An Appreciation of Questionable Content
Do you know what I did Saturday? If you do, that’s actually a little creepy. But I’ll tell you anyway: I read all 900+ pages of the webcomic Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques, freely available online at http://questionablecontent.net/. It’s a four-panel “gag” comic with a heavy daily continuity, making the each strip essential for hardcore fans, but making the comic as a whole fairly accessible for folks just jumping in, espescially if they ‘get’ that days’ joke.
I’m bad at webcomics, only reading (with a few small exceptions) the strips that my friends do. Luckily, I’m friends with R. Stevens of Diesel Sweeties, Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, and Ramon and Rob over at Butternut Squash, so I’ve got most of the best and most popular webcomics covered. But every once in a while, I’ll be introduced to like, Jeffrey Rowland (of WIGU and OVERCOMPENSATING), or Jonathan Rosenberg (of GOATS) or my dear sweet Dr. McNinja Chris hastings, and I’ll be all “Oh, you do a webcomic? Really? I’ve never heard of it…” and make a total asshole of myself.
So at the Paradise showÂ a fewÂ weekends backÂ when I picked up a bunch of the shirts from QC, I figured that maybe I could avoid making an ass of myself IN FUTURE by… you know… reading the comics. Plus I think Mal told me that I should at one point. Anyway, it’s all a very good idea, and a time-consuming one, but what better use for 7 hours could I possibly have had?
Right off the bat: If I didn’t have a vested interest in finishing this series, I would have given up in both anger and frustration about half way through. The sexual politics of the first few hundred strips are, to put it bluntly, completely fucked up, and so aggressively wrong-headed that I actually considered stopping at strip 400 to write this post with a WHAT DO PEOPLE SEE IN THIS? HOW IS EVERYONE NOT KILLING THEMSELVES? sort of aÂ vibe going on, which probably wouldn’t have been the best or most productive review.Â Thankfully at strip 500 the author decides that enough is enough and that a beloved lead character really oughtta stop emotionally and physically abusing the rest of the cast, and does, and that character has been working to redeem themselves ever since. Since this thread of emotional and physical abuse is kind-of the emotional core of the entire comic and the springboard for much of the plot, that it is so completely fucked up will likely turn off… many? Most? of the people I would normally send over to read it, if I didn’t specifically qualify the early strips with: Don’t worry, it’ll turn out okay in the end. The horrible attitudes towards sex and intimacy disappear about half way through, and from then on the strip really blossoms into something excellent. So, yeah. Either start at strip #500, or just grit your teeth like I did.
The strip is excellent though. Even through the occasionally torturous first half, there’s a humour, levity, and real heart to the series. Questionable Content is about a group of young adults in their early-to-mid 20s, working crappy jobs and hanging out and commenting on popular culture. Relationship-oriented drama and humour, through a Pitchfork Media sort of lense (but ironically). It’s a sitcomic…Â kind of like a gritty, lo-fi Friends with concessions to genuine whimsy and innovation vis-a-vis the occasional talking robot, magical creature, and wrong-headed superhero. Man, if ragging on the sexual politics didn’t piss people off, comparing this to Friends probably will… But seriously, millions of people watched Friends, what’s the big deal? It was a popular show that made you laugh once! Admit it!
(Look! They’ve even got a couch!)
Anyway… As I was mentioning I did really enjoy my experience, and have made visiting the site to see the newest strips part of my daily routine as of Monday morning. I guess what I really liked about it, especially reading it all at once, is seeing where the author’s eye tends to land, and seeing how the strip is shaped because of it. The afformentioned popular culture references usually take the form of band and music genre references, and it’s interesting to me because from 2003-2007, the time that the strip has been running, the authors musical interests have taken a similar path to my own musical interests and experiences. Music has a huge role in the strip, with characters being defined by the music they listen to, their romantic compatibility presaged by their musical compatibility.Â Sayeth the characterÂ Marten in regards to a potential relationship:Â “Man I hope that doesnâ€™t become an issue with Dora. What if she canâ€™t stand my musical taste? I mean, I know she likes the Flaming Lips, but we donâ€™t really have a lot in common musically.” It’s just one of the many moments where music defines the various characters and situations, and it really works to give the strip a cohesion that a lot of comics lack.
But the real payoff is in seeing the characters that are introduced and ‘don’t make it’. What if everyone decided that they didn’t like Joey after the first season, and they made Mark and CarolÂ permanent cast members instead? Wouldn’t that be weird? Heh. I love seeing the author’s process and development on the page (and just an aside here: the art undergoes a fairly substantial upgrade from start-to-finish as well, with the most recent strips looking fairly slick and cartoony, and the early strips… Well, there’s a charm to them for sure, but…) and seeing the realisation that the uptight coffee barista wasn’t going to work out, or that the first iteration of a character was a bit… shallow… and needed to be overhauled. It’s great. Author Jeph Jaques even manages to do that rare thing in almost any kind of long-form serialised comics: have the characters grow and change, and have it feel natural. The plot develops out of the characters’ attitudes and behaviour, it’s what good storytelling in this genre of comics is all about.
Actually, one of the things I was going back and forth on with this series was the constant external thought process of all the characters. I can’t tell if I find it refreshing or annoying. No one seems to have an inner monologue, or a thought that doesn’t go unspoken. It might be why I found the early going so difficult as well, because the behaviour of some of the characters was really aggrivating, but hearing their constant justifications for that behaviour was just waaaay too much. It does work really well for the humour though, and even seeing characters fumble through social interaction and dating is fun when they can’t stop babbling to themselves. But if one more character utters “I have issues!” unselfconciously… I dunno. It will probably spark The Rapture or something. Not the band The Rapture either, but the Jimmy Swaggart Rapture. The Charleton Heston Rapture. (Both of those would be good band names).
Anyhow, if you’re looking for another enjoyable, subtantial comic strip to add to your webcomics browsing, I can definitely recommend Questionable Content. Even their shirts are very good. I mean, She Blinded Me With Library Science? That’s gold, Jerry, gold! Wait, that’s a Seinfeld reference, not a Friends reference. So much for my strong closing remark. Ah well.