deserve the media of the U.S.?

I called The Influencing Machine Gladstone's media manifesto above. But can it truly be a manifesto with a conclusion that leaves the reader—even a passionate media junkie like me—wondering what we can do about all of this, or if there's anything we should do?  Perhaps “primer” is a better word, since the book is the best single volume you can find for a deep background in history, theory, and a decent analysis of the current moment.

But I'm not content simply with analysis. I want to know how to fix things.


Sarah Jaffe is a freelance writer and comic book nerd. She has a master's in journalism from Temple University, and you can find her work here and follow her on Twitter.

Interactive Comics Journalism

Archer Next Wednesday we will publish a new piece of comics journalism by Dan Archer of the UK. It is an interactive time line about the Blackwater shootings in Nisoor Square, Baghdad in 2007, where 17 Iraqi civilians were killed. The comic takes our slogan 'there more than one truth' to the next level, by showing several different perspectives on the incident pieced together from news reports and eyewitness testimony.



A Knight Fellow at Stanford for the last year, Dan recently gave a short talk about how he incorporates comics and multi-media visuals into his work.

New Cartoonist: David Pugliese

NOzey9NlRP6vL7aMYTEdDw Our newest cartoonist hails from Buenos Aires in Argentina. David Pugliese is an illustrator, mainly using traditional materials and techniques. His stunning work has been published in Argentina and abroad, appearing in The Wittenburg Door (USA), Teína (Spain) and Reader´s Digest (Argentina), to name a few. Visit his website here.

The Future Of Journalism Is... Comics!

by Matt Bors

A few months ago, at the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland, Oregon, I appeared on a comics journalism panel with Steve Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian. Duin, who is collaborating with Shannon Wheeler on a graphic novel about the BP oil spill in the Gulf, opened by stating, "Fewer people seem motivated by the enduring imperative of journalism, which is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And a business that is suddenly a slave to website traffic is no longer willing to spend 60 seconds understanding Israel, much less 60 days," a reference to Sarah Glidden's recent graphic travelogue.

Being at a comic convention, Duin was surrounded by cartoonists and comics readers. "The possibility that a story might be better told in words and pictures than in words alone is hardly a news bulletin to anyone in this room," he said.

But a week earlier, at the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, the possibilities available in combining comics and journalism were new to many of the journalists, editors and activists who came to came to the panel where myself, Susie Cagle, Ronald Whimberly, Erin Polgreen, and moderator Sarah Jaffe of GRITtv discussed what is happening in the field.

"The Future Of Journalism Is... Comics?" was the panel's original title, but feeling the question mark spoke to the uneasiness editors have in dealing seriously with comics, we changed it to an exclamation mark at the last moment. There seems to be an eagerness for something new in our current media landscape and comics journalism is that; an idea that is no longer a novelty, but a genuine emerging field. The future of journalism is comics. At least, part of it.

You can listen to the entire hour and half long panel here or watch the YouTube video below.


During the end of the panel, Susie, Ron, and I drew as we answered questions and took turns with a Wacom tablet that was projected onto a screen. Susie also did a nice comic for Truthout on the conference.