Interview: Jeph Jacques on ‘Questionable Content’
Now approaching its fifth year on the World Wide Internets, Questionable Content has gone through quite a few changes since its beginnings as an indie-rock webcomic that chronicled the life, loves and culture criticisms of "music nerds" Marten, Faye and a surrounding cast of characters (which also included Marten’s troublemaking, sentient "AnthroPC," Pintsize).
These days, the cast has expanded singificantly to include fan-favorite characters such as Marten’s obsessive-compulsive neighbor, Hannelore, and the relationships between major and minor characters have been explored, dismissed, or in the case of Marten and the "Coffee of Doom" owner Dora, bloomed into long-term (by webcomic standards, at least) plot points. While drama has managed to carve a niche for itself in the world of QC, Jacques has similarly carved out a name for himself among the top-tier creators in the webcomic scene.
After wandering through the QC archives a bit, I was struck by the differences in those first strips posted back in August 2003 and today’s QC. Both the art and the focus of the series have shifted dramatically in the last few years — much moreso than many of the strips on my radar. With that in mind, I recently took the opportunity to pick Jacques’ brain about the origins and development of the series and the nature of "indie cred."
COMICMIX: I’m familiar with the area QC is based on, so I think it would be interesting to hear your take on the setting for the series and how it compares to its real-world counterpart…
JEPH JACQUES: For those not In The Know™, QC is set in Northampton, Massachusetts, a smallish town in the western end of the state, home to Smith College. Northampton is a Very Fancy Town that likes to pretend it is actually a chunk of Manhattan that somehow got carried two hours due north (possibly via Hipster Albatross).
The QC version of Northampton corresponds roughly, at best, with its real-world counterpart. Many of the streets are the same (almost all the outdoor backgrounds are taken from real-life photographs) but there are differences. Coffee of Doom, for instance, exists on some bizarre meta-street that does not actually exist in the real world. The exact location of Marten’s apartment building is similarly a mystery. Basically, I use the actual town layout when it’s convenient, but break the rules whenever it suits me.
As for the cultural setting, from what I can tell Northampton is primarily young, liberal, Caucasian, and college-educated, and the cast of QC essentially reflects that.
CMIX: Originally, the romantic tension between Marten, Dora and Faye played a big role in the series, but you eventually had Marten and Dora overcome that and start a relationship. What went into that decision? Did you worry about the Moonlighting effect – that once the main source of romantic tension was resolved, the series would go downhill?
JJ: My original plan was to resolve the Marten/Faye relationship and have that be the end-point of the series. But the longer I drew QC, the more I got to like the characters and the less I wanted to end it (the fact that I was also making a living off of it was a small but not insignificant factor as well). I came to the realization that if I wanted to continue to work with these characters, I would have to address the Marten and Faye issue in such a way that it would open up more possibilities than it closed off. So, early one morning, I bit the bullet, sat down, and wrote two weeks’ worth of comics in the space of about 45 minutes. This was "The Talk" arc, and it effectively (I think) enabled me to expand the story beyond the will-they-won’t-they trap.
I knew I was taking a big risk, and frankly I was terrified that I was killing the golden goose, but I knew it had to be done, regardless of whether it would make or break the comic. I honestly expected that storyline to mark QC‘s peak in terms of audience, but the comic has done virtually nothing but grow since then, and is something like twice as big, traffic-wise, now as it was then. So I guess I did the right thing, or got really lucky, or both.
CMIX: Pintsize seems to have faded into the background in the series, while Hannelore has really taken a prominent role. Was this a conscious decision to shy away from one character and push another to the forefront, or just the direction the story took itself?
JJ: Pintsize has been fading into the background for probably four of the comic’s five years of existence. It’s just more interesting to me to write the relationships between humans than do robot jokes all the time!
Hannelore, man, I don’t know what the deal with her is. Well, I guess I do, it’s just very wordy and complicated. For one thing, she’s extremely fun to write. I can get away with just being incredibly cruel to her, but she’s got this inner core of hope and resiliency that allows her to bounce back into shape — she’s the Wile E. Coyote of emotional trauma, I guess. I’ve got obsessive-compulsive disorder myself (nowhere near as bad as her, but enough that it is sometimes a problem) and so I can use some of my own tics and experiences to flesh out her problems.
