This week, when you think webcomics, think Newsarama! It’s the return of Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best veteran – and new – comics on the web, and this is our biggest run yet.
We’re going to be talking to a wide variety of creators this go-around. Here’s who we’ve got lined up so far:
John Allison (Bad Machinery)
Dustin Harbin (Dharbin)
Anthony Clark (Nedroid)
R Stevens (Diesel Sweeties)
James Anderson (Ellie on Planet X)
Dorothy Gambrell (Cat and Girl)
And a special two-part interview with Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant)
But, as they say, that’s not all! We’re also doing a special week of interviews with some creators who’ve gone from print to web, ranging from those who’ve made it a full-time gig to well-known Marvel and DC creators who are dipping into the web as a side project or premiering their new works online. For that week, we’ll have:
Phil Foglio (Girl Genius)
Jeff Parker and Erika Moen (Bucko)
Doug TenNapel (Ratfist)
Mike Norton (Battlepug)
Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover (Gingerbread Girl)
And to start everything off, we’re talking to the creator of one of the longest-running and most-acclaimed strips on the net – Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content.
Since 2003, Questionable Content (QC to its many fans) has chronicled the lives of rocker/library assistant Marten, Coffee of Doom worker Faye and their friends (and talking mini-robo-PCs) in Jacques’ real home of Northampton, Massachusetts.
The hilarious (and at times painfully realistic) chronicles of this crew – from the very strange Hannelore to Marten’s ex Dora – have created a unique world that’s one of the most relatable – and occasionally surreal – places on the web. The strips are available on the website, and Jacques put out the first hard-copy collection last fall.
We’re proud to kick off this new round of webcomic interviews with a talk with Jacques, where we discuss learning to create a comic as you’re creating it, his favorite music, making the strip available under a Creative Commons license and when the strip’s superheroic “Pizza Girl” will make a comeback. This sort of thing obsesses us.
Newsarama: Jeph, the strip’s at eight years now. How long did you initially envision doing it, and what would you say are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned since you started? What was it like looking back at earlier material when you did the first collection last fall?
Jeph Jacques: When I started the comic, I figured it would last two or three years, tops, before I got bored of it or ran out of ideas. Boy, that sure didn’t happen!
Putting the first book together was a pretty painful process- even though I wasn’t doing the layout, I had to re-letter the first 200 strips, which meant hours and hours of staring at my horrible old artwork and needlessly wordy dialog.
But by the time it was finished, I had found an odd sort of appreciation for how simple the art used to be- it was a lot more “iconic,” I guess is the word I’m looking for, as opposed to the more realistic anatomy and facial structure I try for these days. They were cute lil’ guys back then!
I’d like to do a project in a simpler style like that again someday- now that I actually have a vague grasp of anatomy and composition, it would be a fun experiment.
The biggest lessons I’ve learned are the most obvious- keep trying to improve and you will improve. You reap what you sow, so don’t be a jerk. I’ve learned to trust my instincts a lot more- if a strip idea seems “too weird” or a plot development seems “too scary,” it’s almost always a good idea to go with them.
The main thing I’ve learned is actually something Lionel Richie (of all people) said once, and I paraphrase: “People will never get tired of hearing the words ‘I love you’ said different ways.” My comic is a romance (or a series of romances, or something) at heart, and I think its success is largely explained by that quote.
Nrama: You’ve talked about how the characters have taken on a life of their own, moving past the initial “will they/won’t they” with Marten and Faye. Has it surprised you how much the fans – and yourself – have taken what happens to the characters seriously? How “real’ are the characters to you?
Jacques: It was definitely a surprise as the comic became more popular, and for a long while I was actually pretty uncomfortable with how seriously some people took the comic. Folks second-guessing my decisions, or trying to predict what would happen next, or overanalyzing every single word a character said. And there’s still a segment of my readership that takes it way, way more seriously than even I do.
But I’ve come to terms with that over the years, so now when I get emails all “I CAN’T BELIEVE MARTEN AND DORA BROKE UP” it’s not so strange. And it’s honestly the best compliment in the world that people can become so invested in fictional people I made up in my head.
For me, the characters feel like my kids, or what I imagine having kids must feel like. I want them to do well and be happy, and I get bummed out if they screw up or something bad happens. Writing the Marten and Dora breakup was mentally agonizing, because I just wanted to shake them both and yell “YOU’RE BEING IDIOTS!” But sometimes people do stupid stuff, or break up for dumb reasons. So you just gotta go with it.
