Chester Brown, at the 2009 Toronto Word on the Street festival
|Born||Chester William David Brown
May 16, 1960
Brown has gone through several stylistic periods in his comics work. He gained notice in alternative comics circles in the 1980s for the surreal, scatological Ed the Happy Clown serial. After bringing Ed to an abrupt end, he delved into confessional autobiographical comics in the early 1990s, and was strongly associated with fellow Toronto cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt, and the contemporary autobiographical comics trend. Two graphic novels came from this period: The Playboy (1992) and I Never Liked You (1994). Surprise mainstream success in the 2000s came with Louis Riel (2003), a historical-biographical graphic novel of rebel Métis leader Louis Riel. Paying for It (2011) was controversial as a polemic in support of decriminalizing prostitution.
Brown draws from a range of influences, including monster and superhero comic books, underground comix, and comic strips such as Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. His later works are known for a sparse drawing style and narratives with flat dialogue. Rather than the traditional method of drawing complete pages, he draws one panel at a time without regard for page composition, assembling the panels into pages after completion. Since the late 1990s Brown has had a penchant for providing detailed annotations for his work, and extensively altering and reformatting older works.
Brown at first self-published his work as a minicomic called Yummy Fur beginning in 1983; Toronto publisher Vortex Comics began publishing the series as a comic book in 1986. The content tended towards controversial themes: a distributor and a printer dropped it in the late 1980s, and it has been held up at the Canadian border. Since 1991, most of Brown's output has been published by Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Following Louis Riel Brown gave up on serializing his work, preferring to publish it directly as graphic novels. He has received grants from the Canadian government to complete Louis Riel and Paying for It.
- 1 Life and career
- 2 Personal life
- 3 Work
- 4 Bibliography
- 5 Recognition
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Life and career
Chester William David Brown was born on 16 May 1960 at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He grew up in Châteauguay, a Montreal suburb with a large English-speaking minority. His grandfather was history professor Chester New, after whom Chester New Hall is named at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He has a brother, Gordon, who is two years his junior. His mother suffered from schizophrenia, and died in 1976 after falling down the stairs while in the Montreal General Hospital.
Though he grew up in a predominantly French-speaking province and had his first mainstream success with his biography of French-speaking Métis rebel leader Louis Riel, Brown says he doesn't speak French. He said he had little contact with francophone culture when he was growing up, and the French speakers he had contact with spoke with him in English.
Brown described himself as a "nerdy teeneager" attracted to comic books from a young age, especially ones about superheroes and monsters. He aimed at a career in superhero comics, and after graduating from high school in 1977 headed to New York City, where he had unsuccessful but encouraging interviews with Marvel and DC Comics. He moved to Montreal, where he attended Dawson College, but as the program did not aim at a comics career, he dropped out after a little more than a year, and tried once again to find work in New York, but was again rejected. He discovered the alternative comics scene that was developing in the early 1980s, and grasped its feeling freedom to produce what he wanted. At 19 he moved to Toronto, where he got a job in a photography lab and lived frugally in rooming houses.
At around twenty, Brown's interests moved away from superhero and monster comic books towards the work of Robert Crumb and other underground cartoonists, Heavy Metal magazine, and Will Eisner's graphic novel A Contract with God (1978). He started drawing in an underground-inspired style, and submitted his work to publishers Fantagraphics Books and Last Gasp; he got an encouraging rejection when he submitted to Art Spiegelman and François Mouly's Raw magazine. He became friends with film archivist Reg Hartt, and the two unsuccessfully planned to put out a comics anthology called Beans and Wieners as a showcase for local Toronto talent.
In 1983 Brown's girlfriend Kris Nakamura introduced him to the small-press publisher John W. Curry (or "jwcurry"), whose example inspired the local small-press community. Nakamura convinced Brown that summer to print his unpublished work as minicomics, which he did under his Tortured Canoe imprint. The sporadically self-published Yummy Fur lasted seven issues as a minicomic made in Brown's spare time while working for a copy shop. Brown soon found himself at the centre of Toronto's small-press scene. While he found it difficult at first, Brown managed to get the title into independent bookstores, the emerging comic shops, and other countercultural retailers, and also sold it through the growing North American zine network. Yummy Fur had reespectable sales through several reprintings and repackagings, and had a positive review in The Comics Journal, a publication Brown looked up to.
