Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen. Artwork provided by Jess Fink.
Troy resident and artist Jess Fink has been doing for years what mainstream comic companies are only now slowly trying to emulate–writing and drawing quirky, intelligent comics that deal with complex issues like sexual identity, love and adult relationships. Works of art that treat readers like adults.
Take Fink’s most popular work: Chester 5000 is a sci-fi Victorian tale of Priscilla, a woman who feels sexually let down by her inventor husband George. George’s solution to Priscilla’s disappointment is to create Chester 5000, a robot that can take care of Priscilla’s every desire. But Chester isn’t just a robot–he’s a caring, feeling being. Yes, there’s human on robot sex. Inspired by Tijuana Bibles, Victorian history, silent film and art nouveau, Chester 5000 is at its core a sweet, endearing love story, with penetration.
So where did Fink get such a menagerie of inspirations? You guessed it, Long Island.
Growing up, Fink felt out of place. She dealt with her bisexuality by diving into comic books and erotica. She dreamt of being an animator as she consumed hours and hours of cartoons, “I barely ever watched anything that was live action. It was boring,” she told The Alt during an interview at Troy’s Psychedelicatessen.
Fink developed a voracious appetite for comics and manga, and soon moved on from the idea of being an animator, seeing the profession more as being part of a conglomerate of creatives. Working as an illustrator however, seemed more appealing as she saw it as a way of taking total control of her career. “I just always felt like it was what I wanted to do. I felt like art was a kind of an outlet for me, or an escape for a long time.”
“I guess my influences for it [Chester 5000] were that I was always interested in erotica, since I was a kid, which probably stemmed from me being queer and not knowing that was OK,” said Fink. “So I was low-key obsessed with the thing my whole life but not able to express myself about it. It prompted me to seek out material that was queer. A lot of the erotica I was influenced by was terrible. It wasn’t good stuff, just weird stuff that I would find. Things that are terrible can influence you as much as stuff that’s good–because you want to make it better. You see the spark in it and you want to use it in a way that will make it better.”
Fink says she found that a lot of erotica she encountered wasn’t kind or empowering. “One of the reasons I was so interested in this idea is that people feel ashamed by that stuff and there’s a lot of erotica that doesn’t really help” says Fink. “Instead it capitalizes on shame, like it’s saying ‘isn’t this dirty? Isn’t this creepy?’ And I don’t want to feel worse than I already do. I was already feeling looked down on and ashamed because I was bi and felt like I wasn’t allowed to be. So, I didn’t want to feel like somebody is putting me further underground than I already was. I wanted to talk about it in the open.”
Chester 5000 was an attempt to correct the idea that erotica has to be ugly and dirty, that it has to be wrapped in a blanket of shame and to assure others with the same interests that they aren’t alone and aren’t freaks.
“I thought, I’ve always been interested in society’s relationship with erotica, I love Art Nouveau, I’m really interested in history, I love silent film; why don’t I do a silent erotic comic that is good—not terrible? I mean Tijuana Bibles are not kind. There dirty, like let’s get REAAAAL Dirty, LET’S GET CREEPY!” Fink says, her voice dipping low and gravely, mimicking that of a deranged carnival barker. “And people around comics sometimes treat erotica like it’s dirty and I don’t like it. So with Chester 5000 I came at it as though it was this Jane Austen novel, but what if a Jane Austen novel was really dirty? What if people were very nice to each other, but into really dirty sex, but were really kind to each other.”
So how did Fink escape Long Island and wind up in Troy?
After graduating from The School of Visual Arts in New York City, Fink returned to Long Island. It wasn’t ideal. “It’s really expensive to live on Long Island, it’s a terrible place; it’s a very pretty place but it’s terrible. So I lived there for two years, worked at Borders, did caricatures at parties and saved up a bunch of money.”
Finally she decided to adventure to Troy with her husband who had landed a gig at video game company Vicarious Visions. Fink continued to work as a freelance cartoonist until she was hired at First Playable, another Troy-based game company. It was around that time that she launched Chester 5000 as a web comic. Things built from there as Chester 5000 grew in popularity. Publisher Top Shelf issued the book in a collected edition and Fink also published a semi-autobiographical work titled We Can Fix It.
Fink now maintains a large fan base online. She’s used Kickstarter to fund some of her works, and is able to focus on her own projects full time thanks to Patreon, a website that allows her fans to donate a few dollars a month in support of her work.
“Patreon really helped me focus on my work and not have to take on so many other tiny little jobs that don’t help me,” said Fink. “Fans who have been following for a long time give me $1 or $2 a month and it builds up each month. It’s like back in the day, artists did work for certain people who supported them. It’s a return to that style of ‘Let’s keep these artists going because we like what they’re doing’.”
So while mainstream comic imprints like Marvel and DC struggle ham-fistedly to tackle diversity and adult themes—Thor is now a blonde woman with cancer, there is a black and Latino Spider-Man, there is a black Captain America—indie comics have surged in popularity. Despite their attempts to diversify their characters and content, Marvel and DC mostly entrust their franchised writers who are straight white men. (Notably, Marvel did recently bring on Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther.)
Indie comic publishers have proved much more adept at handling these issues and at publishing works by writers of a wide variety of backgrounds.
Fink is in no rush to join the mainstream. She plans to continue publishing her web comics and exploring relationships with publishers of indie erotica.
Fink’s work may already be familiar to you, even if you haven’t read a single frame of Chester 5000. She’s done illustrations for a number of band shirts and fashion lines—some of which have been ripped off. You’ve likely seen the shirt with a milk carton holding hands with a cookie that’s saying “I love you!”
Fink also wrote and illustrated a comic book about the misadventures of industrial punk provocateurs Mindless Self Indulgence, an experience that came about because she mentioned to a friend that she was a fan. That comment got back to the band and lead to Fink spending hours listening to and transcribing stories of the band’s insane hijinks.
“They seem really insane but they are the sweetest, nicest people,” says Fink of the band. “I met them backstage when they played at Revolution Hall. They’re the sweetest, most relaxed people. They’re just nerds.”
Now Fink says she’s unlikely to do similar projects, her career is in her hands and she can focus exclusively on her own creations. Not that she’d turn down an opportunity to collaborate with an artist she respects, it’s just that in some ways Fink appears more comfortable in her own skin.
She admits she came to Troy out of convenience, but she says now it’s become a part of her identity and her work.
“I was blown away when I first moved up here with how pretty Troy is. I’m obsessed with architecture and on Long Island everything was built in the ’40s and ’50s; it’s very brutal and bland. Nothing in America is really old, Troy’s buildings still have the original wrought iron steps, the old brick facades, it had a huge influence on me. I love the old Victorian stuff, the factory buildings by the water and the old graveyards.”
You can find physical copies of Fink’s work at Top Shelf Productions.