In a way, it must be kind of great to be in Chester Brown’s shoes. Not that I share his same set of apparently-narrowing interests, mind you, but it would just be nice to have the kind of career where you can make a living (or at least something of a living) out of pursuing your uniquely personal passions. Not too many people in too many fields of artistic endeavor have been able to delineate their own frankly obsessive interests with little to no concern for the larger “public taste” and yet somehow find an audience for their work (Woody Allen and Russ Meyer come to mind immediately), but Brown has evolved into just such an artist over the years — the question now is, will his work continue to be of interest to anyone other than himself?
Brown’s gospel adaptations are one of the things I’ve missed most since he wrapped up his long-running series Yummy Fur, so it’s great to see him returning to that wellspring of inspiration for his latest extended-form work, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus (subtitled “Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible”), but the cartoonist’s many years of being a “john” (as related so matter-of-factly in his last graphic novel, Paying For It) have no doubt colored his take on the supposedly “good” book, to the point where he’s assembled this latest collection of Bible stories with a very definite thesis in mind — or rather, two of them. And that’s where things maybe get a little bit confusing.
Beginning with the first story he chooses for this book, that of Cain and Abel, a reasonably clear “through-line” forms of Brown seeking to demonstrate for readers that God actually likes rebellious folks who blow off his laws and edicts in favor of doing their own thing. Fair enough, sounds like my kind of deity — although I have to wonder why he or she would bother laying out a bunch of commandments in the first place if the idea was for us not to follow them — but then with the stories of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, his second major point comes to the fore, that being that the Bible is replete with stories that portray prostitution in a positive light. This becomes even more apparent when Brown posits that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was herself a prostitute and that Matthew, in his gospel, surreptitiously tried to slide that little bit of info in there without being too terribly explicit about it.
Now, I have no particular beef with this assertion myself — although I can imagine the conniption-fits it’ll give to “religious right” types — but I do have to wonder if this book might have been more successful split into two smaller “graphic novels,” each concerned with making only one of Brown’s points. It’s not that things here necessarily get all that muddled, but his two separate arguments do seem to be competing equally for the reader’s time and consideration, and that’s something of a drawback.
One aspect of this book that will get nothing but praise from me, though, is the art. Brown employs a rectangular four-panel grid for these adaptations (apart from the story of Job, which is buried back in the appendices and footnotes — about which more in a moment) that I find far more visually satisfying than the eight-panel grid he used in Paying For It or even the six-panel grid he employed in Louis Riel —not least because the pictures are all larger, and his obsessively-detailed linework and cross-hatching really shines when shown at this more generous size. He must spend literally hours on many of these panels, and the attention to detail really comes through in this format. Nobody utilizes shadow and silhouette like Brown, either, and while his writing style is incredibly blunt and to-the-point, his evocative and moody illustrations communicate all the subtlety and nuance that his clinical dialogue purposefully avoids. This is a gorgeous little volume to look at, all told.
As any veteran reader of Brown’s work can tell you, though, the backmatter is where a lot of the action lies in these far-too-infrequently-published books of his, and here that’s cause for both commendation and concern. His afterword and footnotes, when taken together, run to nearly 100 pages in Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, and while they’re no doubt uniformly fascinating and illuminating throughout, the simple fact is that they make a much stronger case for both of his theses than do the comics themselves. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book without reading the backmatter, because while the “main” portion does a reasonably good job of letting you know what Brown is going on about here, you don’t have any real understanding of why until you get to the supplemental material. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but equally-footnote-heavy works like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell use “the stuff at the back of the book” to expand upon the material they’re referencing, while Brown is coming perilously close to doing just the opposite — writing and drawing comics to expand upon the points he’s making in his footnotes.
That fairly major qualm aside, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus is still an important and thought-provoking addition to one of the most iconoclastic cartoonists of his generation’s body of work. Brown certainly reveals himself to be a distinctly “new” type of Christian (one who doesn’t believe Jesus to literally be the son of God, for one thing, which makes me wonder why he wouldn’t be more comfortable self-identifying as a Jew, but hey — whatever works for him, I guess), and probably one that we could use more of — these dogmatic “do as we say or you’ll burn in everlasting hellfire!” sorts of people really work my last nerve, while our guy Chester appears to be more of the “find your own inner path to spiritual enlightenment and seek to develop a personal relationship with the divine” variety. That, at least, even a confirmed atheist like myself can respect.
Hmmm — could Chester Brown actually be a modern-day Gnostic? Spiritually and philosophically, he seems to be hewing pretty close to much of what they used to teach, whether by accident or intent. But maybe that’s a subject best explored in his next book.