An Interview with the Author, Conducted by Himself
by Shawn Cote

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.