Brown and a number of other cartoonists featured in a show called Kromalaffing at the Grunwald Art Gallery in early 1984. He had become a part of Toronto's avant-garde community, along with other artists, musicians and writers, centred around Queen Street West. In 1986, at the urging of Brown's future friend Seth, Vortex Comics publisher Bill Marks picked up Yummy Fur as a regular, initially bimonthly comic book. Brown quit his day job to work full-time on Yummy Fur.
Vortex and Ed the Happy Clown
Starting publication in December 1986, the first three issues of Yummy Fur reprinted the contents of the seven issues of the earlier minicomic, and Brown quit his job at the copy shop. Brown began to weave together some of the earlier unrelated strips into an ongoing surreal black comedy called Ed the Happy Clown. The bizarre misfortunes of the title character include being inundated in the faeces of a man unable to stop defaecating, being chased by cannibalistic pygmies, befiending a vengeful vampire, and having the head of his penis replaced by the head of a miniature Ronald Reagan from another dimension.
A counterpoint to the at-times blasphemous Ed serial, Brown also began to run straight adaptation of the Gospels, beginning with the Gospel of Mark in a subdued style. What appeared a natural target of satire for the author of Ed was instead a continuing attempt of Brown's to find what he really believed, having been raised a Christian Baptist. The adaptations later continued with the Gospel of Matthew and the apocryphal "The Twin" from the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, and Brown went through a periods of agnosticism and Gnosticism.
The offensive content of Ed caused it to be dropped by one printer, and is suspected to be behind Diamond Comic Distributors' decision to stop distributing Yummy Fur starting with issue #9. After The Comics Journal announced they would be investigating the issue, Diamond started distributing it again.
Although delayed by a bindary refusing to bind it due to its content, in 1989 the first Ed collection made its appearance, collecting the Ed stories from the first twelve issues of Yummy Fur with an introduction in comics form written by American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar and drawn by Brown. At this point, Brown had grown to lose interest in the way the Ed story was going, especially in the episodes that post-dated the collection. He had also grown interested in a number of other cartoonists, and had a desire to change his style. After reading through a package of Julie Doucet's minicomics, Brown decided he wanted to do similarly personal work. The same night, he worked out an ending to Ed, which was published as Yummy Fur #18, and began to do autobiographical comics.
Autobio and Drawn and Quarterly
Brown started his "autobio" period with some short comics, "Helder" and "Showing Helder". In the latter, he deconstructed how he came to make the former, and the choices and changes he made during the stories creation, showing it to his friends Kris, Seth and Mark Askwith. In this story, he decided not to ink in the borders he had pencilled, and abandoned the grid, arranging his panels freely on the page. Brown had always drawn his panels individually, and arranged them on the page together later. Until "Showing Helder", this had always been in a grid, but from that story, and for the next few years, he would abandon the grid entirely.
Issue #21 of Yummy Fur saw the first instalment of what would become the graphic novel, The Playboy. This would be a revealing story of Brown's adolescent obsession with masturbating over the Playmates of Playboy magazine, his guilt about it, and the difficulties he had relating to women even into adulthood. It received praise from some critics for its honesty, while attracting flack for seeming to rationalize pornography, with one fan tearing up issue #21 and mailing it back Brown.
Around this time, Brown had become friends with the cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt. The three became noted for doing confessional autobio comics in the early 1990s, and for depicting each other in their works. In 1993, they did an interview together in The Comics Journal 's autobiographical comics issue. Seth had joined the new Montreal-based comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly, which had also started publishing Julie Doucet. D&Q's Chris Oliveros had been courting Brown to join as well, but Brown had felt loyal to Bill Marks for giving him his first break. When his contract came up in 1991, however, Oliveros offered Brown nearly double the royalty he was getting from Vortex. Brown moved to D&Q starting with Yummy Fur #25.
