Monday, September 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 236 (9/27) -- The Playboy by Chester Brown

When it comes to autobiographical comics by men living in Canada about their complicated relationships with porn, you go to Joe Matt for squalor and Chester Brown for class. While Matt wallows in his dysfunctionality and odd fetishism, Brown shows a more conventional fear/guilt reaction to sexually exciting material. And Matt's stories are nearly always set in the present day, showing what he's doing then, while this graphic novel from Brown is a retrospective -- the story of what he did for, to and with Playboy magazines when he was a teenager in suburban Quebec.

The Playboy is narrated by the present-day Brown [1], in the form of a small bat-winged figure, who flies through the life of his teenage self. The younger Chester Brown never acknowledges his older self -- the narrator may look like the stereotypical "bad angel" of a thousand cartoons, but he's just describing to us Chester's thoughts and motivations, not tempting him to do anything. It's an interesting artistic choice, and it adds life and focus to the story without entirely making sense in that context.

The batwinged narrator does allow Brown to comment on himself -- to speak directly to his younger self -- without the need for caption boxes; it's intriguing to be reminded that art-comics were turning away from captions twenty years or more ago. It also allows Brown to tell this story quickly, which he needs -- this is a hundred-and-seventy page graphic novel, but each page has only two or three panels floating in an inky background, so it has the narrative of a book half the length. (The black background and few panels do impose a sense of deliberation, as if Brown has thought a lot about his past and his relationship with porn, and decided to show us these precise images and moments. It also subtly refers to his habit of ripping out the pages of Playboy that he particularly liked and just keeping those while discarding the rest of the magazine.)

Young Chester Brown was interested in sex, much like any fifteen-year-old boy in 1975. Somehow -- The Playboy doesn't go back that far; Chester knows it exists the way he knows where his house is -- Chester came to know about Playboy, and the first scene here is the day he bought his first issue. He used it as teenage boys have for three generations -- rushed home to a private spot, found some pictures he liked, and masturbated. (Chester has what I'd call an odd technique, but that may just be my lack of experience with other men's styles.) Afterward, he was disgusted with himself, and hid the magazine in a field near his house. Even later, he came back again to that magazine.

Those actions repeated themselves, in various permutations, over and over again, for the next few years -- getting Playboys, using them, hoarding them, discarding them, only to go back to get the very same issues again and start the cycle once more. Unlike Joe Matt -- and unlike the usual scare-tactic attacks on pornography -- Brown didn't move on to "harder stuff;" as he depicts it here, he knew what worked for him and kept going back to that. Near the end, he notes that he found masturbating to be more fulfilling than having sex -- well, on average, it probably is for most people. (As Woody Allen once said -- "Don't knock masturbation; it's sex with someone I love.")

Despite the narrating presence of the older devil-Brown, there's little moral disapproval aimed at teenage Chester -- and all of that is in terms of what he felt and thought at the time. I'm sure Chester Brown wasn't entirely happy with his younger self's relationship with Playboy magazine -- and he mentions at the end that he's over Playboy, despite still having a collection of his favorite nude pictures from it -- but he never once says what he did was wrong, or wishes that he'd been other than he was.

Twenty years later, The Playboy is almost quaint. A fifteen-year-old today grew up entirely in the age of the Internet, and has almost certainly seen much nastier pornography than young Chester Brown ever dreamed of. (Wherever you are on the Internet, you're never more than three clicks away from porn.) But the core of Playboy -- one young man's fascination and guilt and ambivalence for porn and his reaction to it -- is just as true and clear to that generation as to any other. And, to broaden it beyond sex and desire, we all have wanted things that we didn't want to want -- drugs or sex or fame or something shiny. The Playboy is one of the starkest stories in comic about desire: how it feels before, and how unsatisfying it is afterward.

[1] "Present-day" at the time; the main action of The Playboy takes place from 1975 through 1978, but it was written and drawn around 1990, when Brown was thirty.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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