Comic Relief: The Addictive Art of Jeph Jacques

By Regina Walker 04/08/15

The Fix Q&A with Jeph Jacques, creator of webcomic Questionable Content on addiction, robots and comics mirroring life.

Questionable Content
Jeph Jacques

One of the most popular web-comics ever created is the brainchild of Jeph Jacques—the author and artist behind Questionable Content, one of the longest-running webcomics ever created. QC, as fans refer to it, is a slice-of-life (for lack of a better word) look at the daily lives, loves, and travails of a group of vaguely 20-to-30 somethings living in a town that may or may not be a nice little college town in New England. There are older characters (one of the main characters has a mom who's a successful, and happy, dominatrix) and younger, and the comic's world is in some ways very different from our own. For one thing, in QC, robots are ubiquitous, artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, and one of the main characters grew up on a space station. There are also occasional interludes featuring characters like the fan favorite, Yelling Bird, a piece of apparently hand-painted clip art who's fond of mocking Jeph, and of screaming (hilarious) obscenities.

For those in recovery, though, one of the most salient points of interest in QC is that the characters often mirror Jeph's own struggles with both mental health issues, and with substance abuse. Jeph was kind enough to offer The Fix some observations based on his many years in the trenches as one of the top webcomic artists of all time—and as a survivor whose work, in part, has chronicled (often in public) his own struggles.

Questionable Content is one of the longest-running webcomics in existence, having first run in 2003. It's enormously and enduringly popular. Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to create it, how it's developed over the last dozen years, and what your inspiration was for some of your first characters, like Marten, Faye, and Pintsize the robot?

I was mainly inspired to do it by boredom! I wanted a creative outlet that I could do on my own as opposed to having to rely on other people to collaborate (like in a band, etc). I had always drawn comics when I was a kid, and I was reading a lot of webcomics at the time, so it seemed like it might be a fun thing to do.

The scope of the comic started off very narrow, basically just about Marten and his robot buddy Pintsize, but over the years it has gotten wider and wider with the addition of dozens of new characters and different storylines. It’s also been very successful—QC has been my full-time job for 11 years.

Starting out, Marten was very much a reflection of myself and the place I was in at that point in my life. We’ve since diverged considerably, but he’s definitely the closest character to “me” in the comic. Faye, Pintsize, and all the other characters just sort of “wandered in out of the rain,” to quote Berke Breathed (the creator of the famed strip "Bloom County" –ed). They just sort of showed up, made space for themselves in my head, and stuck around.

In addition to creating the strip, you're also a musician—tell us a little bit about your band, Deathmøle. Marten (one of the main characters in the strip) plays lead for a band of the same name. Which came first, the comic band or the real one?

The band started out as a joke in the comic. I’m a trained musician and I thought it would be funny to try and write a ridiculous metal song in the spirit of the band. It turned out to be really fun AND really challenging, so I kept doing it. Eventually, it became my full-time musical project, and I’ve put out several albums of original material under the name. 

For those not already familiar with the strip, can you tell us a little bit about some of the main characters who are facing, or have faced in the past, issues having to do with mental health and/or substance abuse?

Mental health issues are pretty common in the comic. Hannelore is probably the most obvious, with her obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety problems—she’s the least “functional” of any of the characters, although she’s come a long way over the course of the strip and is now a lot better off than when she was first introduced.

Faye has struggled with depression (and possibly PTSD, although I’m hesitant to give that as a clinical diagnosis, haha) and alcoholism for the entirety of the comic. ***SPOILER ALERT*** Her father’s suicide really messed her up, and is basically the root of her mental health issues.

To what extent do you feel your characters' personalities reflect your own? Would you say that the strip is, in a sense, biographical, or is the relationship between your own life and the characters in the strip more one of inspiration rather than direct reflection?

Each character reflects some aspect or aspects of my own personality. There’s a little bit of me in all of them. The strip itself is entirely fictional, aside from very rare instances where something funny happens in my life and works its way directly into the comic.

Faye, one of the most important characters in the strip, has struggled for some time with alcohol abuse. Her drinking has been presented very realistically, in that for long periods of time when she resumes alcohol use, it's not an issue—and then, a crisis occurs and it becomes clear she needs to avoid drinking. Was it your intention from the outset to make this struggle part of Faye's character development?

As with a lot of things in the comic, it developed organically over time. She always liked to drink and party, but the more her character developed, the more clear it became to me that she was doing so as a coping mechanism, and that it wasn’t healthy.

One of the things the strip is known for is its careful, very sensitive treatment of such hot-button issues as mental health—for instance, one of the most popular characters, Hannelore Ellicot-Chatham, has fairly significant obsessive-compulsive disorder; there is Faye's depression, PTSD and struggles with alcohol—and the strip also routinely integrates gay and trans characters. Do you see yourself as, in part, an artist who advocates for better understanding of individuals facing such issues, and how have your readers responded to your presentation of such issues and such characters?

