SDCC '10 | Top Shelf gets naughty with Jess Fink

At their spotlight panel today, the folks at alternative comics publisher Top Shelf talked about a metric ton of titles they've got coming down the pipeline. None are more intriguing to me than the work of Jess Fink, a newcomer to the Top Shelf stable best known for her erotic steampunk-porn webcomic Chester 5000 XYV. Top Shelf is releasing a Chester collection in December -- quite a stocking stuffer for that special someone! -- and following it with another book from Fink called We Can Fix It!, which combines memoir and science fiction and promises to be on the sexy side as well. Fink, who's also working on a new website for her personal comics and a one-shot featuring the band Mindless Self Indulgence for Image, took time out from turning people on to tackle our questions about her relationship with Top Shelf, sex, science fiction and more.

So how did a nice girl like you get mixed up with a dirty comic like Chester 5000 XYV?

Ha, who are you calling nice? And girl? And Jess? Oh wait, that is me. I've been drawing dirty things for a loooong time, longer than I've been comfortable telling people I draw dirty things so it's more like how did this nice comic get mixed up with a dirty person like me? If we want to talk about inspiration I think a lot of it came from the Tijuana Bibles which were these tiny porn comics made in the 20's-40's. Before porn was legal to sell guys used to sell these little black and white books on the street. When I found out about them I became obsessed and I knew I'd have to make some of my own.

Top Shelf has a little history with erotic comics, having published Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie's magnum porn-opus Lost Girls, but that was sort of a high-falutin' project simply by virtue of being an Alan Moore comic. By comparison, Chester 5000 XYV is pretty straightforward, and straightforwardly smutty -- not to mention a bit more romantic. What made Chester and Top Shelf a good fit? No pun intended.

Well, something that is very Top Shelf is this playful, positive attitude and I think that's something I share with them. When I set out to make Chester I wanted to make something incredibly filthy but I didn't want to portray it in the usual dark, nasty, makes you fee like you need a shower way of writing erotic stories. With a lot of erotica comes this creepy crawly feeling that seems to say sex is a dirty thing and you are a dirty person for liking it. Now, I don't have a problem with that sort of thing, it's a feeling that a lot of people love but I wanted to do something a little different with Chester. I wanted Chester to appeal to women and I knew that, from being a woman and listening to women, they tend to be more atatched to stories and sexy circumstances than just watching money shots of people doing it. I wanted the sex to be sexy, but also very positive and playful and I think that's something Top Shelf approves of. Alan Moore approves of it too, I got a lovely quote from him for the book!

One thing that struck me when reading the comic online was the complexity of the relationships between the main characters. At varying times, I felt really bad for, and really angry at, each of them. The best example, I think, was that I felt like Pricilla's relationship with Chester went above and beyond what was called for by the Scientist's neglect of Pricilla. So even though the sexy stuff was definitely sexy, it was colored by my feeling that this behavior was kinda lousy. I'm curious as to how much of that emotional ambiguity was intentional on your part.

It's awesome how people interpret the story and have extreme emotions about the characters. I didn't write the story with an idea of clear right and wrong in my head, I more or less wanted to let the situation unfold. In real life situations it's more likely that everyone involved is a little bit wrong than there is a totally evil bady just trying to screw everything up. In the story Pricilla is neglected and instead of solving the problem himself the scientist puts a bandage on the relationship in the form of Chester. Pricilla gets carried away and falls in love with Chester without thinking about her marriage, so they are both fucking things up all over the place. People tend to either hate Pricilla and love the Scientist or hate the scientist and love Pricilla, or they hate Chester for breaking up their marriage. The later being the only one that I don't like, since I don't think the institution of marriage is as important as the how happy people are with each other.

Top Shelf is also publishing your book We Can Fix It, which is billed as "a time travel memoir." Um...how does that work?

Haha, it works pretty well! You have a time machine don't you? Mine is made by Apple.We Can Fix It was this crazy book that just sort of came out of me all out once (sounds sexy I know). I originally posted it online and got a huge response from it, so Top Shelf took notice and picked it up. It starts off with me going back in time to make out with my younger, more sexual frustrated self and giving her a few tips on how not to suck at blow jobs. The book continues with me using time travel trying to fix mistakes with debatable success. I wrote it because I, and I think a lot of people are bogged down by these embarrassing memories, times when we really shit the bed or made fools of ourselves. You can be having the time of your life and something tiny will remind you of that time you tripped at the high school dance and landed on your face in front of the dude you liked, it sucks! There is no reason to carry all of this crap around and I think We Can Fix It is an exploration in trying to forget it and move on. It's also got a lot of sex and dick jokes in it!

This is a two-part question on the same basic topic. What's the different between working on porn and working on a "normal" comic? And has it produced different audiences for you, or have you seen a lot of crossover in terms of interest in the two books?

Well Chester was different for me than anything I had done before. I've always drawn porn comics and I had done bunch of short erotic stories for Fantagraphics, but for Chester I wanted to do something longer and a more developed. I also knew I wanted it to be silent. Because it's silent it's a lot harder to make jokes and so that was really different for me. When I started writing We Can Fix It it was sort of a release for all the jokes I had been holding in, and also for all the personal stuff I hadn't been doing because I was doing Chester. I think if I have a goal for future Chester stories it's to challenge my ability to write jokes without words.

For the second part of your question, I think there is a lot of cross over between the two comics, partly because they both have the same sort of sex positive attitude.

Both Chester and We Can Fix It are science fiction, which is sort of unusual to incorporate into porn and definitely unusual to incorporate into autobio. What's your attraction to that genre?

Man, science fiction is just the best way to explore concepts of humanity. The genre just forces normal people to come into contact with way too much power. Fantasy does this too but with science fiction you get much more of the "you did this to yourself" situation rather than the "magical dragon did this to you" situation. There is the Dr. Frankenstein who, with good intentions, creates a monster he cannot control. It forces introspection, forces the characters to think about the concequences of their actions and I think that creates some great opportunities for character development. Of course there's a lot of bad science fiction too, where the focus is how cool lazer fights are instead of thinking about your human nature, but what can you do.

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