Thursday, November 14, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 27: Questionable Content

Grab a group of dysfunctional twenty-somethings, throw them together, and watch them struggle to overcome their insecurities and become friends. If this form of entertainment proves difficult to achieve given your real-world resources, you can experience a reasonable simulacrum by reading Questionable Content.

Questionable Content is a plot-driven humor comic that’s focused on the developing relationships of a diverse and fascinating cast of characters, most of whom are not at all equipped to maintain healthy relationships with other people. Some of them are just your typical bundles of insecurity, but others are dealing with more serious issues. Some characters lay themselves out there when first introduced so that their friends (and the reader) know what’s going on from the get-go, like Hannelore and her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Other characters, such as Faye, are less up-front and take some time to reveal what they’re going through.

Note: Since Questionable Content is heavily story-driven, I strongly recommend reading it from the beginning. I’m going to avoid directly spoiling anything for you, but there are a lot of plot points that come as surprises even very early in the comic, so it’s possible that an astute reader could infer some spoilers from the excerpts provided here. Also, please note that some excerpts may come from comics that contain spoilers while the excerpts themselves do not. Click those images at your own risk.

In terms of the plot, Questionable Content resembles a webcomic soap opera. There are unrequited crushes, requited crushes, characters getting together, characters splitting up, unfounded jealousies, founded jealousies, and all manner of the sorts of complications that can turn up in friendships and romantic relationships. Given the neuroses and unhealthy coping mechanisms of certain characters, it’s no surprise that things get messy. Questionable Content is extremely melodramatic.

There are two main factors that, I feel, keep the melodrama engaging rather than allowing it to become tedious.

1. The witty dialog/playful banter of the characters.

The cast of Questionable Content is snarky and fun and mean to each other in that way that people are mean to their close friends. They use humor as a defensive mechanism or just to fit in, and it’s fun to see what insults and comebacks they’ll deliver to each other each day. Not every character takes as easily to the dark tone that the humorous dialog sometimes embodies, but that works out well, because the straight man has an important role in the comedy.

2. The depth and believability of the characters.

If you read the comic from the beginning, as I recommend, the characters may not originally strike you as particularly three-dimensional. Part of this is just the author finding his feet, but it actually works, because as you get further into the story and get to know the characters better, you can see more of their facets. There are plenty of moments from later on that, if taken out of context, could make the characters seem shallow and stereotypical. Having read thousands of pages of these characters interacting with each other, trying to fit in with their chosen subcultures, and quietly introspecting, they all feel like real people to me.

When there’s a conflict, it’s rarely a matter of one character being right and another being wrong, or even a case where I, as a reader, want to take sides. Far more often, I can understand and sympathize with both characters even as they are at each others throats, metaphorically. (Or literally. Some of these characters have remarkably violent tendencies.)

In fact, most of the time, even if a character is definitely in the wrong, I can still sympathize, and often, the other characters can, too.

(The other characters are not necessarily sympathizing in this particular instance.)

This is one of those works that has a massive cast of characters, all of whom are lovable in their own ways. I find it comparable in my mind to Six Feet Under, because any time a character makes an appearance, my response is “Yay! We get to see this person again!”

One of the joys of reading Questionable Content is seeing all of these characters, not just on their own, but interacting with the myriad other characters. Unexpected character combinations lead to fun and novel interactions that wouldn’t be possible without such a large and varied group of people to mix up.

While the characters’ relationships tend toward the dysfunctional and their barbs and snarks tend toward crudeness, overall they relate to each other and deal with their issues in a mature and reasonable manner. While they may get into spats over relatively unimportant matters, they’ll usually own up to that behavior and apologize or try to make it up to other characters. There are many calm, rational discussions of the serious problems that these people sometimes face, and those discussions tend to balance out the wild and unreasonable reactions that they sometimes have to their situations.

Over all, these characters treat each other with dignity and respect, and that serves as the foundation for the friendships that unite them all.

This is one of the few comics I’ve read that features characters going to therapists to deal with their emotional issues. Oftentimes therapy is treated as a last resort, or something that only “crazy” people need. Questionable Content portrays therapy as a positive, helpful tool for many of its characters, even those who don’t necessarily have any particular diagnosis. I feel like our culture needs more examples of therapy helping ordinary people, because then more ordinary people might find it easier to accept the idea that therapy might help them.

The world of Questionable Content is similar to ours unless otherwise noted. It takes a while for the more interesting aspects of the setting to sink in, because most of the plot, dialog, drama, and so forth would work just as well in a mundane setting as in the Questionable Content universe. The biggest difference between this world and ours is present right from the first page, though the implications of that difference aren’t explored much until later in the story.

That difference is that sentient artificial intelligence has existed in Questionable Content for some time now. Several characters have robotic companions known as AnthroPCs, and humanity is in the process of adjusting to having nonhuman intelligences around and figuring out how to get along with them.

You’ve got well-defined characters and complex emotional drama, against a science fiction backdrop that is rarely of importance but is really cool when it’s noticeable. It’s the type of story that just keeps going and throwing new loops at its audience and I never want it to stop. For the most part Questionable Content is a lot of fun, and it frequently catches me off guard and makes me laugh like hell.

It can also catch me off guard and make me cry. There are parts of the archive that I cannot get through without tears forming in my eyes, so be warned. There are some serious emotions in this sucker. But it’s worth it, and the overall tone is one of forcefully cheerful irreverence. The bad news is that the witty banter and general silliness is at least partly something that the characters use to distract themselves from the rough parts of life. The good news is that it usually seems to work pretty well.

Questionable Content is written and drawn by Jeph Jacques and updates on weekdays. I recommend it for people who think friendships are valuable, regardless of whether said people are actually capable of maintaining friendships.

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