Who is Chester Brown? A cartoonist? An artist? A writer? A political activist? A provocateur? A Canadian? Actually, he is all of these things. Most importantly he is an award-winning cartoonist, one who has always followed his own guiding star. Chester Brown has successfully worked in any number of different styles and genres. He is a master of surrealism – of the painfully honest, – the poignant art of autobiography, – and historical storytelling.
Chester Brown was born in Montreal on May 16, 1960, and grew up in the Montreal suburb of Chateauguay. (shat-oh-goo-eh). If there was one constant in the life of young Chester Brown, it was that he always knew that he wanted to go into: comics. From the day his mother gave him his first comic book, there was never any question of an alternative career for Chester Brown. It was comics, or nothing!
Following high school, Chester Brown enrolled in Dawson College’s prestigious commercial art program. He stayed for a single year, but while he was there he worked on fanzines put out by his comics-loving classmates, including one called “Weird Tales”. At “Weird Tales”, Chester started out as an artist, but found he was extensively rewriting the stories and dialogue he was given to work with. He decided early on that it would be more interesting to try writing his own material, rather than rewriting the work of others.
He tried his hand with the mainstream publishers – he went to New York twice, once when he was 17 and again when he was 19. Hoping to find work on the horror and mystery comics published by Marvel and DC, he received constructive feedback from Vinnie Collette and later, from Jim Shooter. Shooter told him his people weren’t pretty enough for Marvel, and that was pretty much the end of his mainstream aspirations. He firmly set on the alternative comics’ path, and he had a flood of inspirations to draw from, including Dave Sim’s “Cerebus”,” the Hernandez Brothers’ “Love & Rockets”, and the comics of Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, the artists showcased in “Heavy Metal” like Moebius, and the later career work of Will Eisner, such as “A Contract with God”. Another profound influence was the work of classic comic-strip artist Harold Gray, the creator of “Little Orphan Annie”. Chester Brown sent his work to small, experimental publishers like Raw, Last Gasp, and Fantagraphics. After a year spent constantly drawing, he left Montreal for Toronto. He got a job at Galbraith Reproductions, where the job perks included the free use of the copying equipment.
In 1983 he launched his mini-comic series “Yummy Fur” (a title he chose because it didn’t actually mean anything. He began selling Yummy Fur directly to Toronto bookstores and comics shops, and offered it through mail order, and he found an audience that was receptive to his work. In 1986 he met Vortex publisher Bill Marks and worked out an arrangement to publish a new Yummy Fur comic book series, and Chester used it as a vehicle for both his short strips and longer-form projects. Brown was also receiving invitations to contribute his work to various anthology books, which he did – such as Steven Bissette’s Taboo and the True North anthology. He was quickly solidifying his status as a premier voice in the small press comic scene of the 1980s. He also produced the giveaway comic that accompanied the release of director Ron Mann’s excellent documentary Comic Book Confidential.
Meanwhile the pages of Yummy Fur were filled with stories of all kinds of styles and genres. He dealt with religious subject matter by making an ambitious comic-strip adaptation the Gospel of Mark, and part of the Gospel of Matthew. He experimented with Surrealism and automatic writing, most famously in the “Ed the Happy Clown” series. There were the purely experimental works such as the daring but never-completed “Underwater”.
During this time he became close friends with fellow Canadian cartoonist Seth, and he gradually began to move away from his earlier, more experimental work. Talking with Seth made him realize that “the stories that make up our own lives are more interesting than the stories one usually encounters in comic books.” He worked with autobiographical subjects from his day-to-day life in stories like Helder, and its quasi-sequel, Showing Helder. He reached into his memories to tell the story of The Playboy, and I Never Liked You.
In 1989, Seth and Chester met and eventually befriended American cartoonist Joe Matt and the three cartoonists quickly became inseparable, known to all as “The Toronto Three”. This friendship also left its mark on Chester’s cartooning: as he and his friends began to make regular appearances in each other’s autobiographical comics, a practice that continues today.
In 1990, Chester Brown had found himself a new publisher — Drawn & Quarterly, the brainchild of Chris Oliveros. D+Q became the publisher of Yummy Fur with the 25th issue and also began to release collected editions of longer stories from previous issues, such as the Playboy and I Never Liked You.
After experimenting with autobiographical, religious, and surrealist stories, Brown took a step away from his roots to tackle the story of the famous Métis leader and revolutionary Louis Riel, first as a serial in Yummy Fur, and later collected as a 10-part mini-series and then a single edition graphic novel. It took Brown five years to research, and then cartoon. His years of effort would be rewarded: the “comic-strip biography” became a critical smash, and a runaway best seller. Louis Riel was admired for its thoughtful script, which perfectly meshed with its pristine clarity of line, strongly reflecting the influence of Harold Gray’s work. Seven years later, “Louis Riel” has been reprinted frequently, and remains a perennial favourite with critics and readers.
When not cartooning, Chester Brown has always been interested in politics, and is an anarchist-turned-libertarian by inclination — he is involved with the Libertarian Party of Canada, and has run as a party candidate in the last few federal elections.
And so we come to 2011, and he has released his newest, most provocative work yet: “Paying For It”, which made its debut in May at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Fearless as ever, Chester Brown has pulled the curtain back on the world’s oldest profession, and I don’t mean farming… Paying for It is a graphic memoir about his life as a John. He cloaks his tale in a clear, minimal visual style, adhering to a set number of panels per page. The result is a book that forces the reader to think – about the sex trade, about the nature of relationships, about the law, and about their own sense of morality.
Nearly thirty years after the first issue of Yummy Fur made its debut – Chester Brown is still exploding taboos and telling the stories no one else will in a clear, unsentimental, but beautiful way.
Controversial, and determined, he is an artist like no other, and a uniquely Canadian voice.