Recently, Yale Record Managing Editor Aaron Gertler sat down with Jeph Jaques, author of the webcomic Questionable Content.
When I started reading QC back in 2006 or so, I didn’t think much about the author as separate from the protagonist—but you, in many ways, are not a Marten-style character. How did someone like that become your protagonist?
Well, back when I started the comic, he was very close to where I was. We were still different people—I don’t look anything like him or anything—but I was in a very similar life situation; dead-end job, not a lot of friends, didn’t know what I was doing with my life. That kind of lost, twentysomething guy, thing that is the foundation of Marten was definitely a little bit autobiographical; you always start by writing what you know.
Did you also have a coffee shop full of beautiful hipsters?
No. I’d have been too scared to talk to them anyway…
So you wrote what you know, except with robots.
Yeah. I wrote the world I prefer to live in.
How much influence do people in your life generally have on your character design? Do family and friends often recognize themselves in QC, rightly or wrongly?
Thankfully, no family members. Most of the characters in the strip are just different facets of my personality. I get to put my OCD into Hannelore, and with someone like Marigold I can channel my social anxiety and video-game nerd stuff. But I do pull some things from friends or colleagues. Tai is a lot like a friend of mine from college—very libertine, romantically. If something funny happens to me during the day, I might put that in the strip, but mostly it’s all coming out of my head.
Was there a point at which you became satisfied with your artistic style in terms of character appearance, which hasn’t changed much in the last thousand comics? Or do you think you’ll be forever tweaking in that respect?
Well, I’m never satisfied. I can’t look at a strip I wrote two hours ago without thinking “oh, god, the art is terrible, I have to get better.” But I have been drawing long enough that I’ve gotten used to my current style. Most of my changes now are from working on the fundamentals: better poses, more interesting compositions, things like that. And I’m still making subtle tweaks to characters, facial structures, things like that.
Has anybody’s physical appearance changed through their transformation as a character?
Oh yeah. Like how Faye was at first super skinny, though I always saw her in my head as curvier. And since Marigold popped out of my head, she’s changed as well—I’ve made her gradually cuter and cuter over time and started doing cuter things with her. And Hannelore has branched out, gotten less fraught-looking and more gradually normal. Most of the changes I make are meant to get the characters closer to how they look in my head.
How easily do your characters “automatically” react to one another, now? Do you ever have to suddenly stop and think, hard, about how someone like Marten or Faye would respond to a situation, or are they complete enough that this isn’t a problem?
On a good day, you can just put a couple characters in a room, have them start talking, and funny things will happen. But it varies—some characters become easier or harder to write over time. I tend to focus on whoever I’m interested in at the time.
How old do you think you’d allow your characters to become in the story before cutting them off?
I don’t think I’d do that. With the pace I currently go, by the time I’m 40, Marten will be maybe 30… in general, I just don’t think in those terms. I’ve always been interested in writing about twentysomethings. When I started out, I thought I’d only do it for two years before I quit, so I wasn’t thinking nearly that far in advance.
You once said you’d planned out a specific ending for QC that was abandoned when Faye revealed the details of her father’s death. Would you care to disclose that ending?
Yeah, the original thing was a typical, simple romantic-sitcom thing. The whole Marten “big talk” storyline was originally going to be the end of the strip, where they’d get together. But then, as I reached the end, around comic 500, I found myself putting it off and putting it off because I didn’t want to stop doing the comic. I liked having a living off of something I didn’t suck at. I spent a long time trying to think of a way to keep the comic going without rehashing old stuff. So finally: “What if Marten and Faye had that talk and then didn’t get together?” And it went from “will they or won’t they?” to become this huge ensemble thing where I can do anything I want and it seems to work. A good choice.
Are there any characters in QC you didn’t think would be at all important in the long term but became so?
Marigold I use as much as I expect, she’s my favorite… Padma was surprisingly hard to write and I’m still not happy with how I handled her—some characters are hard to figure out. The whole space-station series really surprised me. I can spend 30 strips on one day, but even so I didn’t think I’d be up there for three months. The Station/Lieutenant Potter thing didn’t take me completely by surprise—I knew something would happen—but there was a lot more to it than I expected.
Getting back to that idea of not being satisfied, what’s your favorite strip? Or any other thing that you’ve drawn?