She’s also the first human character in the comic that I’ve come up with whose driving motivations don’t involve romance- Hanners isn’t trying to get a boy to kiss her, she’s just trying to make it through the day without going catatonic in horror. This is different, for me, and interesting to write. You feel bad for Hannelore, you want her to be okay! But she is rarely okay.
Readers, by and large, seem to love her. Before she came along, probably 80 percent of the sketches people would ask for at conventions were "something involving Pintsize." Nowadays it’s 80 percent Hanners instead. I’ve gotten quite a bit of very touching email from OCD sufferers who really identify with her, and that makes me happy.
Also she’s cute. People like cute things, and I like drawing cute things.
CMIX: August 1 will be the five-year mark for the series, so looking back on the last five years, what do you consider some of your favorite strips or storylines?
JJ: It will indeed be five years old on August 1, that was when I put the first few (six or ten, I forget) strips up on the site way back in 2003. September 1 will also mark the fourth year that QC has been my full-time job!
My two favorite strips, hands down, are #71 and #1017. I think those are the two best-written comics I’ve ever done. Funny that they’re respectively one of the earliest and one of the most recent!
I come from a newspaper comics background (in that those are what I grew up reading) so I tend to think in terms of individual comics rather than overall arcs, but I’m pretty happy with the initial Sven/Faye hookup story, and the story arc that 1017 marks the climax of. I’ve never been a good judge of my own writing on the whole though, I don’t have the kind of distance from it to make any sort of objective assessment. At least my art is improving slowly.
CMIX: Is there anything you know now that you wish you could tell yourself five years ago when you were just kicking off the series?
JJ: There’s not much I’d tell myself right as I was starting QC, because I think to change any of the starting conditions would’ve drastically affected the overall outcome, which I’m pretty happy with right now. In hindsight, I probably could’ve quit my horrible job six months earlier than I actually did. I wouldn’t mind getting those six months back. Go back another five years to college and then yeah, I’d be all, "Dude, listen — this music degree thing is fun and all but you really need to be taking art and business classes, trust me." As a matter of fact, I am going to my first figure-drawing class in literally ten years later on this morning. Oh, how the world turns.
CMIX: QC started off as a music-influenced strip, but has become quite a bit more than that. Why do you feel this change occurred or was necessary to make in the series?
JJ: When I was starting out, I took a lot of my cues from Penny Arcade and Nothing Nice To Say in terms of referencing things I was interested in, namely indie-rock. But as the series progressed and the character interactions came to the fore, I found it more interesting and in many ways easier to write jokes about how people wanted to make out than to think of something funny to say about Built to Spill. It was never a conscious decision, but the decline in music references was partly because it dated strips (weird to have characters talking about the new Arcade Fire album and then two weeks later in comic time talking about the NEW new Arcade Fire album), and partly because one of the most common complaints about my comic was that nobody knew the bands I was referencing!
So I don’t think it was necessary, per se, but it definitely broadened the scope and hopefully the appeal of the comic.
CMIX: What is your creative process like for the series? How far ahead do you usually stay and when do you usually work on the strip?
JJ: My creative process begins with me opening up a blank text editor file and staring at it while I try to think of something funny. This can take anywhere from 0 seconds (I had an idea in the shower that morning and just need to write it down) to six hours (oh god someone please just shoot me in the back of the head).
I start with panel #1 and work my way forward — typically what I’ll do is write out all the dialogue I think is necessary, then break it up into panels, adding or removing stuff as needed. Once I’ve got a finished script, or something close enough to finished that I don’t feel angry and frustrated, I start drawing.
Typically I will go back and revise little bits and pieces of the script as I draw, and often the final punchline will be different from the one I had when I started working on the art. Once the art is done, I letter the comic in Illustrator, make any last changes to the dialogue, and then put it up on the site.
