Comics/Graphic Novels

On Prostitutes and Parables: A Conversation with Chester Brown

Chester Brown’s newest comic is the most challenging book I’ve read yet in 2016. In Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, Brown adapts several Bible stories to reflect on the role of sex work in these sacred texts, all in support of a controversial thesis: that the Virgin Mary was, in fact, a prostitute.

I told you it’s challenging.


I had a bunch of very wordy questions for Chester Brown, and he was kind enough to supply some truly thoughtful answers. And it’s worth picking up Mary Wept, out now from Drawn & Quarterly, when you get a chance.

Brenna Clarke Gray: I find the way you use comics as a mode of historiography and/or argument really compelling — Louis Riel, Paying For It, and now Mary are all texts that challenge reader conceptions of comics, even for readers who read a lot of non-fiction and/or indie comics. I wonder if you could tell our readers a little more about your process especially regarding how research and creation interact?

Chester Brown: The research for Mary Wept had largely been done before I knew I’d be creating the book. Out of personal interest I’ve been reading books about ancient Judaism, Jesus, and early Christianity for most of my adult life. Once the idea for the book came to me, I wrote a script almost immediately, within a few weeks. Then, while I drew the book, I went back and reread books relevant to the script and sought out books I hadn’t read, so that, by the time I was finished drawing the comics-section, I’d be prepared to write the notes-section.

I’ve read several books since finishing Mary Wept that would have helped bolster some of my arguments, particularly Kim Echlin’s Inanna and James Edwards’ The Hebrew Gospel and the Synoptic Tradition. But you can’t read everything.

BCG: I confess that when I read Paying For It, I had a hard time with the facelessness of the sex workers you depicted. In Mary, the women are significant biblical/historical figures; they have identities that are larger than their roles as sex workers, and I appreciated that as a female reader. I know the connection between sex work and the sacred is significant to you, but is it also strategic when it comes to making your case for the legitimacy of sex work?

CB: I didn’t think of the work from a strategic perspective when I started it. What got me started on the book was encountering the Nazarean version of The Parable Of The Talents. Biblical scholars ignore it and it’s unknown to the wider public. I wanted to bring some attention to it and start a debate about what it means. The book grew beyond that and ended up being about prostitution as it relates to The Talents, the inclusion of women in Matthew’s genealogy, and the anointing of Jesus. And there’s a sub-theme about obedience to God.

While I make the point in the book that our modern whorephobia developed out of Judeo-Christian attitudes regarding prostitution, most anti-prostitutionists see their arguments as secular, rational, and not tied to religion, so I doubt that this book will win them over.

BCG: Usually, when biblical adaptation is used to political ends, it’s by the “moral majority” on the right of the political spectrum. Why take up the challenge of reclaiming these stories for a different worldview?

When I read the Nazarean version of The Talents, I became convinced that my interpretation of it was correct. I felt the excitement of wanting to share a discovery with the world. Creating the book didn’t feel like a challenge — it felt like fun.

BCG: To me, this book is feminist — not a word I’ve ever used before to describe your work. Do you think of it as a feminist comic?

CB: While I recognize that there are feminists who advocate for sex-worker rights, feminism is too divided on the subject for me to feel comfortable defining myself as a feminist. But feminist thinking did influence the creation of Mary Wept. It’s hard to deny that Judaism and Christianity, as they’ve been popularly practiced for the last two thousand years, have been patriarchal religions, and I don’t think that’s been a good thing. I argue that there were Goddess-worshippers within ancient Judaism and that Jesus was associated with them. Those who believe that Jesus was a sort of feminist are, in my opinion, correct.

BCG: This book challenges readers of faith to accept a different and likely shocking reading of the Bible. Likewise, it’s a pretty dense religious argument for readers who aren’t themselves religious. Who do you envision as the ideal reader of Mary, and do you anticipate a backlash from audiences?

CB: As I was creating the book I was mostly thinking of certain friends and acquaintances in the sex-worker rights movement. Since that’s a relatively small movement, I hope the book will also attract readers who aren’t interested in sex-worker rights. There are people who have an interest in religion without being dogmatically attached to a particular interpretation of scripture — perhaps the book would appeal to them. Most anti-prostitutionists ignored Paying For It and I suspect that most Christians will do the same with this book, unless it becomes a huge bestseller, which is rather unlikely.

Thank you to Chester Brown for taking the time to speak with us!