There’s nothing I would say I’m completely satisfied with. There are definitely strips where I know I’ve done the best job I could at that point. The glitching-out hologram strip was a lot of fun and worked out really well. And then the one a while back where the side-character of a side-character… the bakery owner’s daughter chases a snake off a cliff. That was something different. Still probably my favorite strip I’ve ever written is one where Pintsize is hollering about being immortal, and Faye pushes him off a table and says “God is dead,” and Pintsize calls back “Nietzsche is dead!”
Have you ever tried to pursue non-cartoon visual art? Do you want to?
Yeah; I was an art student in high school—that’s what I thought I was going to study in college until I got into music and changed my mind. I sign up for figure-drawing classes whenever I have the time; they’re really good practice. I’d really like to get back into painting, but it’s a question of having enough time—both physical, and in terms of what I have time to think about.
Did you design your own tattoos?
Yeah, I did (shows us some bird tattoos and a skeletal X-ray-style sketch on the back of his left hand), but this (skeletal) was based on an old Gray’s Anatomy textbook. My tattoo artist hated me for that. (He also has a Bene Gesserit litany against fear, from Dune. Look it up). Just gradually filling up my limbs.
Other than just practicing, what was the single tool or technique you found that most improved your cartooning skills?
There’s no real magic bullet unless you’re one of those, you know, miraculous savants who can just “do it.” I’m not one of them. I don’t think I have any natural drawing talent—everything I do I had to pick up along the way. Figure-drawing classes help tremendously; learning the way people stand and sit and hold their arms, figuring out the proportions, are all really good. The DC Comics Guide to Comic Penciling is fantastic for learning composition, different layouts, rules of thumb—a tremendously helpful book, recommended to me by Chris Hastings of Dr. McNinja. Other than that, it’s all trial and error—trying to be critical of your work without being critical of yourself. That can trip up a lot of people: “Oh, this drawing sucks—I suck!” I do that all the time.
What about the online aspect of the comic? Any helpful tools for that?
Oh god, yeah. The minute I could afford a big, fancy Cintiq (LCD drawing tablet), everything got much easier. It’s 2000 dollars—not for hobbyists—but it’s so much easier to work on than with a normal tablet, because you aren’t looking at the monitor and then back to the tablet in your lap. It’s been probably a thousand strips since I got it; not a night-and-day difference, but it leaves me more time for trying to improve instead of just getting the comic done.
And now for something completely different: Despite the robots in QC, you’ve stated that “I am too pessimistic about our future as a species to get my hopes up about real-world AI.” Care to explain further? As an optimist, I’m curious.
Well, I do go back and forth a lot about it. Every generation thinks it’s the greatest ever and it’s all downhill from there, but at the point where we are in human history, we’re starting to see a lot of hard data about tremendous challenges we’ll face for the next century—not just for human happiness, but for our survival as a species. Climate change, methane releases from Arctic glaciers, dwindling resources—the second half of the 21st century will be tough. The optimist in me wants to say, “Technology has solved all our problems so far. It’s reasonable to think it will continue to do so,” but then the pessimist in me looks at human nature and goes “Well, we’re also really short-sighted and never agree on anything.” Also, AI is really weird; there are so many fundamental, weird philosophical issues with the concept of intelligence that recreating it seems very alien to me. Then again, nobody would have predicted cell phones thirty years ago.
Another philosophical issue: You told fans on your that you don’t think you’d be able to portray a religious character fairly in the comic, due to your atheism. Do you feel the same way about introducing a character who is strongly conservative?
I try to steer clear of overtly political stuff in the strip, because nothing good ever comes out of it. If you’re doing a political comic, that’s one thing… but whenever I do anything overtly in the strip, it never convinces anybody who disagrees. So all it’s really doing is pissing people off. Some people are into that, but it’s never been my thing.
Also, I like to think of my comic as like a crypto-liberal insinuation process; there are all these people who don’t share my views but who read my comic, and so pick them up that way…
And then the Fiery Furnaces do the rest with their subliminal messaging?
You’re trapped on a desert island with unlimited food, unlimited water and the complete works of a single cartoonist. Who is that cartoonist?
Ooh, tough call. Um… (Peanut gallery: Bill Watterson?) No, I wouldn’t go with Watterson… I grew up with Calvin and Hobbes and it’s so internalized that it’s all in here already. All I have to do is think about and remember the strips.
Gary Larson did a lot of desert-island strips.
