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!
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.
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!