Chester Brown is one of our treasured cartoonists, right up there with such greats as Seth and Daniel Clowes. Now, do the greats always get it right? No, I won’t say that but, on their worst day, I would prefer them over many another cartoonist. That said, Chester Brown’s latest graphic novel appears to be an ambitious continuation to “Paying For It,” his memoir on his relations with prostitutes. For his new book, he explores, among other things, the morality of prostitution by taking it all the way up to Jesus Christ in “Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,” published by Drawn & Quarterly.
The narrative follows what seems like a loosely based collection of Bible stories but it turns out to be a carefully grounded argument in favor of the significant place for prostitutes in the Bible. In fact, Chester Brown argues here that the Virgin Mary was a prostitute or engaged in prostitute-like behavior. It can be asking a lot for some readers to accept. However, Brown provides a good deal of scholarship to back him up. And he lays it all out with compelling comics.
The book is really great in its honesty and clarity. I see where it might make an overly sensitive person feel sad with all the depiction of unfairness but that’s not the point at all. Chester Brown paints an authentic picture of the matter-of-fact harsh life of the Biblical era. Morality was a whole other creature in the Bible. We require this world depicted clearly in order to buy into the narrative.
Brown is making the case that this is just how things were, this is how these people would have reacted to various behavior, and this is how the God in this Bible would have responded. It all follows a Biblical logic. And this allows Brown to make his argument seem all the less controversial. Sure, it would be well within reason that Mary could have, even would have, been a prostitute or engaged in prostitute-like behavior. It is not beyond the realm of what one would expect in the world of the Bible.
All this begs the question as to just how Brown and/or the Bible defines prostitution. How did people view prostitution in the world of the Bible? All things being relative, according to this graphic novel, residing in another village could inspire just as much, if not more, scorn than just being a prostitute. Ultimately, it was just another part of a harsh world. It was out in the open and, even if it inspired scorn, people were more honest about it than they are today.
Just as interesting as Brown’s observations on prostitution is his evocation of the world of the Bible. In Chester Brown Bible stories, we best see that world for what it is by having Brown turn up the heat a bit more. For instance, Brown includes the story of the prodigal son, the wayward lad who misspent his inheritance on prostitutes. The boy is embraced by his father and provided with a lavish celebration. There is the younger obedient son, the one who stayed home. But when he protests to his father, the father does not only ask for understanding, as commonly depicted in the Bible, he also explicitly chastises his loyal son for not having more initiative. The corrupt son is viewed as the hero. Might makes right. The industrious son is viewed as a fool. What Brown suggests is that this is going on implicitly in this story as well as in other Bible stories. It certainly feels that way.
“Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus” is a 280-page hardcover available now. For more details, visit Drawn & Quarterly right here.