The Playboy: a comic-strip memoir

The Playboy: a comic-strip memoir by Chester Brown
By Chester Brown

Playboy magazine has been around for so long that its boudoir-inspired aesthetic has practically become the very definition of kitsch.  And yet, it’s arguably due to the publication’s historic success that the tale found in a high school memoir like The Playboy isn’t really all that remarkable for the countless number of adolescent males growing up in the suburbs. Sure, the multimillion-dollar publishing empire has dwindled away over the decades. But its legacy continues in the constant stream of moderately titillating, slickly produced, and slightly pretentious imagery of half-naked women now ubiquitous in pretty much all visual media, despite the objections coming from both the more puritanical and the more progressive. It wouldn’t be surprising if this larger societal conflict informed the experiences of a young Chester Brown as he goes through the typical cycle of lust, attraction, anticipation, satiation, emptiness, guilt, paranoia, self-loathing, loneliness, only to circle back to lust. But Brown carves out a small niche for himself by navigating between the more familiar territories of self-flagellation, the blatantly pornographic, the polemical, or the farcical. Brown’s approach is to crystallise the inner turmoil he felt as he recalls his oft-repeated encounters with Playboy during the mid-70s. Everything else recedes into the background.

What’s at first striking after reading TP is what’s being left out of the main narrative. Brown’s minimalist self-portrait effectively converts him into a blank slate, which allows readers to project their own anxieties on to him. They won’t delve too deeply into his religion or politics. His family or friends. Or his love life. But they will be able to gaze at some of his favourite centerfolds. Observe his odd masturbation technique. And identify with his frantic attempts to hide/get rid of his magazine collection. The terse narrative inadvertently functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Some readers might see in it a tacit condemnation of all pornography. Or a confessional about a youthful addiction Brown eventually outgrew. Or a cautionary tale of how Playboy might have irreparably damaged his ability to form healthy relationships with flesh-and-blood women. Some might even remark on how he never makes the transition to more hardcore material.

The Playboy: a comic-strip memoir by Chester Brown

For my part, I detect no real moral disapprobation. Brown uses an interesting narrative device where his older self from the 90s visits his teenage self in the 70s as a tiny bat-winged figure. The daemonic avatar enlivens what is otherwise a visually monotonous and lonely pursuit. The supernatural appearance works in conjunction with Playboy being viewed at the time as forbidden fruit, but the interaction is entirely one-way. The older Brown doesn’t tempt his younger self but merely provides commentary on his actions while the latter remains completely oblivious to his presence. Older Brown might express occasional frustration with himself, but never any remorse for having possessed multiple copies of the magazine in the first place. And who knows what other forms of pornography he's gone on to consume since he outgrew this obsession? The book only focuses on Brown's relationship with Playboy during a very limited time period. Unsurprisingly, this provoked speculation about his sex life since TP's 90s publication. Brown has tried to address some of them in the 2013 revised edition through copious additional endnotes. This adds another layer of commentary, which complicates the book's overall impact. But this tactic is preferable to making significant revisions to the original comic itself (though he does make several minor changes), as that would have altered its rigorous structure.

The other thing that made an impression on me are the visual juxtapositions. Brown doesn’t come from the realist school of cartooning, and TP is representative of his earlier deconstructed style were the pages contained only a few panels in order to let the negative space dominate the composition. In contrast, he’s remarkably literal when reproducing the magazine's pictorials. The June 1975 issue in particular becomes an important motif as he goes through the act of buying, then throwing away his own copy, only to purchase another on a later date. As a medium, photography takes advantage of the sensuous qualities of light, colour and atmosphere. But when Brown translates the original glossy magazine images into black and white inks with his own awkward style, what ends up mostly coming across isn't the glamour but the artificiality of the poses and facial expressions. Yet when these conscientiously hand-drawn copies are placed next to Brown’s less detailed, wispier, big-headed characters within the book, they transform into something both more static and larger-than-life. After almost 40 years, it's evident that they still have some totemic power over the artist.

The Playboy: a comic-strip memoir by Chester Brown