Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content

Greg Baldino writes for Bleeding Cool

Questionable Content is many things: A webcomic about a haphazardly adjusted group of twenty-somethings in New England. A serial narrative set in a context of kitchen-sink science fiction. Perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the most impressive webcomics accomplishments, updating five days a week in full color with a caliber of writing and art that consistently sharpens as it experiments. Creator Jeph Jacques has found new and innovative techniques of storytelling to produce a comic that explores life and love with laughter and compassion.

Also there is a little robot that is obsessed with porn, and a bird that does nothing but yell obscenities.

Jacques was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule at C2E2 to answer a few questions.

You’ve just wrapped up a storyline wherein several of the regular characters went into space, which kind of brought the science fictional elements right up from. When did those elements start to change for you from being just a background gag element into a full-part of the story?

Well , it’s always been there but I would say over the past two years I’ve been giving more and more thought to how that would actually effect the world how it works, what role the robots and AIs have in society. It’s something that’s always been in my head; I’ve always know all of that background I just haven’t put it directly into the script, but in the past couple of years I’ve been drawn to doing more stuff like that in the comic. It’s interesting and it’s a nice change of pace form the more human-centric stuff that I also do. So it was another avenue to explore. And I thought it would be fun–and it was a lot of fun!.

I think one of the first major instances was when Momochan [an anthropomorphic computer with the robot body of a chibi anime girl] got her new human-sized body

That was a big kind of turning point there, because I thought that would make her more of a useful character. I can fit her into more scripts if she has more articulation. And I’m one of those people where I can’t just toss something in without having it totally explained, if not in the comic at least in my head.

Who are some of the authors that influence how you approach those elements in your comic?

The biggest single influence on how I write AI in my strip is probably Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, which are super-super far future, but half of the characters are AI and they’re treated very matter-of-fact manner in those books, much like I do in the comic. So I think that really rubbed off on me in the way that they’re actual characters and not just weird bells-and-whistles. And of course all of the classics, Asimov robot books are all really good for that, and even Idoru by William Gibson is a really good exploration of that kind of virtual personality thing. So I pull from everywhere but Banks’ stuff is easily the biggest single influence.

Now, regardless of the sci-fi elements and the gags, I think the way fans of your strip really get into QC is through the characters–

That’s what I’m going for!

–and one of the things about your cast of characters is that it’s very diverse, with a wide range of backgrounds and especially sexualities. How did that evolve?

I think a lot of it comes from just the environment that the strip is set in, and which I’ve lived in since college. Northampton is not the most ethnically diverse area in western Massachusetts–it’s not, you know, a hot bed of different ethnicities–but you get a wide variety of people with different sexualities or different notions of gender and it’s a very tolerant place for that type of person, and I think that’s definitely rubbed off on the comic. I think that’s also something that I kind of make a point of trying to portray in a positive manner. I like to think that my comic is almost this “crypto liberal conspiracy” where even people who may not share my politics or social views are still reading the comic and they’re still absorbing that kind of thing from the ambiance of the strip itself. I like to think that might be helping make something that is still seen as weird or taboo in parts of the world seem more normal.

One of the things I appreciate is that you have one of the few potrayals in comics of an older gay person in the character of Marten’s father. Which reminds me, in the timeline of the strip, have he and his boyfriend gotten married yet?

Not yet, it’s hard for me to say because I haven’t really planned on doing their wedding in the strip. Of course having said that now I’ll change my mind next weekend and it’ll be in. I don’t think they’re married yet, but I think it’s still on. That little storyline [about Marten's dad proposing] was a lot of fun to do, both that yes there is life after a divorce and yes it’s possible to be an adult gay man who’s not some weird caricature, and I enjoyed doing that. It was a cute little story and it was fun to do.

And it was funny without being at the expense of any of the character.

It’s very easy–especially you know if you’re a straight white dude, like me– to accidentally write kind of stereotypical people. Even if you don’t mean to do it, you can just be inadvertently lazy or not do your research or you’re just not thinking one day, and you write something dumb. I try to avoid that whenever possible, because I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re being ‘othered’ by my strip. I want it to be as inclusive as possible. And it feels really good to write, you know? There’s something really fulfilling about being able to portray different peoples lives and lifestyles in a way that is hopefully sensitive to that.

This past year you published your first collection of the early QC strips. Were there any discoveries you made about your development as a cartoonist from looking back over your work?

Once I got through the initial agony and shame of looking at my old art, there are definitely a lot of little things that at this point looking back I can see. “Oh, for years I was drawing everybody’s head’s skewed to the left because I’m left handed and didn’t notice it.” When I finally noticed that it took me like a year to train myself out of that. But I can look at stuff a week ago and still go “Oh, I did X wrong, I need to work on that.” So it’s always been kind of a process. I’ve never even read through my whole archive–even looking at the strips from a week ago is too hard–but putting the books together is a pretty educational experience.

Do you have any interest in collaborating with someone?

Well, I never have, but it’s something that I do think about. I always go back and forth on whether I’d rather be the writer or the artist, because they’re both easier in someways and harder in others. Art is great, because once you’ve got a script you don’t have to think about it that anymore, it’s just like a mechanical process of doing something and making it look good. Whereas writing is great because on a good day it takes 30 seconds and you’re done. Then on a bad day it takes twelve hours and you wanna die. So though can’t decide what I’d rather do, it’s definitely something where if the right person approached me with the right kind of project, I would seriously consider it.

Questionable Content updates five days a week

Photo of Jeph Jacques with Randy Milholland and Danielle Corsetto at C2E2 (c) Lisa Ogle. Find more of her photos from C2E2 2012 here

Greg Baldino isn’t late with this C2E2 article, he’s creatively anachronistic. If you follow him on Twitter (@gregbaldino), you’ll find out about the million other things he writes.