Vancouver and Underwater
In 1992, Brown began a relationship with musician Sook-Yin Lee, and in 1993 moved to Vancouver to be with her. He stayed there with her until 1995, when Lee began as VJ at MuchMusic in Toronto, and the two moved back there together.
Brown moved away from autobio after the conclusion of Fuck, and for his next major project, Chris Oliveros convinced him to change the title, believing the title Yummy Fur was no longer a fitting one for the direction that Brown's work had taken, and that the title made the book harder to sell. His next work, Underwater, would appear under its own title, while continuing the Gospel of Matthew adaptation as a backup feature.
Underwater was an ambitious work. Its lead character, Kupifam, was an infant who was surrounded by an encoded[a] gibberish-like language, which she comes to understand in bits and pieces. Fans and critics gave the series a lukewarm reception, with its glacial pacing and obscure narrative. Eventually, Brown came to feel he had gotten in over his head with the scope of the project. In early 1998, he decided to leave it in an unfinished state.
Partway through the series, in 1996, Brown and Lee broke up. They continued to live with each other, and have continued to be close friends. Brown came to decide that he no longer wanted to have exclusive relations with women, but also realized he lacked the social skills to pick up girls for casual sex. He spent the next few years celibate.
Louis Riel and frequenting of prostitutes
Brown's father died in 1998 as he was putting together his collection of short strips, The Little Man. He lost interest in Underwater, and had been reading about Métis resistance leader Louis Riel, and decided he wanted to do a biography on him. He wanted to do it as an original graphic novel, but Chris Oliveros convinced him to serialize it first. Ten issues of Louis Riel were put out starting in 1999, and with help from a CAD$16,000 grant from the Canadian Council for the Arts, the finished collection, complete with annotations, appeared in 2004, to much acclaim and healthy sales, especially in Canada, where it became a bestseller, a first for a Canadian graphic novel.
In 1999, after three years of celibacy, Brown decided he would start frequenting prostitutes. His open nature prevented him from hiding this fact from his friends, and the fact soon became widely known. After completing Louis Riel, he embarked upon another autobiographical graphic novel that would detail his experiences as a john. This time, the work would not be serialized, and would wait until 2011 to be published as Paying for It.
In the early 2000s (decade), Brown moved out from the place he shared with Lee and got himself a condominium, where he lived by himself, and was free to bring prostitutes home. Around this time, Joe Matt moved back to the United States, and Seth moved to Guelph, Ontario, breaking up the "Toronto Three".
During the long wait between Louis Riel and Paying for It, Brown agreed to allow Drawn and Quarterly to reprint Ed the Happy Clown as a serial comic, with explanatory notes that were becoming both more common and more detailed in Brown's work. In 2007, Brown provided six weeks worth of strips to Toronto's NOW magazine as part of the "Live With Culture" ad campaign, featuring a male zombie and a living human girl participating in various cultural activities, culminating in the two going to the movies to watch Bruce McDonald's as-yet-unmade Yummy Fur adaptation.
Libertarianism and Paying for It
While reading up on issues surrounding Louis Riel, Brown became increasingly interested in property rights. His reading eventually took him to believe that countries with strong property rights prospered, while those without strong property rights did not. This path gradually led him to espouse the ideology of libertarianism. Eventually, he joined the Libertarian Party of Canada, and first ran as the Libertarian candidate for the riding of Trinity-Spadina in Toronto in the 2008 federal election in Canada. He came in fifth in that election, as well as in the 2011 election.
Right at the time of the 2011 election, his next graphic novel, Paying for It, was released. Again, it was finished with the help of a Canada Council grant. It was a polemic promoting the decriminalization of prostitution, and attracted much praise for its artistry and bare-all honesty, while attracting heavy criticism for its subject matter and Brown's perceived naïveté when he brushed aside objections related to human trafficking[b] and his dismissal of drug addiction as a myth.
At about this time, Brown finally stated he didn't intend to finish his Gospel of Matthew, which had been on hiatus since 1997.
Brown took on his retelling of the Gospels "trying to figure out what I believed about this stuff. It was a matter of trying to figure out whether I even believed the Christian claims—whether or not Jesus was divine."