I have a very rough idea of the overall long-term story for QC, but the day-to-day strips and shorter arcs are largely done on the fly. I’m usually working on the comic for the next day — I’ve tried building up a buffer, and I really should have one, but the minute I’m one strip ahead my brain starts thinking "woohoo day off, let’s go to the bar!" and I fall behind again.
I usually work on the strip in the evening, starting around 7pm and working until it’s done, which can be anywhere from 9:30 to 3 in the morning, depending on how long it takes me and how distracted I get. Lately I’ve been doing a couple strips per week earlier in the day, partly because of my hilariously awful sleep schedule and partly because then I get to hang out with people in the evenings now instead of sitting by myself in front of a monitor.
CMIX: Maintaining a sort of "indie" perspective on culture factors prominently into the series. When do you feel a creator has "sold out" or lost that "independent" status?
JJ: "Selling out" has been rendered a largely meaningless term by its thoughtless overuse. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve only "sold out" once you’ve put making money ahead of making good product. Even that is a very subjective situation — everybody needs to eat, and everything is a compromise.
For instance, my favorite band of all time is this group named Hum, who have been broken up for almost ten years now. Recently, Cadillac ran a commercial that used their hit single "Stars" in the background. It literally caused me anguish when it came on the TV — it bothered me so much to hear one of the formative tracks of my teenage years, the song that got me interested in playing guitar, used to sell shitty gas-guzzling automobiles.
At the same time, I know the guys in that band are raising families and working regular jobs now, so it would be incredibly unfair of me to castigate them for wanting to make some money off of a song they wrote. They didn’t sell out, they have mortgages to pay. I can respect that, so more power to them.
Questionable Content updates Mon-Fri at http://questionablecontent.net/. QC is part of the Dayfree Press webcomics collective.
Jeph Jacques and other members of Dayfree Press will be attending this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, July 24-27.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!
Cadillac also used Joan Jett and her producer/writing partner/impresario Kenny Laguna in a short film (originally on the Sundance Channel) – talking about how before Joan hit it big, they would drive from gig to gig in Laguna's Cadillac and sell records out of the trunk after the show; i didn't consider that a betrayal of my roots, because it was mostly a piece of rock history tied to the brand.OTOH, i can understand his reaction to that other Cadillac commercial – i remember how i felt a few years ago when AT&T started using what sounded like an actual clip of the Ramones' "Hey Ho – let's go!" i tnehir radio spots…
I don't recall who pointed me toward QC (one webcomic mentions another, which mentions another … a whole chain of comics later, here I find myself). I will say that I have had more laugh-out-loud moments reading QC than almost any other comic. (My personal favorite was when Marten was talking with Dora's dad, and Marten mentioned his mom was a model … and Dad's response … and Marten's comeback. "Touche, kid.")I'm also amazed by the vast improvement in Jeph's art over the years. It gives me hope that my own chicken scratchings may, with time, become something worth looking at.
I never really liked comics coz Im a girl. But a friend of mine was all about QC and got me into it. Ive been a fan ever since. I love Faye – I relate to her the most. Hanners is hilarious.My favorite comic was the dream sequence with Dora and Martin where she turned him into a bunny. The little punch at the end had me in stitches. Keep up the great work and never ever end this comic!
… i'm a girl…
me too and i love comics! although QC wins hands down as my favourite!
Excellent interview! I've been a QC fan for about 3 and a half of the 5 years, and am eagerly awaiting it's birthday! Great job asking the perfect questions for Jeph, and really giving us QC lovers a behind the scenes look at one of my favorite webcomics. Now go tackle Randall!
Many thanks for the kind words. I've been reading QC for about 3-4 years now, ever since I discovered it was set just an hour away from where I was living at the time. It's good stuff, and Jeph's a very decent guy.As for Randall, I'll certainly send some questions his way!
I love the comic. Partly it might be because I'm a former massachusetts native and I giggle every time I recognize a street or pick up on a reference. That bar they go to called "The Horrible Revelation" or whatever it was called is actually an excellent bar/restaurant called The Dirty Truth.