Nrama: Something you’ve been open about is that you’ve had to learn to draw on the job. What do you feel have been the biggest strides you’ve made in your technique as the strip has evolved, and what are some areas where you’d still like to develop? How have advances in technology changed the way you’ve produced the strip?
Jacques: I don’t feel like there have been any big eureka moments where my art took a huge leap forward. It’s more of a constant series of tiny little experiments, from comic to comic and even panel to panel, as I try new things or try to refine old things or break bad habits.
I think I’m finally getting to the point where characters look less stiff, have more realistic gestures, and their facial shapes are more differentiated. Also, hands. Holy crap do I love drawing hands now!
I’m still not very good at composition, and my anatomy needs work. I have absolutely zero knowledge of color theory. Those gorgeous color schemes in Oglaf? I need to read a book about that stuff.
Nrama: What’s coming up for the characters that you can tell us about?
Jacques: Normally I’d say “even I don’t know” but I do happen to know a few things at the moment. I just can’t tell you about them. Even my wife doesn’t know.
Nrama: How involved are you with the local scene in Northampton, and how much inspiration do you draw from the area at this point in the strip’s life?
Jacques: I’m 30 years old, which is far too elderly to be involved with any kind of “scene.” But I love the town and the general area (I actually live a couple towns over now). A lot of the backgrounds and businesses in the strip exist in the real world Northampton. I think the flavor of the area has contributed a lot to the tone of the comic and the types of characters I write.
Nrama: One thing I’m curious about is if you’ve heard from actual musicians, and if they’ve had any stories that have helped shape the direction of the storylines. For that matter, what are some of your current favorite artists/albums, and your thoughts on the shaky state of the music industry?
Jacques: I’ve had a number of musicians in bands I like send me kind emails for promoting them or mentioning them in the strip, and that’s always extremely gratifying. On the occasions I write about band-related stuff in the strip, I tend to pull more from my own failed band attempts since that more closely mirrors where the characters are currently at.
Let’s see as far as 2011 goes: The new Low album “C’mon” is the best thing they’ve ever done and a strong contender for album of the year. The upcoming Battles album is wonderful. The new This Will Destroy You album is a very interesting change of course for the band- more doomy and droney than post-rock.
The new Junior Boys is great. The band And So I Watch You From Afar’s upcoming album “Gangs” is like if Mogwai, Neurosis, and Fang Island had a baby and is phenomenal. So great to hear heavy guitars back in indie rock. Anyway I could literally type 1000 words about just stuff that came out this year. It’s shaping up to be a good one.
To put it bluntly, the music industry is fucked, and they know it, and everybody else knows it, but nobody knows what exactly is gonna replace it. I think webcomics are proof that you don’t need to have a big huge company promoting and distributing your product in order to make a living.
But then, most webcartoonists don’t have to split their earnings four or five ways, and even the most ambitious convention-travelers don’t put in as many miles or as horrible hours as an indie band on tour. So I think it’s gonna get a lot harder for smaller bands, unfortunately
Nrama: What did you learn by being part of Dayfree Press? What do you feel is the importance of interaction among webcomic creators?
Jacques: Dayfree Press isn’t really a “thing” anymore, but when it was, it was basically an excuse to get a bunch of cartoonists who got along into conventions at one table with a recognizable identity. That being said, I met some of my best friends in the business there, and thankfully 90% of them are now working with Topatoco like I am, so there’s a nice sense of continuity.
Interacting with other creators is vital. I mean, that’s how I got my start- I was active on the Dumbrella message boards back in the day, and eventually a couple of those guys noticed my work, liked it, linked it, and it went from there.
These days, it’s really nice to be on the opposite end of that interaction- it’s great to find someone just starting out who’s doing great work and give them a leg up. And the job itself is just so weird and all-consuming that it’s really important to have friends you can talk shop with.
Plus, we’re cartoonists. We tell jokes for a living. That means a lot of us are pretty funny dudes or ladies!
Nrama: How far in advance do you plot storylines at this point?
Jacques: I have general plot points that I aim for that could happen anywhere from two weeks to five years from now, depending on how long it takes to get there. But frequently the characters will react unexpectedly and nudge things in a different direction, so nothing is really set in stone.
I knew Marten and Dora were going to break up over a year before it happened, but it took that year for things to develop to the point where it actually went down.
