Written and drawn by Jeph Jacques
Questionable Content is currently the only comic that I read every day, and a jumping off point for the other webcomics that I do read. There were times, a few years ago, when I wondered why I still read it, and even a few times when I stopped reading altogether. I can’t remember exactly why, now: was I annoyed at the pacing, the characters, the general sense of drama? The strip has been running for over ten years, so it’s possible that we were both just going through a phase. Once a somewhat derivative slice of bizarro life comic about an awkward young man and his talking robot navigating the emotionally fraught lives of women, QC has matured into something deeper, with emotionally complex characters trying to figure out what to do with their lives, while still consistently bringing the funny weirdness.
Looking back, QC’s initial cast is superficially similar to more venerable webcomics, like Sluggy Freelance: awkward guy with talking pet, a slightly cooler best friend, and a girl for awkward guy to pine over. In searching for a unique voice, Jacques also wound up owing a debt to John Allison’s ScaryGoRound, a British comic about quirky young persons getting involved in stroppy weirdness. Faye, Marten’s early love interest/roommate, even used a stilted speech pattern similar to the high formal weirdness of Allison’s Shelly Winters. What made QC stand out was its indie music motif (indie music being one of Mr. Jacques’s enthusiasms), and the fact that very rapidly the comic became about the characters and their relationships to each other more than Wacky Hijinx. Faye’s speech, rather than being an unexplained quirk, became an affectation brought on by her unique past. The “will they or won’t they” tension between Marten and Faye drove a lot of the early series, but it becomes clear that Jacques was actually trying to get beyond that, rather than exploit it. Even Pintsize, the obnoxious little AnthroPC, gets odd moments of character development, because Jacques isn’t willing to just let a thing be.
This need to constantly improve is evident in the writing and storytelling, but it is most clearly obvious in the art. Look at the difference between when it started and seven years later. Jacques never seems to stop improving and tinkering with his style and technique, trying to find the perfect way to visually present his characters. It’s fair to say that ten years after he started, after drawing Marten and Faye and Dora literally thousands of times, he’s found a style that works for him, one that is unique to his style of storytelling and comedy. That constant tinkering applies to the characters as well. The characters have to grow and change and, in some cases, move on. Sometimes they move to California to be with family, prompting Marten to grow up a little bit. Sometimes they disappear for a while, because they were possibly being a superspy. In one case, they were eaten by an allosaurus and never referred to again. Jacques isn’t afraid to change things dramatically if the story requires it, and even though the pace can sometimes seem slow, especially for a daily comic, there is always a lot going on. Witty banter! Terrible revelations! Bros! It’s a whirlwind.
A frequent source of drama and comedy in the strip is mental illness, but it’s handled with an insider’s sensitivity. Jacques has been pretty open about his struggles with anxiety and depression, which informs the way he handles Marigold’s self-loathing, Dora’s insecurity, and Hannelore’s…more complex set of neurological disorders. Sometimes comedy ensues, such as Marten’s crippling awkwardness ruining a speech at his dad’s wedding, or the many, many sick burns Marigold lays on herself, or what happens when those two interact. But the strip is never making fun of mental illness itself. The comedy comes from how the characters deal with the challenges created by their insecurities, anxieties, and personal growth. Watching these people face their problems, or handle them badly, is part of what makes QC great.
That sensitivity to character is what eventually brought me back to QC to stay. Jeph Jacques really cares about his characters and wants them to do well, and that translates to the reader, although he’s also not afraid to push them through some dramatic and difficult changes, ranging from Marten realizing he’s being an asshole to Dora realizing she needs therapy. Jacques loves his characters, so there are many moments of sweetness and friendship, a bunch of fucked up people loving each other as best they can. And all of that in an alternate universe in which AIs are not only real but common, and cyborgs and space habitats are completely normal and feasible. Somehow, in spite of those moments of weirdness, the world of QC never stops being relatable, or the troubles of the characters less believable. I’d even say that the series has benefited from the way Jacques decided to double-down on his Pintsize gambit and extrapolate an entire setting from one annoying robot sidekick. It’s still recognizably our world. Just a little stranger.
Questionable Content is something special. Like its characters, we’ve had our disagreements. I’ve never really liked Pintsize enough to enjoy strips in which he is the focus, and I find Penelope and Wil a strange blend of obnoxious and boring. But I keep coming back because it is consistently well written and beautifully drawn, and because Jeph Jacques loves these characters, and really, I love them too. I want Marten, Faye, Dora, and Hannelore to do well, and I love the way their expanding circle of friends pulls in good people and makes them better. It’s an alternate world of science, indie rock, friendship, sex, and love, and it makes me glad that I can visit it almost every day.
Keep doing what you’re doing, Mr. Jacques. I appreciate it.