Since the day I found QC, I was… absolutely addicted.Besides giving me some hope for my own art, it actually gave me some insight on actually relationships completely unique to the comic world.///rEI
dude, awesome interview. i first started reading qc abouit 3 years ago when i was holed up in my house after knee surgery. i think i found it while i was reading nothing nice to say, but i dont remember. anyways i spent the whole time i was racked out reading the entire archive from the beginning tot end. so thanks for the great interview, i enjoyed it.
Hm… yeah, I'm going to have to say that QC is just about one of the worst webcomics I've read.Not just because the writing is terrible; not just because the characters are all, every one, depthless clones of the same frustrating archetype; not just because the artist has made the deadly mistake of finding a 'comfort zone' with his art, causing his style to deteriorate rather than improve.Not just because of the frustrating and inaccurate generalizations that make up what little depth there is to the characters (Savannah, GA is apparently backwards, conservative, General Lee-worshipping hillbilly trash OHWAIT NO IT'S A DIVERSE COLLEGE TOWN BUILT AROUND A HUGE ART SCHOOL and don't get me get near the psychology soapbox).Not just because, in the world of QC, no one is older than thirty, no one has melanin in their skin, and no girls are over a size eight because it's totally acceptable to constantly berate anyone with a marginally fuller figure until they have deep-running and crippling body issues.Oh wait I guess that IS why QC is terrible. But mainly this: the elitist, condescending attitude of the readers and the artist. QC is a terrible comic, but mention that to a QC fan, or *shudder* try to post a critique or pose a question on the forums, and they tell you to get a life, or, god forbid, the classic "let's see you do better" line.And the fact that Jacques rarely has anything to say for himself other than "I draw what I feel like drawing" really says all there is to say about how he feels about his readers and his art — giving it the bare minimum to keep the t-shirt money coming in.Yeah, kids, everyone I know who is an artist, or a least gives a slight bit of a damn about sequential art, kind of writhes in pain a little at the very mention of QuestionableContent. Jeph Jaques is the SnapeSnogger of webcomics.BUT YEAH It's not like my standards are impossible to meet or anything, don't get me wrong. And I think that Jacques obviously has what it takes to make a great webcomic, he's just gotten too comfortable to give it anymore, or something. I didn't always hate QC. I don't know. I know this comment will be deleted, but I've wanted to say this for a while.That is all.
Haha someone is a little upset… but why? Give the guy a break, he took something he had never done before and got better at it over time. I think the reason people respond so well to the comic is because he did it to have fun, not to win prizes or respect from these "artists" you speak of. He did it to have fun and it worked out in his favor. Stop taking it so seriously.
I disagree with you on many points, BriFace. I know I can't change your mind on any of them, but I will argue just two, because I think they're somewhat worth defending.1. "no girls are over a size eight." Yes, they are. The artist does seem to tend towards a skinnier body type for girls, but not all. I myself usually wear a size 8-10, and I can tell you — if these chars were real and they happened to be my height, Faye would be maybe a 16, Raven probably a 12, and several other side characters are also not size 8. As for the skinniest ones: Dora is routinely teased for being skinny. Hannelore has a million phobias, so why wouldn't she be a neurotically picky eater, too? 2. White people under 30 — the comic is about one social group in a mostly Caucasian town. I can think of 5 or so parents of chars in the strip, all over 30, and Jimbo is most certainly also older. Many people under 30 hang out mostly with people their own age, so this is pretty representative. Many groups in mostly Caucasian areas are mostly Caucasian.And yes, the reason I bother to defend J. Jacque's choices on these matters is because I'm a fan of the comic… but it's fair to assume that people posting on a forum related to a comic are fans.
Do you actually know what a comic IS?
Seriously, talk about issues. We don't all get offended if someone pokes fun at the south or people's eight sometimes. If I had to guess from that comment I honestly wouldn't put you down as anything other than an overweight southern guy who uses the word 'liberal' as an insult.Goddamnit, if this kind of stuff bothers you that much, just go make an account on a sex and the city forum and start flame wars about the negative effect the show has on young girls' self image.
I think the problem you may be having with QC fans is that you are saying "QC IS a terrible comic", not "I THINK QC is a terrible comic".That is all.
