July 2013

Martyn Pedler


An Interview with Jess Fink

"Hey, you little jerk! I'm you from the future!" Jess Fink's latest book, We Can Fix It, takes the familiar comic book memoir and twists it. The artist isn't just looking back -- she's actually travelling back in time. At first she wants to relive the "sexy times" of her past. Soon, however, she can't help trying to fix earlier embarrassments, and must face some distinctly unsexy truths. It's a funny and heartfelt book, equally proficient at capturing awkwardness and joy.

Fink might be best known her self-described "robot porn comic" Chester 5000 XYV. Set in 1885, it's the story of the bored Pricilla, her too-busy inventor husband, and his robotic creation to keep her satisfied. It's playful and explicit, borrowing storytelling from silent film, and doesn't shy away from questions of love amid all the fucking.

We chatted over email about diaries, escapism, compassion for past selves, and the responsibilities of erotica.

A question I want to ask any autobiographical cartoonist: when did you lock down your caricature of yourself? Does it keep evolving?

Oh, I definitely think it keeps evolving, in the same way personalities evolve over time. In high school I drew anime versions of my friends and me. In college I started reading indie comics and making autobiographical comics that were more realistic. I wonder what my drawings of myself will look like when I'm older! It's interesting.

I always knew I couldn't keep a diary because I'd just fill it with lies. I could never stop performing for a reader, even if it was just me. At one point in We Can Fix It, Future You says to Past You, "Don't worry dude, your secrets are safe with... you." But they're not! You're sharing them will us!

Haha! Yeah, keeping a diary was sort of depressing for me as a kid! I'd wind up dwelling in the sad or annoying moments of my day when all I wanted to do was escape from it, draw something, entertain myself. I still have plenty of secrets I didn't share in this book, don't worry!

Not to necessarily paint your childhood as a Dickensian nightmare, but was it that escapism that made you want to be an artist?

It was absolutely a way to escape. From ages five to eighteen, my life was kind of a chaotic mess. My parents were going through a terrible divorce that would last years, I was kidnapped once for a week and then a year later my sister and I were taken again, and my father went to jail. I felt like an object being tossed around in an angry sea, not in control of my own life in any way. Cartoons saved me from that. Making art and stories to get lost in where a way for me to regain some of that control I couldn't have in the real world.

Do you think you'd be impressed with yourself if you knew, back then, what you'd be doing with your life now?

I hope so! Art is something that you do your whole life and get better at over time, so of course I hope I'd be impressed with how my art has progressed since then. However, when I was a kid I was a bundle of anxiety and nerves. I was so afraid of the future and sure I wouldn't be able to handle being an adult. So I think mostly I would be impressed or hopeful that I could come out the other side and be okay.

How honest did you have to be with yourself for We Can Fix It? Did the sci-fi element make that easier or harder?

I tried to keep it as honest as I could. The time travel itself is a way to try and capture how people think about changing their pasts. We all lie awake at night and mull over the perfect thing we should have said or done in some embarrassing situation from our past. We try to imagine how it could have gone better.

It's a very funny book, but it's also very kind. I was reminded of the line in Renata Adler's Speedboat: "In every city, at the same time, therapists earned their living by saying, 'You're too hard on yourself.'" Do you struggle with sympathy for yourself, or the selves you used to be?

Oh yeah! Of course. That's kind of what regret is all about: struggling with the decisions and mistakes past selves made, while having the advantage of future knowledge. I have a lot of anger for the decisions my past self made, but part of what I'm talking about in the book is the fact that back when I was making those choices I didn't know what I know now. I think it's important to be sympathetic and remember you wouldn't be smarter than you used to be if you didn't make some mistakes.

After reading We Can Fix It, I went back and read Chester 5000. The big question, then: what's the difference between porn and erotica? Tone? Narrative? Robot erections? Nothing at all?

To a lot of people, porn is inherently wrong. It generally means anything explicit that does not involve story or character development, but simply body parts and actions that titillate. "Erotica" seems to mean something that titillates but is not explicit, and has a story and character development. I don't make a huge distinction between porn and erotica, because I think when it's done right, something can be both. I don't think there's anything wrong with being explicit and it's definitely possible to make something titillating that's not demeaning. The sex is definitely explicit in my comics, but for me, the character development, relationships and story make the sex titillating just as much as being explicit does.

When you write and draw erotica, does it feel exposing in a way that other kinds of fiction don't?

I guess it doesn't feel exposing to me because I'm making something that is meant to titillate. People who read it know what they are getting into. I certainly haven't always felt this way. It took a long time to get over being embarrassed about sex but I guess I wanted to draw and write about it bad enough that I got over it! I'm also telling a story and trying to create characters I can care about so it's very different from writing about my own sexual experiences -- though of course the things I find sexy can't help coming through.

