This year I attended a Comic Con for the first time, held at a venue close to a busy highway, next to a tech park, thus possibly losing bit of its bookish nature. But I overreact. Comics are not something restricted within the pages of books or magazines, not even the webpages. What was it that Scott McCloud narrowed the definition of Comics down to in his pedagogical analysis? “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response of the viewer”. Such a juxtaposed pictorial story-telling has quite an increasing omnipresence in today’s world with the growing recognition of the power of images on human mind, thus transforming standard approaches in cognitive science, technology, politics, entertainment and economy, which are not at all unrelated fields. As it was evident from the various shops of clothes, food, bags, accessories and glittering advertisements at the fair. It is interesting to note that even at a conference of the Comics-people, there is an half-conscious effort, or at least an allowance to label and thus demean this immensely powerful medium to be either some sort of a demented child-lit – occupying the realm of the mindlessly absurd and the listlessly colourful, or the semi-pornographic sexualized world of the superheroes.
Not that any of it made this Comics fair a failure. What is an effort without a host of points that can be raised against it! Of course I bought plenty from those abominable shops of non-books and cursed myself loads. But there were a handful of shops that saved the day. One such was the Harper Collins stall, where I found the two graphic memoirs that I want to talk about here – both with lots of nudes in them – both thought-provoking and interesting precisely not because of the aforesaid reason.
The first book is world-famous (naturally I’m talking about a world where non-Comics-readers do not exist) for the issue it raises and represents in this format, and also for its honesty and its awesomeness – if you really ask me. I am talking about Comics-maker Chester Brown’s `Paying For It – A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John‘ – complete with a mildly megalomaniac foreword by Robert Crumb, tactfully making relevant points in the intervals of being Crumb.
The other one – not so famous and not so awesome as a book of images, not even a Comics but a book of what the mass mind usually expects books to contain – words and illustrations, but raises equally interesting questions in the reader’s mind – Conversations In The Nude by Delhi-based journalist Mihir Srivastava. Nevertheless it is a book about drawings of people in intimacy (read nudity, though I am not convinced that these two are remotely equivalent) – which naturally draws a parallel to Brown’s book, which depicts his sexual interaction with various prostitutes of Toronto city.
Objectively and somewhat morally the questions that these two books generate have certain similarities. Buying the books from the same stall without noticing the likelihood at that moment, it was too much of a coincidence and thus too tempting to write a joint review of the pair. Trust me, both are worth paying for.
Chester Brown talks about (he really does talk in much greater detail in this book-launch interview) how he starts visiting sex-workers and as he does so, he gets visibly more and more involved in the `issue’ of selling one’s body, the rights and the wrongs versus rights of it. It is a full-length thesis; you may or may not agree with it but it will leave you thinking very deeply about it. And holy mother did that guy really draw each of those blocks of those many panels with the same characters hardly shifting from their positions (which is of course one of his trademarks)? His lone contemplative moments, his conversations with Seth and Joe Matt – fellow Comics artists and friends and those thousand panels of coitus, I mean there are only so many positions that a non-maniac regular John would try and there are only so many standard hair-styles that the girls can have! Brown is a God of patience, minuteness and reticence in Comics. He draws life like living it – how in real life we may stay in the same position for hours with our minds racing, or not even that, but without getting bored – without even thinking about it (unless one is a twitchy freak like me). His behaviour is so clinical even with his emotions, obsessions and fears that it is damn cute, excuse my girly exclamation.
Chester Brown’s graphic lawsuit for the prosper and hazardlessness in favour of the business of prostitution does not claim to contain universal truths, and it indeed does not. In a country like India for example, where the occupation of an average professional prostitute is governed by socio-economic exploitations, Brown’s arguments of leaving the lady alone to choose to sell her body almost does not make sense. But in a wider context it is not just about prostitution but also of the social acceptance (often a synonym for sacredness according to convenience) and expectations (even and often explotative and violent) of a whole lot of other relationships. Those points that may lead many of us towards a realm of much discomfort are successfully highlighted when he asks questions or makes statements during discussions with his associates such as:
Chester: If anything, I felt good. I’ve never thought of jealousy as a positive emotion – – so when I was lying there listening to those sounds, and I realized I wasn’t jealous – – well it felt like I’d conquered something negative within myself.
Kris (ex-girlfriend): But it’s not natural to not feel jealous when something like this happens (referring to Brown’s last girlfriend having sex with her new boyfriend)
C: Jealousy is not natural – – it’s learned behaviour.
