Bohemian Babylon
by Shawn Cote 12th Oct 2014, 5:12 AM

An Inteview with the Author, Conducted by Himself - Part 2
by Shawn Cote 30th Jul 2014, 3:50 AM


Let’s talk about the music behind Jillpoke Bohemia. Webcomics don’t typically have soundtracks, but one can imagine that a Jillpoke Bohemia soundtrack might sound pretty cool.

Sure. Maybe the comic could be represented by a virtual band, in the tradition of The Archies and The Gorillaz. If we could find a couple of unknown musicians who sound the way I imagine Darby and Kieran might sound together, and if they were willing to work for free--why not?

If you were to try to describe Jillpoke Bohemia’s imagined sound on paper, what might you say?

I’ve kind of already done that in the strip, through fictional music journalists and critics. Obviously they’re an acoustic outfit--just a girl with a guitar and a guy with a banjo, very minimalist. But they make the most of their limitations. Their sound, as I hear it in my head, isn‘t quite like anything we‘ve heard before, despite the proliferation of real-life roots music and alt-country people mining the same territory. As Kieran might say, it’s a synthesis of seemingly disparate forms--bluegrass, punk rock, and reggae, to name just three. There’s a lot of harmonizing, though Darby and Kieran usually take turns on lead vocals.

In my head, Darby’s singing voice has kind of a husky, sexy quality to it--sort of Peppermint Patty meets Patti Smith. Poly Styrene, Loretta Lynn, Joan Jett, Donita Sparks--these are all singers who would have influenced Darby’s vocal style.


And what about Kieran?

Kieran’s real gift is his virtuosity on the banjo, though he does have what I’d call a serviceable singing voice. I’ll know it when I hear it, if I ever hear it.

With apologies to Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), what would Darby’s desert-island, top-ten album list look like?

That’s tough. Like mine, it would probably change frequently, depending on the day of the week, or her state of mind, or whatever. I’ll take a shot, though…

Darby’s Top 10 Favorite Albums:

1. X-Ray Spex - Germ Free Adolescents

2. Loretta Lynn - Honky Tonk Girl (Box Set)

3. Ramones - Rocket to Russia

4. The Clash - The Clash (U.K. Version)

5. Minor Threat - Complete Discography

6. Black Flag - Damaged

7. Joan Jett - Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth

8. Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime

9. Gram Parsons - GP/Return of the Grievous Angel

10. Bob Marley and the Wailers - Natty Dread

It’s interesting that only a couple of country albums made the list.

Well, early punk and hardcore are what Darby cut her teeth on. She came to reggae by way of punk--the Clash’s “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” is a favorite of hers. The country influence came a little later, thanks to Kieran. [The alternative country band] Uncle Tupelo should probably be on Darby’s list somewhere, because their music really helped bridge the gap between punk and country for her--and for me. The difference is, I grew up on country, which traditionally was always a more adult genre, and only embraced punk rock later on, at an age when a lot of people have already outgrown it.

What about Kieran’s desert-island list?

You’d see a lot more bluegrass, newgrass, and traditional country there. One of the first songs Kieran taught himself to play on the banjo was Bob McDill’s “Song of the South,” which he learned from the Earl Scruggs and Tom T. Hall recording. Scruggs is his idol, in terms of banjo picking, and he’s said that Tom T. is one of his favorite songwriters. In fact, Darby and Kieran regularly perform “Harper Valley P.T.A.” live.

You're talking about them as if they're a real musical duo.

To me, they sort of are.

Getting back to the music, Kieran’s also a fan of Ricky Skaggs, whom Darby can’t bring herself to like. Bela Fleck and New Grass Revival would also be high on his list.

One seminal recording for Kieran is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s original Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, an indispensable and probably indisputable classic. Kieran would tell that if you want to hear traditional country and bluegrass at their best, that’s probably the place to start.

And we know he likes Emmylou Harris.

Who doesn’t? She’s a gifted singer and an ageless beauty. In Kieran’s mind, she’s pretty much the queen of neo-traditionalist country, apart from being his most enduring celebrity crush.

So, where did Darby and Kieran first find musical common ground?

Probably early cowpunk and its corollary, which is ‘90s alternative country, for lack of a better term. Bands like the aforementioned Uncle Tupelo, Bottle Rockets, and the Drive-By Truckers were a kind of gateway drug for them. That’s where Darby got hipped to the darker, gothic aspect of traditional folk and country ballads. At some point I imagine she and Kieran arrived at the same revelation I did, that punk rock is really just urban folk music.

