Talking Comics with Tim | Jess Fink
At least one constructive thing came out of Jess Fink‘s latest battle with copyright thieves, I became aware that her new “erotic, robotic” book, Chester 5000, was set to be released this May from Top Shelf. Be advised (if the erotic adjective was not clear enough) that as beautiful as I find Fink’s work, a good majority of it is NSFW, so be aware of that before clicking any links (though in Top Shelf’s defense, its five-page preview carries nothing too erotically risque [though proceed with caution if you're at the office reading this]). Mindful of the fast approaching release date, I emailed some questions to Fink this past week. Here’s the official Top Shelf description of the book: “1885: an age of industrial revolution and sexual frustration. Pricilla is a woman with needs, and her inventor husband Robert is a little too busy with his experiments to keep her fully satisfied. Science to the rescue! With a few gears and springs, the proper appendages, a little lubrication, and a lot of love, Chester 5000 is born! He’s the perfect tool for the job… but what if Chester is more than just a machine? What are the consequences of trying to engineer love?” We also discuss her other Top Shelf book, We Can Fix It!, as well the stress of battling the copyright crooks.
Tim O’Shea: Chester 5000 is definitely erotically charged, but I think you’re also enamored of working diagrams into your stories (Extendo Limbus, for example). Where does your love of things mechanical and diagrams begin?
Jess Fink: I really love mechanical drawings from the 1800’s. Or even just product drawings from adds and catalogs. After photography was invented it was still much cheaper to hire artists to draw your products so we get these lovely, detailed little drawings of just about anything you can imagine. The diagrams in Chester were partly inspired by these. You can find a great deal of reference for Victorian items in the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
O’Shea: I saw that Alan Moore described the book as “Liquid and elegantly stylized.”–did Top Shelf provide Moore with a copy for comment, or did you and he cross paths? How satisfying is it to be praised by Moore, a fellow creator who clearly loves erotic storytelling?
Fink: Oh man, that comment caught me completely off guard and just BLEW my mind! It was a comment he made in the forward he wrote for Erotic Comics 2 (Tim Pilcher, Abrams). I had several pages from Chester 5000 in the book and apparently out of all the amazing erotic art in the collection mine was something that caught his eye! I didn’t even see that he mentioned me in the forward until about a year after the book had come out since it was a British release and I was unable to obtain the book until then. When I finally did see it I freaked out, obviously. I’m a fairly recent Moore fan since as a teen I avoided pretty much any super hero related comics, but when I picked up Watchmen a few years ago I fell instantly in awe and love. Moore’s erotic work has definitely been inspiring as well and we did also send him a copy of the book.
O’Shea: As sexual storytelling goes, let’s not mince words, your work is very detailed and graphic (in a good sense, when speaking of this genre). That being said, is there ever some aspect in creating these stories that you opt to decide “I need to handle this in a more subdued manner”. Or is nothing offlimits?
Fink: Well, I like to draw and write the kind of sex I’d want to see. So in that way I don’t want to limit myself, but there are limits to what I will draw, the characters have limits, I won’t draw them doing something that doesn’t make sense for their personality. Generally the sex I want to see is sex that has a context and stems from the story. It’s rare that we get to see a really great movie with a fantastic graphic sex scene, because it just can’t happen, (without an NC17 rating) and because most people completely differentiate porn from art. With Chester I wanted to tell a story that just so happened to have great sex in it. In order to get people to take the story seriously the characters can’t look like they are in a cheap porn all the time. Most of the time they wear regular, Victorian clothes and don’t have their fannies and boobs hanging out. In comparison, this isn’t necessary in a porno because it’s not driven by plot, it’s driven by the fact that it was MADE for sex. So it is important for me to be subdued about certain elements in order to have the story be taken seriously. Just like writing something that isn’t sexual, things have to fit within the context of the story and the characters that have been built. If you have an innocent, shy character she shouldn’t have her breasts hanging out, her dress should reflect who she is. It’s important to have respect for the characters, I need them to be somewhat subdued and realistic for the story so it will mean more when they actually get to the sex.
O’Shea: What’s the biggest challenge to successfully doing layout in a story where the characters positioning is fairly vital?
Fink: Getting their clothes off! Haha. It is such a pain to undress Victorian people and still have to worry about what position they are going to be in when the clothes finally do come off. I think the advantage to cheap tawdry clothing in mainstream porn is that it can come right off, in an instant! Well, Victorians don’t have break-away pants. In fact women back then wore about 7-14 pounds of underclothes so what I draw is pretty modest in comparison.
O’Shea: If one considers the human body a landscape of sorts (metaphorically, of course), there are peaks and valleys (pun intended) you explore that many other artists don’t get to map in their stories. As an artist is there a part of the human body that is your favorite to draw?