While doing the Gospels, Brown came to abandon Christianity, and spent time as an agnostic, before turning to Gnosticism. At the time he said, "I just realized that Christianity was something that didn't make sense to me". He returned to it later, but as of 2011 no longer considers himself a Christian, while considering himself religious and maintaining a belief in God.
In the 1980s, Brown expressed sympathy for left-wing politics, although he admits his understanding of politics was not deep. He considered himself an anarchist until, during the course of researching Louis Riel, he became interested in the issue of property rights, especially influenced by his reading of John Bethell's The Noblest Triumph, a book which argued that strong property rights were what led to the West's prosperity. This eventually led him to an interest in libertarianism–a belief that government should protect property rights (although, he says, not copyrights), and otherwise should mostly keep out of people's lives. After attending a few meetings of the Libertarian Party of Canada, he was asked if he would be interested in running for Parliament, and began collecting the 100 signatures necessary to appear on the ballot.
In September 2008, Brown entered politics as the Libertarian Party's candidate for the riding of Trinity-Spadina in the 2008 federal election. He came in fifth out of seven candidates. He stood in the same riding for the same party in the Canadian federal election, 2011, coming in fifth out of six candidates. The 2011 election coincided with the release of Paying for It, in which Brown talks about his frequenting prostitutes. He was worried if the Libertarian Party would be comfortable having him run with his promotion of that topic in the media, but his official Party agent and the Ontario representative assured him that, as libertarians, they believed in individual freedom, and would continue to support his candidacy.
A longtime friend of fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth, Brown has been regularly featured in their autobiographical comics over the years, and collaborated with them on various projects. The three were often mentioned together, and have been called "the Three Musketeers of alternative comics" and the "Toronto Three", forming "a kind of gutter rat pack trying to make it through their drawing boards in 1990s Toronto." Brown dedicated The Playboy to Seth, and Paying for It to Matt. Seth dedicated his graphic novel George Sprott to Brown ("Best Cartoonist, Best Friend").
Brown had a long-term relationship with the musician, actress and media personality Sook-Yin Lee from 1992 until 1996. She is depicted in several of his comics. He moved to Vancouver for two years to be with her, and moved back to Toronto with her when she became a VJ for MuchMusic. He also drew the cover for her 1996 solo album Wigs 'n Guns. Brown's relationship with Lee is the last boyfriend/girlfriend relationship he had, as he explains in Paying For It. They remain good friends, and Brown has contributed artwork to her productions as recently as 2009's Year of the Carnivore.
Throughout his early years as a cartoonist he mostly experimented with drawing on the darker side of his subconscious, basing his comedy on free-form association, much like the surrealist technique Automatism. An example of such methods in Brown's work can be found in short one-pagers where he randomly selects comic panels from other sources and then mixes them up, often altering the dialogue. This produced an experimental, absurdist effect in his early strips.
Brown first discusses mental illness in his strip "My Mother Was A Schizophrenic". In it, he puts forward the anti-psychiatric idea that what we call "schizophrenia" isn't a real disease at all, but instead a tool our society uses to deal with people who display socially unacceptable beliefs and behaviour. Inspired by the evangelical tracts of Jack T. Chick, Brown left Xeroxes of these strips at bus stops and phone booths around Toronto so its message would reach a wider audience. It first appeared in Underwater #4, and is also reprinted in the collection The Little Man.
Brown's Louis Riel book was inspired by the alleged mental instability of Riel, and Brown's own anarchist politics, and he began his research for the book in 1998. Over the course of researching for the book, he shifted his politics over the course of several years until he was a libertarian.[c] Regarding anarchy, Brown has said, "I'm still an anarchist to the degree that I think we should be aiming towards an anarchist society but I don't think we can actually get there. We probably do need some degree of government."
Brown's drawing style has evolved and changed a lot throughout his career. He's been known to switch between using Rapidograph pens, dip pens, brushes, pencils and markers for his black-and-white cartooning, and has used paints for some colour covers (notably in Underwater).