Gordon (brother): But isn’t that exploitation?
Chester: But how would you define exploitation?
G: You know, taking advantage of someone in an unfair way.
C: And what’s unfair about paying for sex?
G: I’m… not sure. How old was she?
C: I was told early twenties.
G: That’s pretty young.
C: It’s wrong for someone who’s 38 to have sex with someone who’s 21?
G: No, not necessarily. It would depend on the circumstances.
C: And if the circumstance is paying for sex?
G: I don’t know.
Seth (friend): I just want to make sure that prostitutes are getting medical care.
Chester: Health care is free in Canada – – they can get any medical care they want.
S: Yeah but they don’t all go to doctors on a regular basis.
C: You want medical treatment FORCED on prostitutes?
C: Yes, but we’re talking about the right of the individual to make choices, including potentially unhealthy ones. You know that smoking is unhealthy – – don’t you believe that people should be free to choose to smoke if they want to?
S (after a drag and a puff): May be they shouldn’t.
I suppose one can see Brown’s viewpoint in this matter as against medical treatment being forced on a mentally challenged person – the patronization and inferiorization of it. But no matter what, isn’t he funny in his doggedness and Seth in his cynicism!
Edith (escort – in an icy voice, as is seen in the dialogue-box): I’m not a prostitute – – I’m an escort. You think I’m a prostitute?
Chester: Uh, well… I didn’t mean to – – to offend you – – I – – I don’t see prostitution as a negative thing. But you know, uh, the usual definition – – that is – – I mean – – if one is paid for having sex, one is usually considered uh…
E: You’re paying me to spend TIME with you, NOT to have sex with you. If I have sex with you during the time you’ve paid for, it’s because i choose to, not because you’re paying me to.
C: The other guys you’ve seen as an escort, were there any who you didn’t have sex with?
And most interestingly –
From the Afterword, as Brown discusses his seven years long monogamous visit to one sex-worker named Denise:
Two people are in a monogamous sexual relationship that’s lasted for years. They care for each other (even if they wouldn’t say they’re “in love”). One of the two assists the other financially. What do you call such a relationship?
There are many such moments in the book that provokes and questions the reader of his/her understanding and acceptance of the social norms of relationships and regulations. But I personally enjoyed reading the book for two other reasons. One is, from the top of the book the line of my thoughts was somewhat in sync with Brown’s. I would be asking myself a question and in the coming two pages Brown would be answering it in some manner. So my feeling was of having read a well-argued book, where Brown follows his axioms faithfully. The other reason was the choice of the medium. This is one book that necessarily uses the pictorial story-telling to its success. How else does one depict the endless repetition of the wordless (except for the business-talk which would not be considered as conversation and the occasional thought-bubbles of Brown) act of sex between two bodies, devoid of all its so called alluring carnal elements! How could an expression in words draw the thunder-cloud above Brown’s head when Seth comments that he would rather prefer a forced medical check-up on the prostitutes than none! No medium other than Comics could project the combination of visual elements of the grave and the absurd, the questions asked to oneself versus the silences of wordless thoughts and awkwardness, the harsh mathematical monotony of the black and the white any better.
Projecting himself along with his friends as the three funnies, Brown does not spare himself. He bares open his ups and downs and his evolution as a John in front of the reader.
Some days he has good sex, some days bad. He relies on and writes John-reviews without asking the permission of the sex-workers. He really looks at it from a business perspective, at the same time trying not to hurt the feelings of the women. But for him, not finding a sex-worker attractive is not a form of objectification of that person. If you mention it to him, he would probably argue with something like whether not choosing a particular dish in a restaurant implies objectification of the person who came up with the recipe. To him a body paid for sex is probably not a person. So he often separates the act of conversation (he does have a conversation with some of them) and the act of sex with a stark transformation of attitude evident from the body-language of the figures, even if they are in consecutive boxes of the same panel. At the same time he tries to respect the fact that the relationship between a body and its owner can be more delicate than a dish and its recipe-maker, so in many such cases he acts considerate or lies out of politeness.
On the other hand this attitude of the cool and the clinical does give Brown an – if unwanted – air of distant superiority. Possibly he leaves it for the reader to choose whom to feel sad for, if at all. It is not possible to easily overlook the forgetful Diane, the shy Jolene, the non-English-speaking perpetually dry foreigner Amanda or Yvette, whom Brown resigns to give a bad review. Many such small details do drag Brown up to a higher position of power than the sex-workers that he deals with. Is that why the naked Brown talks and copulates with the women but he is never seen to be drawing them – thus denying them a more articulate entry to this medium? May be it was merely a matter of choice. But the artist Brown indeed remains aloof and untouchable. Could he do without it?