Nrama: What are some of the biggest challenges in writing toward such a cast of characters -- do you ever find yourself going, “Woah, I haven’t used Pintsize in forever!”
Jacques: Yeah, my cast is getting dangerously Simpsons-esque in terms of overall size now. It can be difficult to give each character the amount of time they’re due, but it also gives me incredible flexibility in what I feel like doing on a given day.
Some characters also just work better in small doses (Pintsize, for example) so they don’t get the spotlight as often. It feels good to come back to a character after they haven’t been around for a while. It’s a nice change of pace and keeps things fresh for me.
Honestly, the biggest challenge is to keep the comic from devolving into “Bad Stuff Happens To Hanners And Marigold Daily.” I’m really hard on those two.
Nrama: Who are some of your favorite other creators/comics, online and off?
Jacques: Oh gosh, there are so many I couldn’t possibly list them all, but off the top of my head: Oglaf, Sam and Fuzzy, Dinosaur Comics, Wigu, MSPaint Adventures, XKCD, Nedroid, Octopus Pie, Hark A Vagrant, Girls With Slingshots, Something Positive, Jerkcity...basically all these plus anything I link on my site.
As for print stuff, I read a lot of manga, my favorites being Yotsuba&! and Vagabond. The only “mainstream” comic I read is Hellboy/BPRD. Mike Mignola’s daughter is a fan of QC and brought him over to meet me at C2E2 last year and I nearly crapped my pants I was fanboying out so hard.
Nrama: What opportunities do you feel have been opened with such new media as iPads and mobile phone content, and what do you feel you and other creators can do to take advantage of these opportunities? For that matter, what do you feel that “mainstream” companies such as Marvel, DC, etc. are doing right and doing wrong in terms of adapting to the electronic format?
Jacques: I really really need to do an official QC app for iOS/Android stuff. I think there’s great potentil in creating a fun and functional experience for fans of the strip. I think the prevalence of tablets and smartphones means people are spending more time looking at comics on the train, in the bathroom, waiting for the bus, at the doctor’s office, etc- random times where they wouldn’t be able to, previously. And that can’t be a bad thing.
I haven’t paid much attention to the mainstream comics thing. Honestly, the only thing that would make my ears perk up would be if they said “here, you can view EVERY COMIC WE’VE EVER MADE online at high resolution for 99 cents a comic.”
Nrama: Do you foresee an endpoint to the strip at some point, or working on other projects outside of QC?
Jacques: I can’t imagine I’ll be doing the strip until I’m 80, but then I couldn’t imagine I’d still be doing it at 30 when I was 24. So who knows? Basically if I ever get to a point where it’s not fun to do anymore, or it feels like it’s time to leave these characters and move on to something else, I’ll do it.
I do want to do side projects. Oh goodness I do. I’ve got one planned out, roughly, but it ended up being way more ambitious than I was expecting, so I need to keep tinkering until I can get it in a shape I can actually work with.
I also often think it’d be fun to just do the art for someone else’s comic. I like writing, but it’s a very mysterious and unpredictable process for me. Art is much more straightforward.
Nrama: Dammit, when will Pizza Girl make a comeback? When? WHEN?!
Jacques: oh god TOMORROW OKAY ARE YOU HAPPY NOW SHE WILL BE BACK TOMORROW
For serious: I have no idea! When...when I come up with a good joke for her again?
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Jacques” Next convention we’re doing is in Calgary, Alberta in June, then it’s just prep for San Diego Comic Con. We’re putting volume 2 together and hoping to have it out this summer. Then I’d like to do an art book or sketchbook or something to collect the various limited edition prints, scribbles, and other stuff I have cluttering up my hard drive. I’m getting a second dog on Friday, probably. I will continue to play guitar way too loud.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Jacques: The new FaltyDL album is great, so is the new Explosions in the Sky, also the new Liturgy and Krallice albums, Siriusmo’s “Mosaic” is fantastic...
Get some Questionable Content from Jeph Jacques every day at QuestionableContent.net.
Next at Wide World of Webcomics: Longtime comics retailer and Casanova letterer Dustin Harbin talks moving into creating comics with his autobiographical strip Dharbin! Then, Anthony Clark takes us into the world of Reginald and Beartato with his hilarious strip Nedroid! Be there!
And check out our previous Wide World of Webcomics entries at this all-new Topic Page!