Early on in your webcomic, Darby and Kieran had a platonic musical partnership. It didn’t seem to take long, though, for them to hook up physically.

I probably rushed that a little bit, which may be why they keep breaking up and getting back together. There was sexual tension between them from the get-go, but for a long time they managed to keep it at bay. Through flashback, we have seen that they met as college students and began making music together at the University of Maine, then migrated south to Portland, where they thought it might be easier to launch a musical career. They were roommates before they became lovers, which didn’t happen until after Darby got sick and realized the depth of Kieran’s devotion to her. Her first sexual overture toward Kieran seemed tentative at best, which is an indication she probably wasn’t quite ready to take that step, only because Kieran was already her best friend and musical partner. She was reluctant to mess with that dynamic by sleeping with him. She didn’t want to run the risk losing him as a friend, or do anything that might lead to the breakup of Jillpoke Bohemia--the titular musical duo, that is, not the comic strip.

In a flashback to Darby’s high school years, one of her classmates makes a comment alluding to Darby’s sexual promiscuity. Was the classmate just being a mean girl, or was there some truth to what she suggested?

She was definitely being mean. “Slut-shaming” has long been a popular high school sport. Is there truth to what the girl said? We’ll see. There are things I know about Darby that the reader hasn’t been made aware of yet. I will say this: If she was promiscuous as a teen, you can be sure there was an underlying issue. I’m firmly of the opinion that there’s really no such thing as a slut, just like there’s really no such thing as a welfare queen. The truth is usually more complicated than the mysoginistic language that’s used to marginalize women of a certain economic or social class. Darby’s probably been guilty of using that sort of language herself, though she should know better.

You seem to have given this some thought. Are you at all concerned that your comic has exploited the sexuality of its female characters?

If that’s the perception, then it’s regrettable. Certainly that was never my intention. I never wanted Jillpoke Bohemia to be a trashy comic strip, and I don’t draw women the way I draw them in order to appeal to readers of Playboy. I draw them that way to please myself, because I’m into female beauty and sexuality. I’m generally not a huge fan of superhero comics, but I’ll take a Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel book over Superman and Batman any day, if they’re drawn by someone with an obvious love of the female form. That’s why I love Jaime Hernandez’s “Locas” [Love and Rockets] stories so much. Jaime says in an interview somewhere that when he first started making comics as a kid, he only wanted to draw women, because he was horny all the time. I get that. I was that kid. I’m still that kid, a lot of the time. Maybe my aim should be higher, but I’m really doing the strip for the adolescent in me. That doesn’t mean I want the strip to be vulgar or dirty. Not to sound disingenuous or priggish, but I always hated porn, even in college, and the idea of doing a smutty comic is not in my wheelhouse.

That said, I would definitely like to see the writing become a little more sophisticated in terms of its treatment of sexual issues, including the use of sexual humor. Too often I’ve tried to wrap up a strip with a dumb one-liner that ends up stripping a subject of any inherent gravitas it might carry. And yes, my comic has probably been guilty of objectifying women, usually because I’m lazy or feeling too rushed to think things out and dig deeper. That’s something I’d like to correct. There’s nothing wrong with depicting sexuality in a comic, but it should never trump a character’s dignity, or the integrity of the comic.

Do you think some of the challenges you’re talking about are inherent in the form?

Not necessarily. Other comic writes have overcome them. I do know that it is hard to write and draw well consistently when you’re churning out three or more Sunday-style strips per week. I have wondered if Darby and Kieran would be better served by their own comic book, as opposed to the comic strip format. That’s an option I’d like to explore at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Maybe a Jillpoke Bohemia graphic novel?

Why not? I’d also like to start publishing the collected strips in print form, sooner rather than later. At this point, I wouldn’t even care if the books sold wildly or not. I just want to have them out there.

You’ve described Jillpoke Bohemia as a metacomic. Were you always a fan of metafiction?

I always thought Vonnegut did it well. Apart from his stuff, I haven’t read a lot of it. I’m not even sure why I decided to go there with the comic. Maybe because it’s a way of working in more self-deprecating humor. I also like the idea of interacting with my own characters. It’s good that they can tell me when I’m missing the mark or not being true to them with the writing.

See, I have a tendency to paint myself and the characters into corners that are hard to get out of. The current storyline is a perfect example. Having Fonda Dinero shoot Darby was probably a bad idea. I decided that I needed to put the strip on hiatus again for a while, and I thought I needed a cliffhanger. It was a spontaneous decision, which I shouldn’t allow myself to make when writing. In retrospect, I think the violence was out of place. I was going for shock value, but that was inappropriate. Half the time I don’t have a clue where these plots are going when I start them.