I don’t know!
If Brown’s book is a lot about silent contemplation, Srivastava’s `Conversations…’, being true to its title, complements it with volumes of talking. The book starts with little promises as a book of sketches – though it is necessarily about sketching nude figures of those who agreed to be his model. The introductory chapter seems almost annoyingly unsubstantial and shallow with unnecessary green highlights of certain lines in the book , which might as well had remained neutrally placed between other lines. For example:
To me, shadows define a form beautifully; light is an arrogant fatalist.
`I do nudes’ – I declare unapologetically.
It is not clear why those green lines were special given the contexts. And why green, for that matter? Were those the summarizing lines of those pages? It is true that before reading this book I never thought about how an aspiration of painting nudes using real models can be a real pain in the butt in India except possibly in art colleges, within a limited setup of a typical classroom. But having said that, Srivastava’s introductory words sometimes lead to an overrated glorification of the act of disrobing and its documentation. He makes up for this rant in his story-telling – irreverent, sympathetic in an obscure way, funny, persistent, vivid and honest to an exceptionally large extent. His sketches lack skill but sometimes manage to catch the mood, the body-language.
I might have been biased by Brown’s succinct analysis of his subject (I read his book first for no apparent reason – after all both had nudes in them). In any case it took me some time to get used to Srivastava’s convoluted, even mischievous, possibly a very Indian way of reaching the art of the matter after painstakingly shedding the poetry (often green) of the words and more importantly the spice of it. But once the book caught my attention, the subject grew more and more deep and impressive, keeping many nice loose ends for the reader to ponder on.
As Brown was, Srivastava is pretty much merciless on himself in his own way, though in his case he exploits his position of power as the viewer of the naked bodies somewhat more than Brown and more explicitly so. Unlike `Paying…’, Srivastava does not particularly hide the special features, the habits and idiosyncrasies of his subjects, though he claims anonymity. However, judging by the nature of his exploration through his sketches, that is, knowing the person through liberation of the soul generated by stripping (again very unlike Brown, yes), and considering the fact that the reader is quite unaware of the exact pact between the artist and the model, one cannot possibly hold him responsible for what sometimes feels like a breach of intimacy.
Srivastava excuses his initial lack of ability to draw by emphasizing on the knowing-people bit. But the initial awkwardness between the author and the reader probably resonates the same between the artist and the model. In fact one is soon engrossed in forming a judgement of one’s own, comparing the quality of the sketches and the level of comfort described through, and sometimes reading between the lines. That is, after a while, the whole issue of comfort versus discomfort and good sketch versus bad sketch becomes a point of interest for the reader. In Srivastava’s book, the reader is included in the process of its creation. Unlike Brown, Srivastava is vocal about his own reactions while drawing the models – thus making him less a super brain and more human, thus easier to find faults with or to endear.
Srivastava is not as polite to his subjects as Brown is, rather he is often provocative and challenges, even judges his models. But that only reflects a more healthy balance of power between him and his subjects in compare to Brown’s including the ones he ends up having sex with.
Even as the weight is shifted towards him, it becomes an interesting observation such as the case of `The Wrestler’ or that of the holy man at Haridwar in the chapter named `Arguments of an Escapist’. Both chapters are great reads by the way, because Srivastava’s bodies are not those in the process of being dissected out of their souls, rather a means to reach closer to the human nature enfolded in them.
Excerpts from The Wrestler:
I feel he takes non-issues too seriously. Like the need not to repeat a set of clothes in public.
`People think I am rich’, he says. He wants to live up to that reputation. he needs a lot of money to survive with the kind of life he aspires to. That’s a challenge. He has some interesting projects in mind, and some offers too. But he is waiting for the real break, He is not in a hurry, despite the pressure that grows with every day
He remains a typical rural wrestler – wise, considerate and polite to a fault. On the phone, when I ask `where are you?’, his patent reply is, `in your heart’.
The above sketching sessions lasts less than an hour – the muscular village-boy could never come in terms with baring his genitals in front of an audience even after the heart-felt generous affection and confidence he shows in the beginning:
`Sir aap ke liye kuchh bhi kerenge. Kaprey hi to utarney hain? Hojayenge nangey! (I will do anything for you, I just have to remove clothes, no? I will strip.)’