Fink: Oooh, peaks and valleys. I am going to have to go with that area right above the pelvic bone on guys. That little hip dip is just ever so lovely. Also butts and boobs.
O’Shea: How hard is it to develop a character, when that character is a robot–or did you not find that aspect limiting at all?
Fink: I love thinking about odd pairings in love stories. I think Chester came easily to me because of that. He is the ultimate butler constantly searching to please and that character trait just begs the question “but, what does the butler want?”. I think that’s something I’ve always been attracted to in robot stories. Eventually what the robot wants always has to be addressed, weather it’s death to their owner, or love for their owner, or freedom. So in terms of that Chester came very naturally to me. He is still a robot, but he’s a love robot so in terms of emotional limitations there weren’t many I placed on him.
O’Shea: What was the prime appeal to you for doing Chester 5000 sans traditional dialogue?
Fink: From the start I knew I really wanted to get across a sort of silent movie vibe. In those old films, the only words are delivered on short cards, certainly not the wealth of dialog we have in movies today. Most of the plot is driven by the emotion on the character’s faces, and I wanted to focus on that emotion rather than spell out in words what the characters were feeling.
O’Shea: Can you talk about the thought process on how you use borders in Chester 5000: in the love scenes, each panel is framed by vines, while the non-love scenes are traditional square panels.
Fink: I have a deep love of Art Nouveau, which was popular during the turn of the century and I knew I wanted to incorporate some of those organic curves into Chester. The panels in most of the story are straight until a sex scene happens. I think it’s important to think about all the elements of a comic that can impact a reader, from the layout of a page, to the panels themselves. So the swirling Art Nouveau inspired borders are just me trying to impact the reader a little more in those scenes.
O’Shea: In the book’s thank yous, you give a nod to the unknown artists of the Tijuana Bibles, how much of an influence were those bibles on your storytelling?
Fink: Oh I love those dirty little books. They had a huge influence on me in college and they were one of the things that got me interested in drawing erotic comics seriously. I don’t think they had much of an impact on my storytelling, because there isn’t much story in those books. They did, however, really change the way I thought about people from the past and the way we treat sex as a society. Even back then those books were as graphic as any porn is now. It also pushed me to aim my erotic stories more towards women, since it really makes you realize how long women have been a neglected demographic for porn. Simply drawing and showing things women want to see is something that has rarely been done.
O’Shea: Can you discuss the origin/motivation for your other Top Shelf book, We Can Fix It!, which is described as “Join Jess as she travels back in time to share her wisdom with her naive younger self, stand up to bullies who terrorized her child self, and teach her horny teenage self a thing or two.” What inspired the project–and how cathartic was it for you (if at all)?
Fink: It was inspired by my love of time travel stories and my love of auto bio comics. It was very cathartic for me in large part because I got to share it on the internet with people. These were very personal things that happened to me, some that were very traumatic. When I posted the book I got a HUGE response from people that I wasn’t expecting, people who related to things that were really painful or impactful for me. It was cathartic because similar to how Lynda Barry talks about writing auto bio comics, it gives the traumatic experiences a little less power, it gives you the perspective that it is simply a story.
O’Shea: How gratifying was it to see the number of fellow creators rally for you when the latest round of copyright violations occurred against you? And while I would not be as insane to suggest there was anything fortunate about the violation, I will note that I became aware of your new book because of the recent coverage. So are you begrudgingly OK with the fact that the wrongdoing made your work a topic of interest?
Fink: Man, people have been amazing about this whole situation. Whenever this happens with one of my designs I am simultaneously amazed by how awful humans are and then how amazing and kind humans can be. That said, it is completely overwhelming and stressful to be at the center of all of it. There is all of this legal business that turns my stomach and I have about 50 people writing me emails telling me what I should do. I basically turn into a little bundle of shaky insanity. I know what I should do and things are being done, but people are just so angry about it FOR me. This kind of thing happens to artists all the time and it is a great feeling knowing that there are lots of people, not just artists out there on the internet who care so deeply about it. As for people finding my work because of it, there is no way I can say it’s bad when new people find my work, it is great that new people have found me! However, I would much rather people found my work on it’s own merits than they found it because of the theft of my designs. Some people tell me they would be flattered to have been ripped off so much, but it is not flattering or fun. It is like having your wallet stolen over and over only your wallet is also this thing you love that you made yourself.
O’Shea: Any final thoughts?
Fink: Hhmm, not other than to say a ton of work went into both of these books to make them extra pretty. Chester had to be completely re scanned and shined up, so the book will look considerably nicer than it’s online version, it’s sort of a re-mastered version. We Can Fix It has also been cleaned up a bit and will have some extra content. The guys at Top Shelf have worked very hard to make the books look special and I am super proud of them. Chester 5000 the web comic is also updating weekly with a new story and my auto bio comics can be found at Kid With Experience.