"‘Questionable Content’ Cartoonist Jeph Jacques On Post-College Career Paths, the Space Program, and What He’s Learned From Readers"
Questionable Content, Jeph Jacques’ tale of post-college discontent, Massachusetts coffee shops, and tiny eccentric robots is one of the most famous and emotionally realized comics published online. Over the years, Jacques’ characters have run small businesses, entered treatment for depression, bonded over Toto songs, and grappled with what to do when weapons-grade lasers get installed in your personal computer. Jacques was kind enough to take some time to answer my questions about the stalled professional life of his main character, Marten Reed, what the world would look like if the U.S. hadn’t given up on space exploration, and what he’s learned about drawing lesbian characters from his readers.
With the exception of Dora, who is a small business owner, and Raven, who’s back to school, finding career paths seem like fairly low priorities for your characters. Is that an intentional decision to leave a clear path to focus on their emotional lives? A function of time moving more slowly in the strip than it is in the real world? Is it a function of living in a college town without a lot of non-academic industries or a terrible economy? And whatever happened to Hannelore’s counting business?
A lot of it is based on who I was in my twenties, and the Northampton folks I know who are that age now. When you’re living in a college town and all you’ve got is a liberal arts degree, you’re pretty much gonna take whatever job you can get that pays the bills and isn’t too demanding. I think the philosophy is that working a job that is relatively low-responsibility and low-committment gives you more time and energy to focus on the stuff you REALLY care about. That’s certainly how I felt about it when I was 23!
But I also think that is a bit of an illusion and a trap that you can get caught in. Even if it’s a low commitment job, you’re still giving it hours and days and months and years of your time — suddenly you’re 25, or 29, and you haven’t really “done anything” with your life, and you’re not entirely sure how that happened. And that’s something I’m planning on exploring more in the relatively near future, with Marten in particular.
I imagine that Hanners still does the counting business on the side. With her family connections, she probably doesn’t actually NEED to work to support herself, but it’s important to be at least somewhat free of that kind of a family dependency. Working at CoD is more of an enrichment exercise for her than a means to make money.
Speaking of emotional lives, I’ve always really liked Faye’s interactions with her therapist. Did you do research to make those scenes realistic? Are they drawn from personal experience? What impact does having a lot of your characters in therapy, all probing fairly painful things, have on your thinking about how the cast as a whole interacts and how they make decisions?
The therapy strips are really hard for me to write, actually, because therapy is such a personal thing — everyone’s process and relationship with their therapist is going to be different. Mainly I just try to make sure the therapist doesn’t do or say anything that seems patently false or unrealistic, and hope for the best. I do exaggerate things for humor’s sake — a lot of the stuff Dr. Corrinne tells Faye probably wouldn’t be “ethical” in the real world, but WHATEVER IT’S MY COMIC AND I CAN DO WHAT I WANT, *DAD*
The characters spend so much time talking to themselves and each other about their Problems anyway that a lot of their interactions are a kind of weird, codependent group therapy. When it comes to decision making, there’s always a temptation to have characters always make the best choices, because I like them and want them to be happy. But that’s unrealistic and boring, so I do my best to have them fuck up now and then.
On a less-realistic note, you’ve obviously toned down some of the science fictional elements of the strip over the years. One thing I’m curious about, though: is this a world where the rules of how things work are significantly different? Or our own world, just with a few extras? Or set a bit in the future?
I would say it’s significantly different, but in subtle ways. It’s set in the present day, but a lot of the technology is further along or went down different paths. They developed true AI back in the nineties, so intelligent machines are as commonplace to them as mp3 players or DVDs are to us. They’ve got space stations that people permanently live on, you can raise a kid on one. Space technology also developed a lot more- the attitude of “space is the future, we have to get there NOW” that America had back in the 50s and 60s never really abated in the world of QC. I think a lot of the reason the QC world seems more “advanced” is because they never lost that emphasis on space exploration and development- so much of our technology comes from that field, and it’s been dying a slow death ever since the end of the Apollo missions, which is a real shame. The pessimist in me doesn’t think we’re ever going back to the moon, let alone getting to another planet. Which kind of means we’re doomed! I hope attitudes change. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, with the end of the Space Shuttle program and no real replacement in sight.
The sci-fi elements generally get pushed into the background because the character-driven stuff is more compelling for me. I have plans for a side-project that, if it ever gets of the ground (ha ha ha), would be set in a similar world but a lot more fantastic in focus.
I spend a lot of time writing and thinking about fandom and community, so I loved the way Toto references shaped the narrative around Faye and Angus getting together, and the way common interests have brought together characters like Marigold and Dale. Has spending time at conventions shaped any of those storylines or the way you think about how people build communities around the art and culture they’re passionate about? To what extent do you think fandom and cultural interests can be the basis for strong and meaningful friendships and relationships?
I don’t know that conventions have shaped them so much, the way you interact with people at a convention is, in my experience, radically different than how you do it in the outside world. But if you’re passionate about something and you meet someone else who is also passionate about it, you’re either going to make a new friend or a new enemy.
The concept of fandom actually bothers me a bit — it seems like describing yourself as a member of a “fandom” means you’re more invested in the community that has grown around a given thing than you are in the thing itself. And while I can appreciate the sense of community and enrichment that being part of that community brings, it also prevents people from trying new things. Doctor Who is a great show, but there are so many people out there doing Doctor Who fan work when they could be making stories of their own. MS Paint Adventures is a great comic, but there are so many people out there making troll versions of themselves when they could be making comics of their own. Of course I’m probably biased. Because I’ve been “making things of my own” for years now, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t do that.
I think you can make a meaningful relationship out of just about anything, if both parties are interested in doing so. There’s no reason why mutual interests in popular culture wouldn’t work!
And on that note, you have a passionate fanbase of your own, and folks have strong opinions about what should happen in this universe you’ve created. Are there times when you shape storylines or character arcs based on fans’ interests? How do you decide if fan feedback is useful or not? Are there decisions you’ve made based on fans’ requests and critiques? Or do you separate out that kind of information from your own creative process?
I have a pretty strong filter for what feedback is useful and what isn’t. People on my forums posting “omg Dora is such a bitch Marten needs to man up and slap that ho” is not particularly useful.
But if I’ve done something stupid and didn’t realize it, then it can be a godsend. I’ve gotten some flack over Tai’s promiscuity and how it could be interpreted as being anti-feminist or anti-lesbian, and while I don’t agree with the most extreme things people have said about the subject, it is something I think I’ve mishandled a bit in the past, and I’m going to be more thoughtful about it in the future.
Positive feedback is ALWAYS useful — I’ve been trying to be a little more ambitious with my artwork lately, and the response to that has been extremely encouraging.