The following book review examines a title that will be released May 25, 2011, and provides context to an ongoing dialogue surrounding pornography and art.
Pornography and comics exist amid some mutual, widespread presumptions. One holds that neither can be art: Porn’s only purpose is to excite the libido, and comics are superheroes cover to cover, right? Another presumption contends, as antiporn feminist Mae Tyme has said of pornography alone, that both forms are “overwhelmingly by, about and for” males. Tyme’s original phrasing used the word “men,” but comics and porn are also presumed by many to have age-specific and nonoverlapping readerships. In North America porn is a controlled cultural product, barred by law from the inquisitive hands of minors — and rightly so — whereas comics, to individuals unacquainted with the medium, is kids’ stuff.
Warning: One image below contains adult content and is not safe for work.
Consider, then, the tough spot surrounding porn comics creators Jess Fink and Molly Kiely. These women, both alumnae of Fantagraphics Books’ largely moribund Eros imprint, have written and drawn work that could spark legal proceedings for stores that mistakenly sell it to kids. Furthermore, Fink and Kiely face the judgment of many feminists for helping men exploit images of women — that is, for being “victims,” a formulation the self-dubbed “post-porn modernist” Annie Sprinkle once identified before saying, “We don’t want to be perceived as victims.” (The quotation comes from an interview between Sprinkle and Tyme, the antiporn feminist mentioned above.)
During the period from the mid-nineties to the mid-oughts, Kiely and Fink caught my attention with pictures and picture narratives in such comics as Head and Footlicker. Kiely also had her own Eros titles, including the amusing Saucy Little Tart. The quality of her output proved to be in direct proportion to the number of pages it occupied, and Kiely gave North American porn comics its most enchanting “rawmance” with her first graphic novel, That Kind of Girl.
Fink’s forthcoming first graphic novel, Chester 5000 XYV, suggests that length might not complement her powers the way brevity does. Chester tells the almost wordless story of a Victorian-era inventor who is more wed to technology and engineering than to his sexually insatiable wife. Eager to pour more of his energy into work, he constructs the titular mechanical man for her pleasure.
Somewhat shyly she activates the robot by inserting a key at its groin. She warms to Chester immediately upon finding him to be both courtly and direct. After some foreplay, however, he unlimbers a steely phallus, the sight of which sends her running. Fink’s heroine spends the next day lonesome and eager for her husband’s homecoming. He arrives distracted (by a thematically suggestive axiom, “X = Y?”), ignores her, and even overlooks her naughty-lingerie arrival at bedtime. Hubby doffs his glasses, kisses her, and goes to sleep. She goes to Chester.
Thus begins what eventually becomes a marriage-shattering affair. The breakup stems from the inventor’s realization that his invention and his wife have feelings for each other. The cartoonist expertly charts the husband’s turbid emotions, which begin with suspicion, swerve into arousal as he masturbates while spying on his wife at play with Chester, and curdle to jealousy once he sees the emblem of their affection: a sweetheart portrait of the woman and the robot together, a picture Chester stores in his hollow chest.
The next day the inventor confronts his wife, takes her key, deactivates Chester, and sells him to a female neighbor. Of course, the artificially intelligent Chester is forlorn in exile and eventually comes home. Violence follows. It leaves the robot damaged and the wife furious. She throws out her husband and tries to repair Chester. The robot’s purchaser gives shelter to the man who made (and tried to unmake) the mechanical man. Rapprochement comes during a high tea that ends in low places.
Chester 5000 XYV does several things very well: Fink demonstrates a remarkable ability to counterfeit the look and condition of human ecstasy in cartoon form. One image in a sequence of lovemaking shows the wife’s eyes closed, her brows knit, her cheeks flushed. The panel’s most successful detail, though, is how its border truncates her head and thus implies a loop in which she might be imagining what a superimposed panel depicts (which, in the language of comics, is a moment that occurs earlier in the narrative). Thus, Fink exploits one of the medium’s unique advantages to unlock a truth about the way(s) we get excited and how our mind’s-eye view of that excitement is itself exciting. But perhaps as important as the work’s portrayal of passion is its depiction of compassion.
My favorite page in the book shows Chester’s purchaser returning the key to the wife. It seems silly — even foolish — to note the stillness and quietude of a passage in a medium whose only movement comes from the reader turning pages, a medium that lacks a score or inherent sound. Nonetheless, Fink achieves both those qualities in five panels: three of equal size side by side, with a stacked pair below them. The trio proceeds as a series of asymmetrical images, and the duo ends in a yin-yang harmony.
Feminists might want note that the lone chastity belt in this story is integral to a masculine character (Chester is not precisely male), and that control of the belt’s key gets settled amicably by the female characters. The two women are subjects, rather than objects, at this point in the narrative, and they are collegial rather than competitive or complicit in exploitation (their own or each other’s).
Is Chester a feminist work, then? For me, it spins male vibrator anxiety (I’ve been replaced by a machine!) into a fantasia about women asserting control over their own orgasms. So, yes.
What Fink’s opus lacks is the sort of boundary stretching she first offered in her shorter work. Her formally innovative, gender-twisting stories “Bush” and “Leona Is a Hunter …” have panels that bulge and warp around and beneath the fulsome lips and bumptious buttocks the artist draws. Such distortions treat sexual desire as if it is a force like gravity. And rightly so.
The pinnacle of Fink’s early work appears in an otherwise minor piece, “Fertility.” The story includes a page that evokes a sushi tray, one of whose “compartments” frames the xenophilic protagonist as she is oragenitally entangled with an octopus. As any worthwhile artistic borrowing should, this one adds something new to an old conversation: Fink’s image borrows from Hokusai’s woodcut Tako to ama to slyly crack a joke about a box lunch.
In comparison to such inventiveness, the merely ornate panel borders (however smartly placed they may be) in Chester seem staid. But Fink has already done her Promethean bit for porn comics and might be ready for fresh genres. Her next book from the publisher of Chester is “a time travel memoir … with some sexual themes.”
It took the skill of British writer Alan Moore to drag the superhero, that American icon and (mis)representative of the comics medium at large, into works whose complexity, ambition, and fulfillment of comics’ potential resulted in bona fide literature. How refreshing to find artists on this side of the Atlantic who defy political and artistic expectations in quests for even less likely hybrids.
Chester 5000 XYV, written and illustrated by Jess Fink, is published by Top Shelf Productions based in Marietta, Georgia. The official release date is May 25, 2011. At the time of this article’s writing, Oxford Comics in Atlanta had the book on order and had copies of Molly Kiely’s out-of-print That Kind of Girl in stock.
Alabama escapee Ed Hall writes journalism, poetry, and fiction. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography.