Questionable Creator: George Curtis Interviews Jeph Jacques
With March being the "music issue" one of the first people we thought about was Jeph Jacques, the creator of Questionable Content. We first interviewed Jeph for Comixpedia way back in August 2004 for our "new blood" issue. Needless to say, it was cool to quiz Jeph about his work and its progression since his last interview with us.
What's changed for you between 2004 and now regarding how you do your comics? I've noticed a wonderful progression of your style, art and execution. So what's worked for you and what hasn't?
Man everything has pretty much changed!
I'll start off with the dry businessy facts: The comic is four or five times larger in terms of traffic and readership than it was back in '04, and it's been my full- time job for over a year now. I actually pay my webhost now, which makes him happy! Cristi (my girlfriend and the mastermind behind the business side of QC) and I are sharing office space in a big ol' re-purposed factory building with R. Stevens and Jeffrey Rowland, which means the merchandise end of things is much more streamlined and efficient than it has been in the past.
The art is constantly changing, as anybody who reads the comic for more than two weeks could probably tell you. I'm always trying different things with the artwork- it's been a goal from day one to continually improve my drawing ability, and I think it's finally beginning to get to the point where I'm halfway decent at it. It's basically survival of the fittest- changes that I think fit in with the overall look I'm going for stick around and get refined, and changes that don't fit in get phased out, sometimes in the course of three or four strips, sometimes over a much longer span of time. I'm trying to get better at using different "camera angles" in each panel and doing more involved backgrounds, both of which are really just a matter of being patient and taking my time with the artwork. There's still tons of room for improvement, and always will be, but I think I'm at least making progress.
The improvement has certainly been very striking over the short amount of relative time, that's for sure! Most impressive!
There's also been a lot of story advancement for you in QC since your last interview with Comixpedia. Are you following a particular plan, and is it working out for you, or are you more or less "winging it"? I know some comic artists who will "bend" the story based on reader input -- how do you feel about that?
QC has an overall arc planned out, but it's pretty flexible in terms of the details and almost entirely open-ended when it comes to writing the day-to-day strips. It has changed over time, though, as the characters grow and my notions of what they would do in a given situation evolve. The scale of the strip seems to be slowly expanding- when I first started the comic it was just going to be about Marten and Pintsize, but then Faye came along, then Dora, and now I've got this fairly extensive cast of people all bouncing around inside my head.
For a long time, I thought that once the whole Marten/Faye/Dora relationship resolved itself, that would be it and the strip would end and I'd move on to something new. Over this past year though I've been thinking it might be possible to resolve that story, to some extent anyway, and continue the comic in some aspect, but I really won't know whether that bridge is worth crossing until I get to it. That could be in two weeks or in two years, depending on how long it takes for the story to work itself out. All I can say for sure is that I'll do whatever feels right for the comic, whether that means drawing QC for the next ten years or getting to a certain point and saying "okay, this is it, it's done."
I also used to have one definite ending in mind, something I was *sure* would be how everything worked out in the end. Ever since I did that story where Faye reveals her traumatic past, that's been completely out the window. I honestly am not at all certain how it's going to go -- could be one way, could be another, or it could be something that hasn't even occurred to me yet. One thing I know is I keep having more and more ideas about what to do with the comic, and I think that's a pretty strong indicator that I shouldn't end it prematurely.
I've found that a good gauge of whether I'm pacing the story properly is to simply pay attention to how it makes me feel when I'm thinking about it -- if I feel excited and find myself looking forward to a certain event or plot point, I'm probably moving along at the right pace. If I find myself getting bored or stressed out, it means I should probably change things up a bit. My readers tend to get very invested in the plot, and a certain percentage of them have always wanted me to hurry it up and move faster than I intended. I just ignore them and the strip doesn't appear to have suffered for it thus far, so I guess I'm doing an okay job.
As far as readers "bending" the story or whatever, that doesn't work with me. Historically, my readers have been pretty bad at second guessing me. Suggestions for strips or stories are cheerfully accepted but don't have any bearing on the comic itself. I'm pretty stubborn.
QC has experienced a kind of explosion where you've been able to take it from an online project to a paying job. Was that hard? Do you have any tips for those who want to do the same thing? I know there are a few comic creators out there who would like to make their comic a paying gig.
Running ANY kind of business is hard! In my case, it wasn't really an explosion so much as a slow build followed by a gentle shove. I had built up a pretty sizable audience back when I had a "normal" job, so when I eventually found myself unemployed I was in a pretty good position to start making my living through the comic. That being said, it would be utterly impossible for me to do this as a business without Cristi -- I am completely horrible at business-type things, whereas she has a natural gift for it.
As far as advice goes, I'd say rule number one is don't start a webcomic with the intention of making money off of it! The percentage of webcomic authors who make ANY money off of their strips, let alone those of us who live on them, is almost infinitesimal compared to the rest of the webcomic population.
I always tell people you should have 2000-4000 unique IPs hitting your site per update day before you even think about selling t-shirts or other merchandise, otherwise you'll have trouble meeting minimum order numbers and will end up losing money. That's about how popular I was when I put out my first design, and it broke even. Also, be prepared to do a lot of work -- shipping merchandise and doing customer service is very time consuming!
The bottom line when it comes to making money off of your comic is that there needs to be a decent population of people to buy your merchandise. Your merchandise better be good, too -- with people like R.Stevens and John Allison putting out amazing t-shirt designs and gorgeous books, your designs are going to have to be pretty damn good if you want to get people's attention. Advertising is starting to make a comeback -- you can make a decent amount of money if you sign with a good ad network or run Google Ads, assuming you've got the traffic to back it up.