Brown does not follow the tradition of drawing his comics by the page — he draws them one panel at a time, and then arranges them on the page. In the case of his acclaimed graphic novels The Playboy and I Never Liked You, this allowed him to rearrange the panels on the page as he saw fit. In the case of I Never Liked You, this resulted in a different page count in the book was collection than in the Yummy Fur serialization. The panels were slightly rearranged again when the "New Definitive Edition" of I Never Liked You was released in 2002. Brown depicted himself making comics in this way in the story Showing Helder in Yummy Fur #20 (also collected in The Little Man). Despite drawing his panels individually, he says his "brain doesn't tend to think in terms of one image at a time", so that he has difficulty coming up with one-image covers.
He has used a number of different drawing tools, including Rapidograph technical pens, markers, crowquill pens and ink brushes, the latter of which he has called his favourite tool, for its "fluid grace". For much of Ed the Happy Clown, he had artwork printed from photocopies of his pencils, which was faster for him than inking the work, and produced a more spontaneous feel, but in the end he turned away from this method, feeling it was "too raw".
In an interview with Seth, Brown says his earliest childhood cartoon was an imitation of Doug Wright's Little Nipper. He frequently mentions Steve Gerber as amongst his foremost influences of his teenage years. From about the age of 20, Brown discovered the work of Robert Crumb and other underground artists, as well as class comic strip artists such as Harold Gray, whose influence is most evident in Brown's Louis Riel.
Brown often talks of contemporaries Seth, Joe Matt and Julie Doucet's influence on his work, especially during his autobiographical period. He also had been reading the Little Lulu Library around this time, and credit's the cartooning of Little Lulu's John Stanley and Seth with his desire to simplify his style during this period.
The stiff, stylized look of Fletcher Hanks' comics, reprints from Fantagraphics of which Brown had been reading around the time, was the primary influence on the style Brown used in Paying For It.
|Yummy Fur (mini-comic)||1983–1986||self-published||7||#1–6 compiled in one volume in February 1987 with an extra one-page strip|
|Yummy Fur||1986–1995||Vortex Comics (#1–24)
Drawn and Quarterly (#25–32)
|Underwater||1995–1998||Drawn and Quarterly||11||Left incomplete|
|Louis Riel||1999–2004||Drawn and Quarterly||10|
|Ed the Happy Clown||2004–2006||Drawn and Quarterly||9||Reprinted material from Yummy Fur with extra background information|
|Ed the Happy Clown: A Yummy Fur Book||1989||Vortex Comics||978-0-921451-04-4||
|Ed the Happy Clown: The Definitive Ed Book||1992||Vortex Comics||978-0-921451-08-2||
|The Playboy: A Comic Book||1992||Drawn and Quarterly||978-0-9696701-1-7|
|I Never Liked You||1994||Drawn and Quarterly||978-0-9696701-6-2|
|The Little Man: Short Strips 1980–1995||1998||Drawn and Quarterly||978-1-896597-13-3|
|I Never Liked You (Second Edition)||2002||Drawn and Quarterly||978-1-896597-14-0||
|Louis Riel||2004||Drawn and Quarterly||978-1-894937-89-4|
|Paying For It||2011||Drawn and Quarterly||978-1-77046-048-5||
|Ed the Happy Clown: A Graphic Novel||2012||Drawn and Quarterly||978-1-77046-075-1||
Many of his books have undergone title changes, sometimes at the behest of his publisher, sometimes without his permission. Ed the Happy Clown: the Definitive Ed Book was given the Definitive title, despite the fact that he "didn't want to put that as the subtitle of the second edition. Vortex did it for marketing reasons." The Playboy was originally titled Disgust and then The Playboy Stories, and I Never Liked You was called Fuck (the German translation retains that title). Underwater was originally intended to appear in Yummy Fur, but Brown's new publisher felt they could attract more readers with a different title. Paying For It carries the sense of a double entendre that Brown dislikes[d]–he would have preferred to call the book I Pay For Sex.
Brown has also done a certain amount of illustration work. In 1998, he did the cover to Sphinx Productions' Comic Book Confidential #1; in 2005 he did the cover to True Porn 2 from Alternative Comics; and he illustrated the cover for Penguin Books' Deluxe Classics edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.