Why did sex interest you so much as a subject you fought that embarrassment? Or is it such a big part of life the question is: why it doesn't interest other artists more?

Yeah, I think sex is just as viable a genre to want to write in as sci-fi, horror, mystery, or any other. Horror, for example, uses thrill and fear -- which are gut emotions most people don't have control over -- to build a story and characters around. Sexual desire works in a similar way. For most people it's a gut reaction. People rarely have control over what turns them on. However, horror and thrillers are treated as legitimate genres, while porn and erotica are treated as shallow and degenerate. It has to do with how society looks at sex as something beneath us that should be hidden, which leads to more awful things like poor sex education. There are a lot of really lovely and interesting narratives that can be built around sex. Stories can be written that are complex and deep as well as sexy and explicit. Sex is one of the most common human experiences but for some reason we still have a long way to go before it's seen as acceptable to write about it.

Stories about sex are easy; stories that are sexy are much more difficult. What are other comics you find genuinely sexy? What does sex in fiction need more of?

Sex in fiction needs more dudes. Don't get me wrong; I like ladies, too, but there is an overabundance of sexy women and not enough sexy men. There are a lot of people who like to look at sexy men, more than half the population, so it still surprises me how few erotic comics and books feature men as the subjects of desire. I also think a little character development goes a long way. I'm not into characters that are just hollow props waiting for sex to happen to them. I want subtext. I want characters that have motivations and desires. I recently did a story for the Smut Peddler anthology that has some of the best sexy comics I've ever read, and I also love E.K. Weaver's The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, and Sylvan Migdal's Curvy.

Comics and fucking can have a special relationship, I guess, because you don't need to worry about actual human flesh. The sex can exist as something more... I don't know. Is "pure" the right word?

I think it's sort of pure in the sense that a lot of indie comics are pure because most of them come from one person? The writer is the artist, one person does all the action and acting, and that can be really potent. But even though the characters aren't real flesh and blood people, there's still a responsibility when making sex comics. There is so much sexism in mainstream porn and in mainstream comics. You have to balance being sexually honest and making whatever turns you on, while still being responsible.

Can you talk more about that? I think some people would say fantasies should be kept away from all ideas of "responsibility," and others would say porn is inherently irresponsible. What do you need in your work to make sure you're on the right side of your own morality?

Morality in erotica is a very complex issue that sometimes needs be discussed on a case-by-case basis. It's complex because so much of erotica is people writing their own personal fantasies, often with no intention of wanting them to be real, and it's important to understand that. People have a right to their specific sexual fantasies, and they have a right to read the kind of erotica and porn that gets them off. As long as the type of porn someone likes isn't illegal or hurting anyone we should have tolerance for each other's fantasies. However, like all media, nothing is created in a vacuum, and the issue of how a piece of media is "hurting someone" is complicated.

The responsibility I'm talking about comes from the world not being a fair place. There is still a lot of sexism, racism, and hatred of LGBT people. I don't want to censor people's desires. I don't want Tom of Finland's books to be anything other than what they are: an exploration of his personal fantasies. However, I do think that when we inject characters and stories into porn, there is a responsibility to look at the world around us, and think about what we are making, and how it will affect people. For example, I don't want to read porn -- or any media -- that is sexist. I honestly don't think treating a female character with respect stops anyone from creating erotica or porn that is still sexy and explicit. Sex and sexual fantasies aren't the enemy; sexism and bigotry are.

I've found there isn't a lot of porn that appeals to women. In fact, in the majority of media, women's desires are not catered to at all, even though we make up more than half of the population. I try to make porn that obviously turns me on, respects women, and doesn't leave out their interests and desires.

We sometimes sneer at "art as therapy," but it feels to me like We Can Fix It is that in its best incarnation. It's like you're staging an emotional intervention for yourself. Ignoring the audience for a moment... What did you get out of this book?

The nice thing about autobiographical comics is that sometimes making them can give you a bit of distance. A lot of the things I mentioned in the book were still really painful for me when I was writing about them, but treating them as a story you are telling to someone else actually does help. The things I mention are painful, but they aren't foreign to other people. Everyone has a few shitty memories from his or her childhood. That relatability, using humor, made it easier to feel like I was laying out a story for someone else to understand. It sort of allows you to hold your past out at arm's length. There were a lot of things from my life I didn't choose to include because they were a bit too painful to write about, but I'd like to someday.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslut's regular comic book columnist.