Since graduating from the School of Visual Arts, Jess Fink has been working steadily in comics, contributing to anthologies like “SPX,” “Popgun” and “Best Erotic Comics.” While many people are likely aware of her work due to the copyright battles she’s unfortunately been forced into by people stealing her work, her fans came to know her work through her ongoing webcomic “Chester 5000 XYV,” the first story arc of which has just been published in graphic novel form by Top Shelf.
An erotic, wordless Victorian comic involving people and a robot is certainly not a strip meant for everyone. It’s explicit, to be sure, but like Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s “Lost Girls,” while the work is most certainly pornographic, it’s also about something. The truth is, most readers stare intently at Fink’s comics for long periods of time because they’re so beautifully drawn and painted.
As if that weren’t enough, the twenty-something cartoonist also has another book scheduled to be released by Top Shelf next year, an autobiographical sci fi story called “We Can Fix It!.” Subtitled “A Time Travel Memoir,” the art is rendered differently than “Chester 5000,” but what remains constant is Fink’s unflinching eye and an erotic aspect to the story.
CBR News spoke with Fink after she returned from this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival, where Top Shelf debuted the “Chester 5000 XYV” collection.
CBR News: Where exactly did the idea for “Chester 5000 XYV,” this erotic Victorian webcomic, come from?
Jess Fink: I had been drawing short erotic comics for Eros/Fantagraphics books for a while and I decided I wanted to do a longer form webcomic. I felt like telling a longer story would allow me stretch a little and develop characters that I wouldn’t have been able to do in shorter tales. The Victorian aspect just comes from my fascination with Victorian erotic photography and art; the Tijuana bibles and silent films of the late 1800’s-early 1900’s had an impact on me.
Did you sit down at a certain point and think to yourself, “OK, how explicit am I going to be?” Did you set any limits?
[Laughs] Hmmm. Not really. Sometimes I get people telling me that I am really brave to draw and share sexual work, but I wouldn’t consider it brave, because I’m not afraid of it. I guess I just figured there’s plenty of wild stuff on the internet. I’d also spent a lot of time in my youth getting over the idea of sex being a dirty thing, so it didn’t bother me to be explicit.
When you began working on “Chester,” did you have the story arc mapped out in your head, or were you just making it up as you went along?
I definitely had a story arc in my head, but as far as how the actual pages went, I just let it come to me. I had a synopsis of the story written, and as I went along, I would add pieces here and there. I’d never done a webcomic before, and I knew that if I spent a bunch of time hemming and hawing, writing and rewriting, I would loose my steam, so I just jumped in. For the new story I’m doing (which is sort of a prequel), I actually went the complete opposite route and drew and wrote the whole thing in advance.
“Chester 5000 XYV” started as a webcomic and obviously continues to be one. How does the one page at a time release work for you? Is it a helpful way of scheduling things or is it more of a challenge?
Throughout making “Chester,” I also had a full time job as an artist at a game company. It’s a demanding job and you often wind up working long hours, so doing a webcomic on top of that when I came home at night was a challenge. Painting each page became very time consuming. However, I think it really worked out well to have my 1 or 2 page a week schedule. As an artist at a small game company, you are doing a huge variety of things like tiling, drawing characters, backgrounds, animating flcs, whatever is needed. It’s not very personal or satisfying work, so having something to come home to that was absolutely mine, that I had complete creative control over, was really motivating for me.
Why did you decide to create a wordless comic and what’s the most important thing you have to be aware of when telling a story without dialogue or captions?
I wanted the story to have a sort of silent movie vibe. In silent movies, the actors have to get across so much without any words. I wanted to focus on the emotion and let the characters faces and actions drive the story rather than just spelling out in words what they were feeling.
What’s the main challenge of crafting a pornographic story with genuine substance?
I think the challenge is to take it seriously. By that, I don’t meant that it needs to be bereft of jokes; I just mean it shouldn’t be there only to deliver porn to the viewer. I don’t like watching sci fi movies that are all about explosions and laser battles and nothing else. I want a story to go with it so that the action matters. I feel the same way about pornography. Often in an erotic story, all the characters are dressed sexily, everything they say is innuendo, everything leads up to sex and so the sex is kind of meaningless. If there is an actual story to follow, if the characters have been developed, their relationships given meaning, then the sex will be that much more impactful. It’s hard to do! But it’s hard to write anything well, and I think erotica/pornography is a worthy genre as any.
At what point did you realize that at its heart, this was an old fashioned tale of romance with four individuals who end up with the right person (or robot)?
I always wanted it to be a strained romance. I wanted to focus on the relationships between these people (and robot) and how right or wrong they were for each other. I think a lot of people, and I’ve found particularly ladies, like their erotica to have a story — and not just a pizza delivery boy story. I know I’ve spent plenty of time searching for erotica that I could get an emotional reaction from, because for me, that makes the dirty parts so much better. It would be nice if porn had substance and weight, just like any other genre.
Have you long been interested in the Victorian/Edwardian period?
Actually, not really! I’ve never actually read any Victorian novels or studied the period thoroughly before beginning work on “Chester.” Basically, what I knew about the Victorians were that they had a very limited understanding of sex, had no idea what a female orgasm was and yet they produced a lot of erotic photographs and erotica art. So obviously some people were having sex and enjoying themselves. I thought it would be fun to play around with that.
In your acknowledgements you mentioned various erotic artists who influence you. Was there anyone you wanted to cite who was a particular influence on your approach or thinking?
A huge influence on me were the Tijuana Bibles. A teacher of mine, Tom Hart, introduced me to them in college and it actually blew my mind how explicit they were. I guess I assumed people back then had never heard of blow jobs! [Laughs Or at least they wouldn’t draw or write about them if they had! Other big influences have been Molly Kiely, Tom of Finland, Gerda Wegener, Aubrey Beardsly and Dave Cooper.
Just to back up, what’s your background in comics? I know you attended the School of Visual Arts.
I got my BFA in Comics/Illustration from SVA in 2003. I drew comics throughout high school (they look pretty awful now, ha ha) and I started doing autobiographical comics in college. A lot of my auto bio stuff is collected on my website.
I never really read comics as a kid, I was raised on Looney Tunes. I never got interested in super heroes, but I started reading indie comics in high school, “The Maxx,” “Johnny, the Homicidal Maniac,” “Scud” and whole lot of anime.
How did you end up with Top Shelf as your publisher for the collected “Chester” graphic novel?
Well, I think I was friends with Leigh Walton before I met the other Top Shelf dudes, just from chatting online and hanging out at conventions. I’ve always loved Top Shelf; they put out some of my absolute favorite comics and I knew right way that I wanted to submit “We Can Fix It!” to them. Chris Staros picked up “Chester” from me one year at SPX and decided he wanted to publish them both! I couldn’t have been happier.
You just came back from the Toronto Comics Arts Festival where the collection debuted. What was the show like and what how was it standing behind the Top Shelf booth with a big stack of “Chester” collections in front of you?
It was an awesome show, we sold out of “Chester” books on the first day! I was completely unprepared for how beautiful, well organized and well attended TCAF was. It was very exciting to finally be able to show off my books! My babies!
What can you tell us about “We Can Fix It!,” your “time travel memoir?”
It’s basically part time travel fiction, part autobiography. There’s me trying to give myself some sex pointers and then there’s me trying to set right some of the traumatic events of my past. Lots of making out, lots of blow jobs jokes, lots of me in a futuristic jumpsuit.
Based on the pages you’ve shown so far, I have to ask: when one travels back in time and has sex with one’s younger self, is it masturbation or incest?
Oh it’s definitely masturbation. No one can love you like you can!