The funny thing is, back when I was trying to be a novelist, I usually had to have everything outlined in advance, and I tended to overthink everything. With the webcomic, I have the opposite problem. I don’t map things out enough, and as a result, I sometimes end up with these out-there, half-baked story arcs. I’d retcon a few of of those stories out of existence, if I didn’t feel that would be cheating somehow. But yeah, Fonda’s shooting of Darby was not well thought out. Frankly, Darby’s been through enough already.

What’s the deal with Fonda Dinero anyway? We’ve seen her literally in bed with the “creator,” presumably a cartoon version of yourself. Some fans have speculated she might be based on someone close to you--your wife, perhaps?

The only thing Fonda Dinero and my wife have in common is that they’re both redheads. And they wear glasses. And they’re hot. Also, neither of them seems to like Darby much. But that’s where the similarities end.

Your wife is jealous of a comic strip character? Enough to want to shoot her?

Well, that’s a ridiculous question, isn’t it? How can a real person shoot a comic strip character? My wife doesn’t even follow the webcomic, though she does glance over my shoulder to see what I’m up to, on occasion. All she really knows is that I get up in the wee hours of the morning every day to spend time with an imaginary woman.

How did my wife get dragged into this? Let’s move on.

You’ve been painfully honest about some of your missteps. Are you this webcomic’s worst critic?

Someone’s got to be. I’m not always sure that I’ve gotten it right, but I know when I get it really wrong. I half wish the characters really could take the keys away from me sometimes. Darby and Kieran tried, but I ended up driving the thing into the ditch anyway. So it goes. I’ll winch it out. Let’s just hope I’ve learned from my mistakes.

At least you know they’re mistakes. You said you’re not always sure that you’ve gotten it right, but that implies sometimes you are sure. Can you name some times when the strip has succeeded on its own terms?

The comic is at its best when it’s being true to the characters. One of my favorite examples of this is the strip dealing with Darby’s road rage, which is really just a symptom of her moral anger and sense of justice. Some woman is texting while driving on the Interstate and nearly runs Kieran and Darby’s van off the road. Darby wants accountability, but Kieran tries to stop her from going after the woman, because Kieran hates confrontation. I think that strip really captured the dynamic of Darby and Kieran’s relationship, and illustrated why they need each other. I think I hit the mark with that one. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen every time.

You obviously have affection for your characters. Do you consider them your children?

Heck no. That would be sick. I wouldn’t let Darby do half the things she does if she were my daughter.





An Interview with the Author, Conducted by Himself
by Shawn Cote 29th Jun 2014, 3:50 AM

I have never been quite happy with either of the interviews I’ve done to promote Jillpoke Bohemia--one for a local television news piece, the other for a podcast. Never much good at thinking on my feet, I always seize upon things I should have said--or could have said more eloquently--after the fact. It seems obvious then that the ideal interview of someone such as myself would be one conducted by the interviewee himself--in this case, me. Sure, it’s a self-indulgent exercise, but so, arguably, is writing and drawing a comic strip like mine. What have I got to lose?

With apologies to Norman Mailer, here the first part of that interview:

First, let’s talk about the title of your strip.

It’s a nonsense term that I thought would serve equally well as the title of the strip and the name of the musical duo at the center of it. Jillpoke can be used as a noun or a verb and has different meanings in the logging industry, but the definition I chose to work with loosely translates to “slacker.” That, coupled with the idea of a bohemian state of mind, seemed to lend itself to what I was trying to put together.

The strip is definitely unconventional. Also, there’s a lot more sex in it than one would expect to find in traditional Sunday comics fare.

It’s not traditional Sunday comics fare, and has never aspired to be. Yes, there is sex, but I hope it’s not gratuitous. Actually, it probably is gratuitous, but that’s partly to compensate for the lack of frank depictions of sexuality in the mainstream funny papers. But underground comics have had sexual content all along. I’m not exactly pioneering anything here.

Is it true you don’t have a formal background in art?

Yes. I’ve always drawn, and I took art class in high school, but I never took it as seriously as I took writing, which is why I majored in English in college. Doing the comic strip was supposed to be a way to work my way through writer’s block, but at some point I just found that writing and drawing the comic strip was more fun than revising my novel. By now the comic is a full-blown obsession. I still want to write novels, but if I had my druthers, Jillpoke Bohemia would be my full-time job.