I just have to assume that Briface's comment is completely facetious. When I read it, i thought it was hilarious. Seriously, no who hates something would ever take the time to write that deeply about it. I mean, think about how much QC a person would have to read to to be able to write so definitively on the topic! BriFace must have read a ton of QC (if this were real, that is). That being the case, love it or hate it, BriFace significantly contributed to QC's readership. But again, this is way too funny to be real – it had to be posted by one of Jeph's friends, and is thusly damn hilarious. :-)
It was actually written by Angus, professional strawman, hired by Jacques himself.
Great interview! when i first saw the size of it, i thought, *uuugh. it's huge there's no way i'll finish this, but whatever*I finished it, and i'm glad I did; it was nice reading his answers to some well thought out questions.Oh and I agree it appears that some people take this a bit too seriously, its a great comic. no comic is perfect and lots don't include all factors of life. I dont criticize Jim Davis because his comic showcases a talking cat, and that he has a HUGE franchise…. whatever. its a comic. just enjoy it and/or move on, yeah? :)
I came across this strip a few months ago and read a thousand of them in about three days. To me, the breakaway from the more music-focused side of things seemed completely natural (and necessary) to development, and I kind of wanted the Marten/Faye thing to stop, and I could probably go on to no particular point. Fantastic strip, and great interview.
A webcomic's no great work of art, BriFace. If it's impressive artwork (and for a comic, QC's pretty damn good. The facial expressions can be spot on and often add invaluably to the humour) then that's a plus, but the real aim's to /entertain/. Y'know, to draw a few laughs?That's why it has such a large fanbase, of which you complain so vehemently, and so many people I know singing its praises. The punchline-based style makes it easy to read on a daily basis rather than all in one sitting, which is more or less how a good webcomic should work. It's not a novel. How can you say it's 'bad', say it's 'not successful', when you complain of people jumping to its aid against you? It's fulfilled everything it should be.Of course, you have to appreciate the humour. Anyone who gets hooked up – "frustrated"! – over a simple comic for being "elitist", "archetypal" or not conforming to their "standards" (god forbid!), worrying about its style because it's not a balanced segment of the world's population…they're just going to hate any trace of the word.So I'm suspicious. I'm guessing no troll would take the time to write out 9 paragraphs of self-deprecating rant, so I've written this just in case. But I doubt you really care that much. :P
I find this comic so amazing. I really enjoy it. I've reread it from beginning to end multiple times. While I can understand BriFace's concerns about the age and size of the characters, I must argue that he has done this on purpose. He's focusing on a specific group of people. He's taken the "indie" stereotype and fleshed it out a lot, and I think he's done a wonderful job building the personalities of the characters, which makes them really easy to relate to. Also, if you're angry about the jokes about Faye's weight, remember that this is a COMIC. Meaning, it's founded on JOKING. He also makes fun of every other character. I find it kind of funny that you're that upset about him poking fun at a fictional character. Also, what is condescending about making funny jokes, which are accompanied by awesome artwork?Oh, and you're wrong about a couple of claims you made. Remember Tai and Amir? I seem to remember both of them having melanin… And Veronica Vance? She, Sven's father and Faye's mother are all quite a lot older than thirty. If you're going to criticize something, at least get your facts right.Also, while I guess I can understand your concerns about him falling into a "comfort zone", I seriously disagree. I feel that Jeph is constantly changing things for the better. All artists and writers have to change some things to accommodate their readers. And I still find his story lines hilarious. QC is the only comic I've continuously read. It's the first thing I check on my computer. I really appreciate the hard work that Jeph puts into this comic, and I think it's wonderful that he can make a living doing something he loves. I'm looking forward to many more years (hopefully!) of QC.
Several months ago I stumbled across QC. I don't even remember how. I read the entire archive over the space of a couple of days and rarely go more than 24 hours without checking to see if there's a new one out there. I have no idea why I'm so addicted and love it so much. I am a 39 year old woman with 2 young children and don't identify with any of the themes or characters. I still just can't seem to stop reading. I think it's clear Jeph can attract a varied audience with his talents.