I never really thought of myself as an “advocate” until recently—most of the time I just keep my head down and try to make good comics. But over the last couple of years I’ve started to become more aware of how my strip has affected the people who read it, and it feels really good to be a positive influence in people’s lives. Reader response has been very positive—lots of people say the comic has helped them, directly or indirectly, and that’s a very satisfying thing to hear. I’m happy to help, in whatever small way I can.

Humor is an incredibly valuable tool for coping with mental health issues, but there's always a risk of it being misinterpreted. Have readers ever taken issue with how you've handled mental health topics in the strip? How do you balance treating such issues compassionately and realistically, and yet with a sense of humor?

With an audience the size of mine, there will always be somebody, somewhere, who is offended by any given joke I might make. I realize that you can’t please everyone, but I do try to be sensitive about sensitive subjects. The key is to make sure the humor is laughing with a character, not at a character.

You've been very open with your readers and fans about your own struggles with alcohol. How did you come to the realization that alcohol was a problem for you? The strip doesn't read, fundamentally, as an exercise in self-therapy but I wonder if your presentation of Faye's struggles with drinking isn't in some way helpful to you in coping with your personal challenges.

The realization that I had a problem was a gradual one, and I tried to deny it, or moderate it, for a long time. Turns out I’m no good at moderation—it has to be all or nothing for me. As for Faye, it’s actually the other way around—my struggles with alcohol have served as excellent material for the comic, now that I have a couple years of sobriety and perspective under my belt.

What do you do to maintain your sobriety? Are there certain tools or supports you have incorporated into your life?

I was unfortunate enough to end my last bout of drinking with a severe self-injury. The trauma from that has been more than enough to keep me from drinking since then, most of the time. That was the worst 24 hours of my life and I don’t ever want to go through it again, and the thought of losing self-control to that extent is pretty scary!

There’s more to it than that, of course—I’ve learned to cope with stress in healthier ways, and having found a combination of brain medicine that works for me has gone a long way towards getting me to a healthier state of mind and keeping me there. Being open about my sobriety helps, too—I feel an obligation to my friends and readers to keep up with it, since I said I would.

After a certain point, the longer I stayed sober, the more that motivated me to STAY sober. It feels really good to be able to say you’re one year sober, two years sober, etc. I even got a tattoo to commemorate it!

You've also been very candid with your fans about your own mental health issues. Do you feel, in retrospect, that alcohol was an issue for you because you were (as many do) self-medicating for these problems?

I was absolutely self-medicating. I’ve always suffered from depression and anxiety, and I’d use alcohol to cope. It eventually becomes a self-sustaining cycle—you drink because you feel like crap, you feel like crap because you drink. Nowadays, I have healthy coping mechanisms instead.

What are your feelings about varying approaches to achieving sobriety? I read where you said you think sometimes you can have a drink or two but then you quickly dismiss the idea. Is it all or nothing for you? Do you feel you need to remain completely abstinent?

It’s definitely all or nothing for me. I’m no good at moderation! And learning to abstain is like building a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it gets. There are definitely still times when I struggle with it, but those moments get fewer and further between as time goes by.

Faye has been shown, in the strip, in psychotherapy (as have several other characters) and she's currently (after a crisis precipitated by the end of her relationship with her boyfriend in the strip) in a support group for people with a drinking problem. I can't recall, however, that the strip has ever shown her to be involved in (for instance) a specific type of program, like a 12-step program.

My current strategy is to keep her support system nonspecific. That way I’m not tied to one approach to dealing with her issues, and I won’t have people breathing down my neck if I get one aspect of a specific program wrong. It also, hopefully, makes for broader appeal—folks who are in a 12-step program, or in therapy, or in AA can hopefully all find something familiar in Faye’s story.

One of the most persistent stereotypes in popular culture of creative individuals is that they're disproportionately likely to suffer from alcoholism or other substance abuse issues—and that such issues are central to their creativity. Yet, despite that there are also many instances of writers and artists who've gone on to do their best work after becoming sober. How has sobriety affected your work, and how do you feel achieving sobriety can impact the creative process?

For one thing, it has objectively helped me to work better—I couldn’t draw or write at all when I was drunk! But in a more general sense, I do feel that I’m doing better work now, because I have more energy to dedicate to my comics and am in a much healthier headspace than when I was drinking. I don’t believe that altering your consciousness, whether through alcohol or drugs, somehow magically unlocks creativity you would otherwise not have access to. It’s all there, you just have to learn how to let it out.

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.