Today’s entry contains adult content, so I’m putting it behind a cut. If you’re comfortable viewing explicit drawings of sexual acts and are legally able to do so, then go ahead and click through! Otherwise, you have my apologies and I promise that I’ll be back soon with content that is safe for your eyes.
When we interact with people, social expectations govern the way we interpret others’ actions and the way we present ourselves. Little things like social niceties help put others at ease, and big things like general moral principles cement our sense of security and cultural identity. Many social expectations can be draining, or even harmful, on an individual level. The benefits they afford to unity as a group keep them going. Even here and now, in an accepting and open-minded community, there is always etiquette and there are always consequences for those who are unwilling or unable to follow that etiquette. If you’d like to see a resourceful and determined group of people navigate a harsh world, thwarting society’s restrictions in an effort to see their needs met, look no further than Chester 5000 XYV.
Chester 5000 XYV (which I will refer to as Chester from this point forward because wow that title’s a mouthful) is a comic about a sex robot in the Victorian era. If that sounds appealing to you, feel free to dive in right now (don’t be intimidated – it’s a pretty quick read!), because I’m not going to be able to write this post without giving a few things away to those spoiler-phobic among you.
Chester has a definite narrative and is best read from the beginning for greatest clarity and enjoyment. While the story starts out pretty simply, with a neglected wife and the robot her husband built to fulfil her sexual needs, it just keeps becoming more expansive and more complex. Soon it deals with issues of emotional infidelity, and then the process of building and maintaining relationships, the difficulty of recognizing and addressing one’s own needs as well as those of others, and, most recently, a daring tale of warmongering government plots.
The characters in Chester are all scrambling to meet their own emotional needs in a setting that is anything but conducive to self-care. They rely on one another for support, reassurance, and intimate connections, but often are too wrapped up in their own unmet needs to see beyond to how they could assist their loved ones. This comic demonstrates the requirements for healthy sexual relationships, by showing us situations where those requirements are not met.
One partner is having a hard time, so they don’t notice that the other partner is having a hard time, and rifts start to grow. Each person’s difficulties prevents them from helping the other one, and may even resent the other for not helping them. People just keep pushing themselves forward, latching onto solace where they find it, while their deeper problems go unaddressed.
The strange thing about Chester is that, while I think of it as primarily full of Sexy Robot Fun Times, much of the comic is profoundly sad. It’s as much about the things that are missing as it is the things that are present. The eponymous robot works as a symbol for missing intimacy, of many varieties that are revealed gradually with the story’s progression.
Robots are often used in fiction for philosophical explorations of what it means to be human. Chester contains no explicit references to such concerns, but they’re integral to the fabric of the story. The characters tend to make decisions, take action, build things, without consideration to the far-reaching consequences and implications of their actions… but those consequences are present and unavoidable. Chester, the character, was created without thought given to his humanity, but he is so much more than his creator had in mind.
If robots were simple machines that posed no existential difficulties, Chester’s plot would be simplistic. Robots like Chester are inherently challenging; they make the audience ask questions about who we are and what it means to be us, and those concerns allow the important events in Chester to take place.
When a man creates a new life form, the unexpected consequences change everything. On a global scale one might expected social upheaval, but Chester doesn’t focus on the global scale. This is the story of a small group of people and the drastic changes that this technology engenders in their lives.
This is one of those comics that I find more to think about with every reading. I’m certain that if I were to wait another month to write this post, I’d come up with a completely new way of looking at Chester. At the moment, the thing that stands out to me is the correlation between the lack of written dialog and the difficulties of effective communication.
The comic is “silent;” any conversations are represented with symbols and images in place of words. At the same time, the driving conflicts are mainly the result of people being unable to communicate clearly. Barriers to communication can occur with the speaker, the listener, or somewhere in between. A husband can’t understand or accept his own desires well enough to speak them. A wife makes a request to her husband, but he’s too emotionally and physically exhausted to hear her. A coworker shouts a warning, but can’t overpower the noise of machinery and celebration.
I’ve even noticed that word balloons are more prevalent when conversations are going well… characters clearly speak to each other, even when word balloons are absent, but the heartfelt confessions and reconciliations tend to get detailed drawings, so that the reader can follow the conversation with ease. When characters are shut down or arguing, they may not get any word balloons at all. No communication is happening there.
The story is told out of chronological order. The beginning of the comic presents an apparently simple situation, easy to understand and become invested in. After coming to care about and sympathize with these characters, we get to learn more of their history, and the situation we were first presented with takes on a different appearance. There’s more going on than is immediately obvious, and as more information is revealed, the story becomes deeper and more complex.
Comparison between pages often reveals that the same circumstance or interaction is recurring; characters’ posture and movement follows patterns that aren’t necessarily striking, but noticeable if you look for them. While Chester can be a quick read, I recommend taking your time with it and paying close attention to the composition of each page. There’s a lot of substance, thematically and plotwise, to intrigue and delight the keen observer.
The narrative is gripping, making me constantly wonder where things are going to go from here. It was actually pretty hard to find good excerpts for this post because so many pages feel incomplete, as if they just don’t work unless you click through to see what happens next.
Chester is deceptively fun and inviting, with a great deal of depth and emotional maturity. While a level of suspension of disbelief is required, the world feels fleshed out and consistent, making it easy for readers to immerse themselves. It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into the characters that populate this story, their histories, and the creations they bring into the world. Sometimes we even get quasi-technical diagrams of particular features, because they’re fun, and because they showcase the level of thought and detail that makes Chester the delightful experience that it is.
Chester 5000 XYV is written and drawn by Jess Fink. The more time I invest in reading and considering this comic, the more rewarding I find it. It updates irregularly, so I like to check back every couple of weeks or so to see if any new pages have been posted.
Come for the sexy robot, stay out of a longing for emotional closure.
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