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Chester Brown Argues For Prostitution (Again) in Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus

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Chester Brown Argues For Prostitution (Again) in <i>Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus</i>

Writer/Artist: Chester Brown
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Release Date: April 12, 2016

MARYWEPTcase.jpg You could be forgiven for thinking of Chester Brown as “that girl you wish you hadn’t started a conversation with at a party” from time to time. There’s usually a moment in his work where the narrative veers off the road and onto a dirt path, accelerating rather than fishtailing, and the casual reader wishes vaguely that they had the confidence to bail out. This tendency is not new in Brown’s comics, but his recent focus on sex work constitutes a single-mindedness in winning an argument more evident and off-putting to a lot of folks (yours truly not necessarily included).

The yawning vagina on the cover of Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible—not quite Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde,” but still fairly obvious—is a first hint that this book contains a nontraditional version of Christianity. Flanked by some happy snakes and a book that seems to drip blood rather than tears, the cover promises something more interesting than the relatively dry title.

The interior contains the stories of Cain and Abel, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary (the mother of Jesus), the Parable of the Talents, Mary of Bethany, a bit about Matthew, the parable of the prodigal son and, nestled in the back matter, Job. Some of these Biblical characters and their legacies are familiar; others less so. Even the former, though, may make you return to your Bible to do a little “fact-checking.” In these pages, Brown returns to the style of his early work, Louis Riel, which featured larger-than-life characters rendered with exaggerated features, most notably very enlarged hands. Generally, the further removed from contemporary reality, the more exaggerated the figures appear; Cain, in particular, is emaciated, with huge hands, feet and ears and a shaggy mane of black hair.

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Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus Interior Art by Chester Brown

Why these stories in particular? That curation has to do with the second half of the title. Brown’s thesis (spoiler alert) is not only that Mary, mother of Jesus, was a prostitute, but that the writer Matthew hid coded references to the fact in her genealogy. More so, Old Testament books and Jesus’ parables all drive at the point that prostitution was once an honorable profession and that we should strive to disobey God rather than follow rules slavishly. Hmm. The theory is not uninteresting—Brown never is—but at times it can feel like reading a lengthy conspiracy thread on Reddit.

This feeling only intensifies if you dive into the notes, which make up about a third of the book and explain various artistic and narratological decisions, as well as sources. This isn’t to say that the notes aren’t nearly as fascinating as the comics, if you’re willing to compartmentalize your skepticism. Brown can be charming, articulating how he made the mistake of using coins as a plot point only to discover that they weren’t in use yet in the era he depicts, but then he decided to leave them in anyway because they worked neatly. You will learn that “feet” was a euphemism for “penis” and what “nard” might have been. He’s open about his biases and his errors, and he freely admits he shaped his narrative toward an end. Sometimes, he says, he created entirely new scenes just because he thought they seemed accurate. And he’s free to do so.

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Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus Interior Art by Chester Brown

Hollywood has taken license with the Bible for decades, and Chester Brown should likewise have that wiggle room. Even if he does bury it in endnotes, he comes from a place of deep sincerity. His pages achieve a simple directness in their layout (a repetitive four-panel grid), in the way he applies texture (with no fanciness but extreme precision), in their dialogue (few polysyllabic words) and even in the placement of speech bubbles (perfect, every time). The happenings are much more dynamic than in his memoir of prostitute patronage, Paying For It, and they reflect the language of the Bible before King James’ staff of writers got to it: plain but not simplistic, fierce but uplifting, grounded in reality even as it preaches. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is not lewd or meant in any way to diminish its source material, much as more conventional Christians may hate it. Nor is it a cynical entertainment, like The Da Vinci Code, which dabbles in similar material. Brown’s ability to meld honesty with argument might be unique, and his gifts in the medium have not weakened. This book is surely not for everyone, and it will convince few, but it sure is a special graphic novel.

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Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus Interior Art by Chester Brown
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