Brown provided the illustrations for the story "A Tribute To Bill Marks" in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor #15 in 1990, and "How This Forward Got Written" in The New American Splendor Anthology in 1991.
He inked Seth's pencils for the story "Them Changes" in Dennis Eichhorn's Real Stuff #6 in 1992, and shared artwork duties with Sook-Yin Lee on the story "The Not So Great Escape" in Real Stuff #16 in 1993.
Over the years, Brown has received four Harvey Awards and numerous Harvey and Ignatz award nominations. "The autobiographical comics from Yummy Fur" placed #38 on the Comics Journal's list of the 100 best comics of the century. Brown was inducted into the Canadian Comic Book Creator Hall of Fame, on June 18, 2011, at the Joe Shuster Awards in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Brown was one of the cartoonists to appear in the first volume of Fantagraphics' two-volume The Best Comics of the Decade (1990. ISBN 978-1-56097-036-1).
|1990||Harvey Awards||Chester Brown||Best Cartoonist|
|1990||Harvey Awards||Ed the Happy Clown||Best Graphic Album
for the first edition
|1990||U.K. Comic Art Award||Ed the Happy Clown||Best Graphic Novel/Collection
for the first edition
|1999||Urhunden Prizes||Ed the Happy Clown||Foreign Album|
|2004||Harvey Awards||Louis Riel||Best Writer|
|2004||Harvey Awards||Louis Riel||Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work|
|1989||Harvey Awards||Yummy Fur||Best Writer|
|Best Continuing or Limited Series|
|Special Achievement in Humor|
|1990||Chester Brown||Special Award for Humor|
|1991||Yummy Fur||Best Continuing or Limited Series|
|"The Playboy Stories" in Yummy Fur #21–23||Best Single Issue or Story|
|Yummy Fur||Best Cartoonist (Writer/Artist)|
|1993||The Playboy||Best Graphic Album of Previously Released Material|
|1998||Ignatz Awards||The Little Man||Outstanding Graphic Novel or Collection|
|1999||Harvey Awards||Special Award for Excellence in Presentation|
|1999||Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work|
|2000||Louis Riel||Best New Series|
|2002||Ignatz Awards||Outstanding Artist|
|2003||Harvey Awards||Chester Brown||Best Cartoonist|
|Louis Riel||Best Continuing or Limited Series|
|2004||Ignatz Awards||Outstanding Graphic Novel or Collection|
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- "It's really just a code. Simple letter substitution." — Brown in 2008
- "He considers — and largely if not entirely dismisses — concerns about troubling issues like sex slavery, thieving pimps and abuse."
- "I was an anarchist when I began the strip and I knew the story would make the government look bad. ... But in doing all the research for this book [Louis Riel], I learned a lot about general political theory. I came to realize that anarchy is completely unworkable, which I sort of suspected all along." — Brown in 2004
- "It suggests that not only am I paying for sex but I'm also paying for being a john in some non-monetary way. Many would think that there's an emotional cost — that johns are sad and lonely ... I haven't been 'paying for it' in any of those ways. I'm very far from being sad or lonely, I haven't caught an S-T-D, I haven't been arrested, I haven't lost my career, and my friends and family haven't rejected me." — Brown in 2011
- Arnold, Andrew D. (2004-04-12). "Keeping It 'Riel'". Time magazine. Retrieved 2011-05-01.
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- Brown, Chester. Ed the Happy Clown. Drawn and Quarterly. Nine issues (February 2005–September 2006)
(notes pages unnumbered, counted from first page of notes)
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- Chester Brown at the Grand Comics Database
- Chester Brown at the Comic Book DB
- News Briefs featuring Chester Brown at Drawn and Quarterly's website
- Time.com interview with Chester Brown
- CBC Arts Online article about Chester Brown's Ed The Happy Clown series
- Chester Brown induction into CBC Arts Online's Alternative Canadian Walk of Fame
- Interview with Chester Brown on twohandedman.com
- Audio interview of Brown by Seth
- Brown's candidacy in Eye Weekly in 2008
- Zombies Take Toronto