Like the above Anon reader, I stumbled on QC… about a year ago, I guess. I literally Stumbled it, and thought it was really great. I read the entire archives in about a week (my boyfriend would get annoyed cause I would read it while I was supposed to be visiting with him!), and have been reading it daily ever since. I recently made it my home page, cause I love reading it before delving into the morning's news. Even a news junkie needs something light-hearted every once-in-a-while. This interview was also very inspirational. I didn't realize that Jacques was making a living off the series, I guess I just figured he was doing it after work or something. I've been toying around with the idea of starting my own, decidedly different, web comic for a while, so this gives me some hope that it could really take off into something that you can support yourself on. Thanks for the great interview!
This is BriFace. I can't log in with my email… thingie. I tried doing the password resubmit thing and it didn't work, but whatever, okay, that's irrelevant, moving on.My comment wasn't facetious, Anonymous. I'm sorry that in your reality, everyone who doesn't agree with you must be joking or a troll. Or maybe I'm not sorry; that must be an awesome reality.And yes, I know what a comic IS. And yes, I take them pretty seriously. Comics and comic art are a pretty major part of my lifestyle. And, not to sound pretentious, just to explain why, it's because I am a student in sequential art (comics, storyboards, all that) and while drawing comics isn't my career goal, it's just a big part of my life. I mean, maybe you know a film student. You probably can't stand to go to the movies with them, because they have a need to overanalyze and rip apart every detail of every movie they see. It's much the same for me and comics.And yes, I have read QC. It used to be one of my favorite comics. I liked it for all the reasons you guys do– because Jeph took something he never did before and became incredibly successful with it, and I found that inspiring. He improved drastically for a while, and then kind of… stopped.That's my beef with QC, that the artist has gotten too comfortable. It's understandable because QC has such a huge fanbase — he's found what people like, and just kind of goes with it because it doesn't make anyone upset– but it's a dangerous trap for any artist to fall in to, and it's what makes great things fade off into obscurity.I'M BORED. I think I've typed enough.
Honestly, I think you just shot yourself down with that comment. For starters… a student in sequential art? Seriously? You're doing that course, and wrote that sort of comment, and you had the nerve to call jacques elitist?!On top of that, if your main point here is that he's too comfortable… I can't be bothered even putting my argument into words here. It's too easy.Besides, 'someone is WRONG on the internet' etc.
BriFace, I appreciate some of your comments and arguments. I think: "I used to be a fan, but now QC has gotten to repetitive and I'm bored. QC used to seem dangerous and now it seems comfortable and complacent. The art had drastically improved for a while and that was exciting, to watch the development. But now that has leveled off and QC seems to have developed it's own set of clichés." All of that is arguable and defensible.Your arguments about the attitudes of the readers seems more like a critique of QC message boards (and comments on pages like this) and less about the comic itself. This is the stuff that seems designed to incite argument. It's inflammatory, just there to get a reaction from the fans here.I can appreciate that a sequential arts student would have higher expectations for a comic. But I don't think you can blame an artist for getting comfortable or finding a "sweet spot" in their writing. Just because it bores you, that doesn't make it bad. Obviously QC has a growing fan base. What's the point in seeking out a forum where fans are expressing their love for the comic just to put in your two cents about how you think it's terrible? Instead of just ranting on and on about what you hate and why you hate it, mention something that you LIKE instead.The "Snapesnogger" link you provided is completely out of context. Very rude. Crude and seemingly racist. Seriously offensive. Not funny. I didn't bother to delve into it that much. But why you would link your comment to THAT kind of page? It reflects poorly on what you have to say. You damn yourself by association. It makes your other arguments about QC suspect.In short, BriFace, if you don't like QC, if you are bored, vote with your feet. Don't read it! Find something worthy of your time and interests. Don't rain on the parade. You won't improve QC with your snarky comments about it or it's fans. If you have nothing polite or constructive to say, just move on. Say nothing. Especially before you degenerate into the shallow, racist, personal attacks of your Encyclopedia Dramatica "Snapesnogger" link. That was uncalled for. Your linking that shit to this page was rude.