Gary Larson might be a better choice, because he did so many different little one-shot things. I’d probably pick either Jerk City, because it’s awful and hilarious and I’d probably be going crazy on a desert island anyway, or Anthony Clark, who does Nedroid, because his comics are so cheerful and clever.
If you could sit down and have lunch with any comic strip character in history, who would it be?
Oh, there are so many… I feel like if I had the choice, I’d have to meet up with Hannelore and apologize. “Sorry I messed you up so bad”… I do such cruel things to my characters sometimes.
Have you ever had to resolve some kind of theft of your intellectual property which was egregious enough to require some form of criminal charge or lawsuit?
Nothing’s progressed that far. You may be familiar with the QC iPhone app that was taking people’s RSS feeds, scraping them and then charging for it. That’s a problem that we—all us web cartoonists—are trying to figure out how to deal with that. They’re everywhere, and for the most part well-intentioned; it’s often a college student who decides “I’m going to program an app that’s all my favorite comics in one spot!” And that’s great, it’s what people want, but it also strips us of our revenue stream. It kinda sucks. So we’re trying to figure out a way around that that will make everyone happy. 99 percent of the time those things can be resolved with “hey, stop that.” I’m lucky not to have had some of the trouble others have had—my friend Jess Fink has had her art ripped off by companies.
Is there a QC app?
It’s something I want to do sometime this year; find a developer, pay them, get a good one made. I can’t blame my fans for downloading these apps; they just want to read my comic. Something I’m planning to do, but I need to get through all these conventions first…
Could you provide a brief history of your comics influences?
Like any little kid, I started out with a pencil copying Garfield and Peanuts strips out of the funnies, things like that. I’ve always been more of a newspaper-comics that superhero-comics kind of guy. I hadn’t gotten into small-press comics or even manga until after I started the strip; my background is in four-panel gags. And I really just continued in that vein through high school—spending a fair amount of time figuring out how Bill Watterson drew Calvin and Hobbes—but I never really studied it. When I started QC, my biggest visual influences were probably Scary-Go-Round by John Allison and Nothing Nice to Say by Mitch Clem. They both had very clean styles that I’ve tried to emulate. And then as the comic’s progressed, I’ve started incorporating manga influences and picking up little tricks from fellow artists; I feel like my biggest influence these days is Kiyohiko Azuma, who wrote the comic Azumanga Daioh which is like the Calvin and Hobbes of manga—it’s so, so good—and he’s doing this new thing called Yotsuba which is also really, really good. His style is clean, his figure drawing is phenomenal; manga-style, but very naturalistic. That’s what I’ve been pushing towards. I’ll get there in like twenty years.
(On the state of newspaper comics) Oh god, that whole industry is just so moribund at this point… Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine are good, if only they’d get more exposure. And Bill Amend really seems to get webcomics; FoxTrot is very solid.
Have you ever met Bill Watterson?
Oh, NOBODY’s met Bill Watterson… he lives in a cave somewhere.
With Thomas Pynchon?
No, Pynchon lives in the woods. The current semi-urban legend about Bill Watterson is that he’s taken up painting, and heard you had to do 1500 crappy paintings before you can do a good one, so once he quit Calvin and Hobbes, he got started on the 1500. It generally takes about 10,000 hours before you get good at something, scientific data shows.
(Peanut gallery): Do you do autographs?
My friend introduced me to your comic about a year ago and I read through it. Could I convince you—I promise I’m not brandishing a weapon at you—into signing this rock? (Pulls out sharp, shiny, greenish piece of stone, flat on one end, pointy on the other). My friend’s a geologist. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but—something. (Pulls out pocketknife). It’s not a fancy knife or anything, but—)
Sure. This is definitely the first rock I’ve ever etched… This may be the most unusual thing I’ve signed now. I’m trying to think of anything weirder… well, I signed that baby once.
You didn’t sign it with a knife, I hope.
…No. (Christi: There’s no carving in baby-signing.) But I would have! I hate babies. (Christi: That’s not true. You liked the one named Hannelore). Because I couldn’t not. They named their kid Hannelore. The mother was pregnant at a convention two years ago and they asked, and I said, “Um…ye-e-e-es?” They came by another convention later with the kid, and she looked like Hannelore. Even has the hair. Super-cute kid. (Finishes signing rock. Peanut gallery: “That’s awesome.”).