So this is your first comic strip?

It’s certainly my most serious attempt at making one. I did homemade comics as a kid, usually placing established characters--Spooky, Casper, all those Harvey Comics ghosts--in stories that I made up. I remember adapting the TV western The Big Valley into a comic book that I drew with colored pencils.

Years later, when I was a student at the University of Maine, I got a few editorial cartoons published in the student paper, which inspired me to start my own comic. I filled a drawing pad with pencil-drawn episodes of a comic strip called “Libby,” which I ended up throwing away. I wish now I hadn’t. It would be fun to look at those early attempts and compare them to what I’m doing now.

What was “Libby” about?

The title character was a left-leaning female journalist with hippie parents. I don’t remember a lot about it, except that her best friend was African American, her boyfriend looked vaguely like Jackson Browne, and she ended up getting pregnant by him and having a baby out of wedlock. She didn’t believe in marriage.

It sounds like certain elements of that apprenticeship comic found their way into Jillpoke Bohemia.

That never occurred to me until just now, but yeah, I guess they did. The title character wasn’t really a precursor to Darby, though. Libby was a blue-eyed blonde--she looked more like my character Melydia, who’s really the anti-Darby…or a bizarro version of Libby.

How would did you come up with the idea for the current strip?

I don’t remember exactly how it all came together. As a music lover and the son of an alcoholic, I do remember thinking it would be cool to create something that advocated good music and straight-edge culture at the same time--not in an overt, preachy way, but quietly, and with a sense of humor . The protagonist of my unfinished novel was an adult child of alcoholics, so I think that idea just found its way into the strip. The idea of musicians who don’t drink or do drugs was kind of the underpinning of the strip, but it’s grown into something a little more complicated than its own unspoken mission statement, just as the characters themselves--Darby in particular--have become increasingly complex.

Are there real-life prototypes for Darby and Kieran? Are they based on people you really know?

Not really. There are probably aspects of myself in both characters, but they’re not me, nor are they based on anyone close to me. I had read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy prior to creating the strip, so I think Darby’s personality was inspired in part by Lisbeth Salander [the title character of Larsson’s novels]. There’s a little bit of Loretta Lynn’s feistiness in her, but also a fair amount of punk attitude, which I probably gleaned from listening to a lot of female punk rockers--the Runaways, Poly Styrene, Bikini Kill, L7, and the like. Donita Sparks of L7 once threw a bloody tampon into an unruly crowd that had disrespected her band by throwing mud on stage. I’m not saying Darby would do that, but there’s a spirit of defiance there that she would appreciate.

Talk about Kieran. He and Darby seemed to enjoy equal footing at one point, but it didn’t take long for her to upstage him and become the fan favorite.

That’s true. Her yang just got the better of his yin, I guess. Early on, I must have thought Kieran was going to be the point-of-view character, because he appears in the very first strip without Darby. But I guess that changed as Darby’s personality began to assert itself.

Kieran is obviously the country half of the country-punk equation. He’s warm, sociable and tolerant, while Darby seems to be wired with the opposite qualities. She’s got a good heart, but she also owns a certain punk cynicism and tends not to suffer fools gladly. At the same time, I think she needs Kieran’s country sunshine as much as he needs her jaundiced view of what Twain called the damned human race. As much as I despise the expression, I have to say they complete each other.

What’s the fanship’s take on them seem to be?

It’s interesting. Most of the feedback I get from readers is about Darby. It runs the gamut from men who love the character and want her to leave Kieran for them and have their baby, to conservatives readers who are offended by her decidedly un-conservative politics and want me to know it. One feminist friend of mine stopped following the strip because Darby used the “c” word once. Political correctness has never concerned the character much. I’ve tried to let her be an equal-opportunity offender.

People like Kieran, but they love Darby. Or not. That’s probably my doing, just because I just find her to be a more interesting character than Kieran, and I’m sure that’s reflected in my writing and drawing. I just find women in general more interesting than men. Sometimes I worry that Kieran gets short shrift, but it wouldn't bother me if Darby became the public face of the strip. Maybe she already has. I’ve toyed with the idea of letting her go solo, but I’m worried she’d be lost without Kieran. I’m pretty sure he’d be lost without her.


What comics have influenced you the most?

In terms of the more mainstream comic strips, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County and, more recently, Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks have certainly been influential. Also Calvin and Hobbes. Those influences may not always be obvious--particularly in the case of Calvin and Hobbes--but they definitely inform what I do. What inspires me about Bloom County and Boondocks is their irreverence and how they succeeded on their own terms. And I admire Bill Watterson’s artistic integrity and the fact that he never really shied from controversy, even if he didn’t actively court it. I don’t think Watterson set out to do a subversive strip, but Calvin and Hobbes ended up being one anyway, just because of its honesty.