The wrestler’s fidgety sketches lack the skills of a real artist but holds the story together of a strange morning spent at Lodi Garden with pencil and paper, muscles and feces, jogging and sweat.
Excerpts from Arguments of an Escapist:
`First tell me, have you ever had sex?’
`Yes. But never after I became a sadhu.’ He rubbed his nose, sheepishly.
`Who was she?’
`A neighbour’s daughter.’
`You like sex?’
`Who doesn’t?’ He made my question sound farcical.
His arguments were fake, like he was. I attacked him. `To me, sadhus are escapists … I have had my share of bad experiences, but never did I feel that need to quit.’
`Aap uttejit ho rahe hain (you are getting excited). I don’t resist anything or make anything happen. I am free from my desires … I don’t judge. Nothing affects me too much,’ he said again.
`In that case, you would not mind posing for me.’
I showed him my sketchbook. His eyes fired up on seeing the dark lines that wrought images of naked men and women in there. My ketches certainly affected him.
`What do you think of these sketches?’
`You made these?’ he asked, as if I had blasphemed. `These pictures are not good. They are not healthy for society.’
`You are judging me. You said that you don’t judge.’
I will refrain from exposing further tempting details from this chapter so as to not hand out spoilers. But these are some of the pages in the book, where it becomes clear that if for nothing else, the book is an important piece of literature for creating a conversation on a subject that, while limited in the realm of canvases is almost a non-matter but is quite the contrary when brought to everyday life.
There are a few stories which are quite touching, such as `The Ebbing Light’ or `The Heartbreak’. The drawings have come out well in those chapters. The hurried sketch of the old lady (or her young self) standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom next to an open tap really makes one think of age as a flowing waste. The figure of the hopeful romantic leaning towards the laptop awaiting an email would break your heart.
There is a chapter on disasters potential to the whole idea of asking a half-known person to pose nude for you. These stories are funny and serves a flavour of justice, thus shifting the balance of power towards the other end:
Excerpts from Disasters:
This is the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had. I know now what it feels like to be helpless to prevent the violation of one’s body. I was lucky. They were neither cunning nor sinister, just confused about what I wanted from them. I escaped because they were not militant about what they wanted from me.
Srivastava raises an important question regarding this power balance in the chapter `Non-consensual Sketching’, where he and and a fellow reporter visit a `seedy hotel’ in a Delhi suburb near the international airport to spy-report in the disguise of artists:
Excerpts from Non-consensual Sketching:
By now the Indian girl was shivering in the nude. It was a late January afternoon in Delhi. It gets really cold inside a locked room. She hated to be naked alone in the biting cold, while the Russian aunty was sitting merrily on the sofam her leather overcoat wrapped wrapped tightly around herself. `Pakar kar utar do iske kapray (forcefully strip her)’, she said when she ran out of her patience. I was embarrassed at her suggestion. But I also had to keep up my customer who-means-business personna. I called the pimp yet again and castigated him for sending a sati-savitri. He was apologetic and surprised, and made another false promise – that he would send me a replacement very soon.
Instead the Russian received a call on her mobile. It was a brief call where she did all the listening. She started to strip soon after, carefully replacing her mobile back in her green leather handbag.
But there is no denying that I enjoyed the sketching session and the novelty of the situation. Soon, I even forget why I was there. I was not even adjusting my position to capture the Russian in the frame of the spy camera. She made no effort to hide that posing was unmitigated boredom for her. She chain-smoked her long brown cigarettes, after graciously asking, `May I?’ She was comfortable posing with the Indian girl (who kept giggling) in provocative lesbian position. `keep each other warm,’ I instructed.
Another potent example of my exploitative streak was that, in a departure from my usual rules, I did not offer to let them keep the sketches of their choice.
Thanks to Srivastava for that! It is interesting to contemplate what Chester Brown would have come up with given the situation.
Srivastava’s stories are much more charged with latent sexuality in comparison to Brown’s apparently contradictory desexualization of sex, which is also bit of an oversimplification of a socio-politico-economic act. Yet these two books sometimes seem to arrive to similar ends through parallel means. Srivastava exclaims: `Nudity is not the end of the exercise, it is the beginning [of knowing a person].’ Brown reverse-echoes in his dry academic tone: `So paying for sex isn’t an empty experience if you’re paying the right person for sex.’ And the readers get to read two very interesting books by brave authors from two different hemispheres of the earth.
As Srivastava says in his blog (and for once I would not mind highlighting it with green): It’s good to be true to oneself.