Jess Fink has already earned raves from the likes of Alan Moore and The Comics Journal for Chester 5000, a love story with…um, a twist. By that, we mean it’s the dialogue-free story of the romance between a Victorian woman and the robot her scientist husband builds. Also, it’s straight-up porn. Let’s get that out of the way up front. While none of the preview images are not safe for work, some of the text of the interview may be.
But this isn’t just wham-bam-thank-you-bot. Fink’s expressive characters, gorgeously designed pages and sense of fun make Chester 5000 one of the year’s most playful and entertaining books, albeit one you should keep away from the kids. We talked with Fink for a thoughtful discussion about Chester and the role of sex in comics.
Newsarama: Jess, where did you get the original idea for Chester 5000?
Jess Fink: Well, at the time I was doing these short dirty stories for Eros/Fantagraphics, and I decided I wanted to do a longer story that would let me stretch my artistic muscles a bit. I knew I wanted to do a webcomic, and the Victorian era always fascinated me.
They have this amazing combination of being completely sex-negative, they had no idea what a female orgasm was, and yet there were all of these amazing erotic artists and erotic photography coming out at the time. There was this idea of women being chaste and demure, only participating in sex because they had to in order to please their husbands.
There's also this modern trope of the female love-robot, and I wanted to turn that around with a male robot and a lady who is very not demure and knows exactly what she wants.
Nrama: How did the collection with Top Shelf come about?
Fink: I've always loved Top Shelf, they publish some of my absolute favorite comics. I knew right away that the other comic I was writing, We Can Fix It: A Time Travel Memoir, was something I wanted to submit to them first before any other publishers.
I submitted the book and a month or so later Chris Staros also picked up Chester from me at the Small Press Expo. He loved both and decided to publish them both! I couldn't have been happier.Nrama: Do you object to or embrace the term "porn" when describing this project, and why do you feel this way?
Fink: I've always embraced the word “porn,” because I guess it's not really worth getting my panties in a twist over it. I think most people associate the word “porn” with something that is only there to get you off, just people screwing, no frills, no story.
However I don't think most people think much more highly of the term erotica, neither thing is something to be ashamed of liking. It would be nice if more porn had weight and was taken seriously as any other genre was, but I think that's not something that can be changed by calling it a different name.
I use the word porn to describe my work sometimes because there is a lot of explicit sex going on it in, but that doesn't mean there isn't story as well.
Nrama: What were some of your biggest influences on this project, comics and otherwise?
Fink: A major influence on me to write sexy comics in the first place were the Tijuana Bibles. Tom Hart, (who is one of the best comics teachers I ever had, and incidentally is now starting his own school) introduced me to them, and he also introduced me Eros comics, which gave me the idea that you could make money drawing dirty stories. Other influences have been Molly Kiely, Tom of Finland, Gerda Wegener, Aubrey Beardsly and Dave Cooper.
Nrama: Let's face it, sex in comics has always been a bit of an issue. Bondage imagery and cheesecake, Tijuana Bibles, underground comics, Heavy Metal-type Euro softcore warrior maidens, Japanese things containing things you just can't unsee, Top Shelf's very own Lost Girls...it often provokes a bit of an outcry, and there's sadly far too many cases of it resulting in issues of censorship or criminal charges.
Obviously, we're dealing with a very complicated issue here, and I don't want to force you into writing a massive essay, but I am curious for your general thoughts on the treatment of erotic/sexual imagery in comics.Fink: (laughs) Well, I think it's obvious that I'm in favor of sexual imagery! Comics and video games especially have had trouble dealing with adult themes, where as most other media doesn't. It's a problem with people perceiving games and comics as something mostly children consume.
I think it's something that has changed a lot in the past few years though and I'm optimistic that it will continue to change. While working for Eros, which is the name Fantagraphics publishes porn under, I would get annoyed that Molly Kiely's work was sort of being hidden by being published there. Her books have story, real characters that are engaging, it was content that could have easily been published out in the open by Fantagraphics.
However, nowadays mainstream publishers are putting out erotic material like Dave Cooper's Ripple and Alan Moore's Lost Girls, so things are changing.
Porn often gets segregated to this place where no one will see it. I'm not saying porn should be available for an underage person to buy it, but I don't think it should be stuck in the back of the store either. I also have mixed feelings about the state of porn in general. I think people who love making erotic stories have to try and elevate it to something that isn't well...crap.
There's plenty of crap in every genre but there's so little porn that's actually engaging and I hope that changes. I think web comics are changing that, comics like Curvy, Oglaf, StarFighter. You can make something engaging and it can still be arousing, I think that helps people take Porn/Erotica as a genre more seriously.
Nrama: What comics do you feel have done sex well, and conversely, how do you feel about the majority of the cheesecake depiction of many female heroes in superhero comics?Fink: As I mentioned earlier, I really love Dave Cooper's Ripple as well as Molly Kiely's books Tecopa Jane and That Kind of Girl. However, I think plenty of comics that are not considered porn have done sex really beautifully. I love how Craig Thompson handled the sexuality in Blankets. Jeffrey Brown has drawn some lovely sexy scenes.
As for the issue of cheesecake in comics, it's something that frustrates me. I never really read super hero comics as a kid and part of that I think was because the female characters did not seem like something I could relate to, they did not seem like something that was even made for me to read. Instead, I read a lot of manga where strong female characters prevailed (not that there isn't plenty of cheesecake in anime either).
Even though I support the idea that there is nothing wrong with sexual imagery, I still feel that sexual imagery has it's place. It's important to consider what is right for certain characters and the development of a story and what isn't.
Men wouldn't want to read a serious super hero comic about a scantily clad man who looked like he was posing for a money shot in every panel and his balls were vacuum-sealed into his costume.
That type of character was made for a porn story, not a serious drama or action story. They wouldn't be able to take the character seriously and that's how women feel when they see vacuum sealed breasts and 6-inch heels on characters they are trying to relate to and take seriously.
It's a shitty double standard and I wish more people were trying to do away with it or even acknowledging that it's there.
I'm also in favor of sexualizing male characters more, but it has to fit the character, it has to fit the story. I like looking at men's bodies, I'd love to see two guys getting it on in a comic but it doesn't mean I want to see Batman in a tube top and short shorts.
I don't think women are asking for sexuality to be stripped from comics, we are just asking for characters that make sense to the story they are in.Nrama: On a lighter note, how did you design Chester's...um...attachments? What inspired those pages?
Fink: (laughs) Victorian technical illustrations are to blame for those. Back then it was cheaper to have illustrations of all of your products and equipment and so catalogs were filled with detailed black and white drawings of all manner of things. The Sears and Roebuck catalog helped me visualize a lot of Chester's parts.
Nrama: In the name of asking the stupidest question possible, did you ever wonder when you were younger how things worked with the Vision and the Scarlet With, or with Red Tornado and his girlfriend? Seriously, I was 10 and that stuff weirded me the weird out.
Fink: (laughs) Dude, I told you, I never read that super hero stuff! Aside from watching Batman: The Animated Series, I've got basically no knowledge of it. There's seriously a character called Red Tornado?
Nrama: A couple, actually. Long story. What's next for you?Fink: My next book coming out from Top Shelf is We Can Fix It: A Time Travel Memoir, it should be out in the fall. This book also has a lot of sexual themes, it's part science fiction, part autobiography and it basically involves me traveling through time to fix mistakes and teach my past self some things. Lots of blow job jokes, lots of making out.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
And I've collected a few of the short erotic stories I did for Eros here!
Read Chester 5000 (but maybe not in public) from Top Shelf now.