In terms of comic art, the Archie comics of my childhood and adolescence probably influenced me more than I even realize. The writing was rarely brilliant, in my view, but I always liked the way Don DeCarlo drew Betty and Veronica. I suspect his take on the female form probably has a lot to do with the way I draw Darby.

What about the influence of alternative or underground comics?

They’re a more recent influence, though no less significant. I wasn’t really exposed to that stuff when I was growing up, which is kind of a shame. In my little corner of northern Maine, there was very little exposure to alternative anything--be it music, books, or whatever. I did have a friend in high school who hipped me to Bob Dylan and the Band, who really weren’t popular with kids my age in the late Eighties. In college, I got on an R.E.M. kick, right before they broke into the mainstream, by which time I had already lost interest. But that music was a gateway drug that led me to discover other segments of an underground or “adversary” culture that included comics by R. Crumb and the like.

And the Hernandez brothers?

Love and Rockets? Absolutely. Jaime Hernandez in particular. But that came later. I hadn’t even read Love and Rockets when I started doing the strip, which is funny, because when I did discover that comic, I was immediately struck by some of the parallels between it and my own. In particular, there are aspects of the Hopey Glass character that reminded me a lot of Darby. They’re different characters, but not radically disparate in their attitudes or sensibilities.

Some have wondered if Hopey and Maggie’s relationship might have inspired Darby’s brief affair with Gabby, another punky female character in the Jillpoke Bohemia universe.

I’m sure it was in the back of my head. Yeah, it probably made Darby’s hooking up with Gabby more of a possibility, in my imagination. I just knew that when the strip came back from its hiatus, I wanted Darby and Kieran to have taken up with different people. I already knew Kieran would be engaged to Melydia, who had appeared in the strip earlier and was shown to have had designs on Kieran, but I didn’t know who Darby’s new love interest would be. There weren’t a lot of male characters in the pool to choose from. Then I thought of Gabby. Well, why not? She’s an established character, she’s sexually ambiguous. I also knew that Darby had suffered a miscarriage and would be reluctant to sleep with anyone who could get her pregnant again. An earlier story arc had broached the possibility that she had had sex with her friend Jazzie while under the influence of alcohol, though that was subsequently disproved by NSA surveillance footage. I wondered afterward if I had chickened out on that one. With the Gabby thing, I said damn the torpedoes. Darby wasn’t with Kieran anymore. There was nothing wrong with her shacking up with another woman, for however long it lasted. I still don’t think of her as being bisexual. Maybe she had to sleep with Gabby to resolve the question of her sexuality in her own mind. Now at least she knows she prefers men.

The strip seems to get more daring as it evolves. Recently, for instance, Darby was seen “tending her own garden” in bed. Alone.

Is there a question in there somewhere? Yes, it is getting bolder. Frankly, I get tired of playing coy. Sometimes you just want to say enough with the cuteness and innuendos. I don’t want to have to keep censoring my characters. I think Darby should be able to drop the F-bomb on occasion without being edited. It’s true to her character. Pulling out all the stops might not be a smart move on my part--it probably won’t lead to the strip getting picked up by any of the syndicates, but I don’t think that was going to happen anyway.

Your strip hasn’t been around that long, but Darby and Kieran have already been through a lot--Darby especially. In addition to chronic depression, she’s suffered a ruptured appendix, a miscarriage, cardiac issues, alcohol poisoning, a serious head injury, and at least three major surgeries. That’s a lot of trauma for one comic strip character. Why would you put a character you’re obviously fond of through all that misery and grief?

It does seem excessive, doesn’t it? I just wanted to show that for all her toughness, Darby is still quite vulnerable, mentally, emotionally, and physically. I think the worst of all that is behind her, but who knows?

As of this writing, Darby and Kieran are still engaged to be married, despite Darby having kissed another man and the possibility that Kieran may have fathered Melydia’s child. Do you see them getting married, or will they continue their on-again, off-again relationship indefinitely?

I really don’t know. I don’t want to say I’m making it all up as I go along, but their future is as uncertain as that of a real couple. I’d like to keep all our options open a little longer. Seriously, though, when all conflict is resolved, what’s left? When Darby and Kieran are truly happy and content, that will probably signal the beginning of the end. Without conflict, there is no more story to tell.