June 25, 2019

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Holy controversy

Brown's biblical graphic novel explores sex work and scripture

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2016 (1158 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Like all the best comics superheroes, Chester Brown is a man divided. On the one hand, he is a mild-mannered Canadian cartoonist whose minimal, clean style and compelling storytelling have converted many non-comics readers and brought him critical acclaim.

On the other hand, he is a polemicist against political and sexual repression and an outspoken critic of the societal and legal condemnation of sex workers and their clients.

These two sides meet in Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus. Brown has produced a collection of short comics adapted from the Bible about women who either took “sexual initiative” or were prostitutes. He explains in a note that he prefers this term, rather than the more contemporary “sex worker,” for this historical context. There are also stories about men who challenged the interpretation of God’s laws in both Judaism and Christianity.

Many readers know the Quebec-born, Toronto-based Brown best for his groundbreaking Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, Canada’s first ever bestselling graphic narrative.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2016 (1158 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Like all the best comics superheroes, Chester Brown is a man divided. On the one hand, he is a mild-mannered Canadian cartoonist whose minimal, clean style and compelling storytelling have converted many non-comics readers and brought him critical acclaim.

On the other hand, he is a polemicist against political and sexual repression and an outspoken critic of the societal and legal condemnation of sex workers and their clients.

</p>

These two sides meet in Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus. Brown has produced a collection of short comics adapted from the Bible about women who either took "sexual initiative" or were prostitutes. He explains in a note that he prefers this term, rather than the more contemporary "sex worker," for this historical context. There are also stories about men who challenged the interpretation of God’s laws in both Judaism and Christianity.

Many readers know the Quebec-born, Toronto-based Brown best for his groundbreaking Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, Canada’s first ever bestselling graphic narrative.

Brown is one of Canada’s master cartoonists. He has an international reputation for sophisticated, fluid visual storytelling and suspenseful pacing. He has always been a narrative risk-taker and, with the notable exception of Louis Riel, sexuality has been at the core of his work since his early 1990s angst-ridden adolescent confessions, The Playboy and I Never Liked You.

This book shares much with his autiobiographical Paying for It (2011), a comics memoir about being a john that makes a personal and political argument for the decriminalization of sex work. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus combines Brown’s interest in historiography, especially competing versions of controversial figures’ lives, and his commitment to dismantling the hypocrisies he sees at the heart of the criminalization of sex work.

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is the size and shape of a prayer book. It is a lovely object to hold and behold; its old-fashioned design testifies to the value the cartoonist ascribes to the Bible, even if he challenges how it has been interpreted. The first 170 pages comprise 10 short comics that adapt Old and New Testament stories — from Cain and Abel through Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba to Mary, mother of Jesus, Matthew and the Prodigal Son. This is followed by almost 100 hand-lettered pages containing an afterword, acknowledgements and endnotes. Brown inserts a final comics sequence about Job into this second half.

Brown’s preference for high-angle, God-like perspectives and expressionless caricature lends a distance to these event-filled stories, while his use of contemporary speech for ancient characters makes them more familiar. He cites the influence of illustrated and comics versions of the Bible, although the nudity and sexual frankness align this more with other alternative cartoonists’ biblical adaptations, notably Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis.

Brown’s central thesis is that canonical biblical interpretations have obscured a pragmatic attitude towards sex work in the Old Testament and an acceptance of "whoremongering" and unconventional men in the Aramaic versions of Jesus’ parables. Brown argues that because Paul disapproved strongly of prostitution, his became the only Christian position on the subject. Then, "as Christianity spread, prejudice against prostitutes spread with it," shaping secular societies today.

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is certain to ignite debate and controversy for its central argument that "the roots of our culture’s whorephobia are in the Bible." At the same time, Brown’s meticulous documentation of his research into biblical exegesis, and his documentation of artistic license in the comic strips, make this one of the most careful, thorough and visually pleasing political challenges imaginable.

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.

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