Know how to delegate responsibility. If there's some aspect of your comic or your business that you're bad at, you either have to get better and shoulder the burden yourself, or find someone else who can handle it for you. I'm blessed with Cristi. The Penny Arcade guys have their business manager Robert. Jeff Rowland just works really, really hard and does it all himself.
Doing a webcomic as my job has been the most stressful, frustrating, terrifying, surreal, amazing, wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. It's the hardest job I've ever had but it's also the most rewarding. I have the nicest, most intelligent, excellent readers I could possibly ask for. Also I get to sleep in on weekdays most of the time. I cannot overstate how awesome that is.
Oh, I certainly couldn't agree with you more about the sleeping in thing! Overall, is the feedback you get on your comic mostly positive or negative, and how does that make you feel? Is it "worth it"? Do you feel fulfilled doing QC?
99.9% of the feedback I get about QC is overwhelmingly positive. Of that remaining .1%, probably half of it is useful criticism, and the other half is...not useful, to put it politely.
Criticism and praise are tricky things to deal with -- you have to maintain a balance between the two if you're not going to work in a total vacuum, otherwise they skew your own point of view and can compromise the quality of your work. I just try not to let any of it go to my head, positive or negative. You've got to maintain humility towards your work. You can't get mad every time some jerk says something mean about you on their blog or whatever, but you also can't think you're the second coming of Jesus just because you get a lot of fan mail.
QC is tremendously fulfilling for me, mainly because I know I'm doing the best I can with it at any given point. The fact that so many other people seem to enjoy it and identify with the characters and laugh at the jokes is a nice bonus, but I'd still be doing the comic even if nobody was paying any attention. If it wasn't "worth it" I wouldn't do it.
Music plays a large part of QC. You have many indie references that some readers may not get if they listen to what the Dead Kennedys referred to as "Government Music". How do you compensate for people who won't get the "indie hipster" inside jokes?
One of the informal rules I have for QC is that every comic has to have at least one thing in it that someone who doesn't know anything about [obscure band x] or [something that happened 150 strips back in my archive] would find funny. If every strip is funny in general, it's much easier for a new reader to jump in and not be completely at sea when it comes to who these people are and what is going on. The indie band references and jokes are kind of "bonus material" that people who know the bands can enjoy, but I don't think they're integral to the humor or tone of the comic in general.
What is your take on indie bands "selling out"? Do you think It's just a handy moniker for bands that just get too popular, or is there something else involved?
quot;Selling out" is the most ridiculous, overused, pointless term ever, pretty much. The only things that should matter when you listen to a band's music is whether you enjoy it or not- not whether they live in mansions or only four other people know they exist or whatever. If a band makes music I like, I'll listen to them. When it comes to somebody like Modest Mouse or the Flaming Lips, where they're on major record labels and making decent money off their music, I say good for them, as long as they're still making the kind of music they want to be making. I know first hand how difficult it is to make a living doing something creative- more power to anybody who can pull it off, regardless of their medium.
Also, indie music plays a large part in QC. I'm sure the same influence can be found in your personal life, sowhat are some of your fave bands of the moment and why? Do you listen to tunes while creating QC? And if so, how much of an impact do they have on the script and execution of QC?
The time I spend writing and drawing QC is the time I get most of my hardcore music listening done. I've constantly got something going in iTunes while I draw. Sometimes I'll put on a band and it'll inspire me to do a comic, and sometimes it's just pleasant background noise while I really concentrate on the strip.
As far as favorite bands of the moment go: the upcoming Mogwai record (Mr. Beast) is fuckin' awesome. The upcoming Islands album Return to the Sea is going to be one of the best of this year. Lately I've also been getting into a lot of weird German house music -- stuff on the Poker Flat label, or anything remotely related to Ellen Allien, etc. I really need to update my Recommended Listening page one of these days.
How, if at all, does your life and QC intersect and overlap?
In terms of people and events in the comic, not much. Everyone in the strip is entirely a figment of my imagination, although they will sometimes do or say things that mirror things people I know might do or say in real life. In general terms, QC pretty much IS my life right now. It's certainly the most important thing in it, after my relationships with Cristi and my family (and our rabbits).
Let's turn to your other webcomic Indie Tits. What made you decide to take on this second undertaking?
I was talkin' with Sam Logan (that bastard) late one night and we were joking about funny domain names. I suggested indietits.com, which turned out to be unregistered. Sam urged me to register it, so I did. The concept sort of flowed naturally from the title -- little birds who made really crass jokes and talked about obscure bands. I wanted it to be something I could update with the least possible amount of effort and time investment, since QC is so time-consuming anyway, so static artwork and short strips seemed like a good idea. Also I like doing drawings of birds (as several of my tattoos can attest).
Is there a message in Indie Tits? Or is it all just fun and games?
Indie Tits is the equivalent of a watchmaker who goes to the junkyard and throws bottles at cars to relax after a hard day's work. It's something I do to blow off steam and be intentionally stupid and silly. Some people seem to like it anyway!
Someone asked me to ask you.... Who's taller; You or Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics?
I'm pretty tall, but Ryan North is a good couple of inches taller than me. I think he and Scott Kurtz are in close running for "tallest dude in webcomics". Ryan's the hands down winner for best hair in webcomics though. Dude has FLOWING LOCKS.