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‘Questionable Content’ Moves Beyond Relationship Angst and into Science Fiction


A few months ago, a friend of mine and I were chatting about science fiction webcomics, and I brought up Jeph Jacques’ immensely popular webcomic Questionable Content. My friend gave me a funny look. “No, really,” I said, “Questionable Content takes place after the Singularity.” It’s been easy to forget QC‘s science fiction component; the presence of sentient machines and the fact that one character grew up on a space station have always been secondary to the relationship drama and snarky interactions in the coffee shop. But Jacques is finally pushing his webcomic fully into the future — and pushing his writing to new places in the process.For those not familiar with Questionable Content, the comic centers around Marten, a twenty-something living in Northampton, Massachusetts (home of Smith College and also Jacques’ current place of residence). Martin has a bachelor’s degree, a dead end job, a perverted robot companion (Pintsize the anthro-PC), an endless rotation of indie rock t-shirts and little else.

That is, until Faye, a prickly refugee from the South fleeing a fresh trauma, forcibly inserts herself in his life. Soon their circle of friends grows to include Dora, the owner of Coffee of Doom, where Faye works, Raven, Dora’s ditzy (but secretly brilliant) friend, and a host of other (mostly female) twenty-something eccentrics. As the girls spend their days harassing the cafe patrons and Faye gradually works through her considerable emotional issues, Marten begins to reconsider how he wants to spend his time.

One of QC‘s claims to fame is the evolution of the strip’s art. Over the course of just a few years, Jacques art has radically improved, with more refined and distinctive character designs. His expressions have grown subtler, and his colors richer. He’s played with perspective and shaken up his backgrounds a bit, and is obviously having a ton of fun drawing his characters.

But up until recently, Jacques’ writing wasn’t evolving at quite the same clip. That’s not to say QC hasn’t had some great innovations, notably the introduction of the adorable Hannelore, who suffers from near-crippling OCD, and Marigold, the gamer who’s hidden herself away inside World of Warcraft so she won’t have to learn how to interact in the real world. Jacques has also thought up some great gags, such as having the male characters dress up in fancy clothes to defeat the “Awkward Zone.” Over time, however, he settled himself into a comfortable rhythm, exploring the quirky personalities of his cast as they breakup, makeup, and go into therapy.

One friend who recently started reading QC commented to me that he was several months into the comic and remarkably little had happened. It’s not a comic that’s built for the archive binge. For years, QC has served much the same function as a soap opera does; it comes in five nights a week, usually around the same time, and we get to spend 30 seconds with our familiar and witty characters before going back to our lives. Plot isn’t a huge driving force, and when it does pop up, it often revolves around romance. It’s comics as comfort food, and it’s the reason why QC is particularly well suited to the Internet.

I thought Jacques would probably keep this rhythm up indefinitely. After all, it’s earned him a loyal fan base and the ability to support himself and his wife through merchandise sales (I myself own a “Coffee of Doom” t-shirt I purchased at SPX many years ago). But in the last few months, there has been a shift in Jacques’ approach to QC as he’s poked and prodded at the more science fictional elements of his universe.

From the start, QC has taken place in an alternate universe that has the same pop culture we do (Martin is a huge indie rock fan), but with more advanced technology. Robots gained sentience some time ago, but they live with humans as sophisticated computer systems. Many of the early QC strips starred Pintsize, Marten’s sex-obsessed anthro-PC, who was always getting involved in all sorts of porn and sex toy-related hijinks. As the human characters began to take center stage, Pintsize faded to the background, although he would occasionally pop in with a dirty joke.

Later characters had anthropomorphic computers of their own, each with its own look and personality. Hannelore’s Winslow is an oversized iPod whose sense of caution makes him the perfect target for Pintsize’s corruptions, and Marigold’s Momo is a sweet and nurturing pink-haired anime chibi. There are other small shades of science fiction, most notably in Hannelore, who grew up on a space station with her inventor father.

Several months ago, though, the characters started talking more about the technological epoch in which they live. Momo started eyeing a shiny new chassis, one that would make her as tall as a human and eligible for work, which gave Jacques a chance to explore the strange dichotomy of robots as autonomous persons and robots as property that exists in the QC. Hannelore finds herself stalked by a man who adores her father because he invented his cybernetic prosthetic hand. And in the current story arc, Marten and Marigold visit Hannelore’s childhood home — in spaaaaaaaaaaace!

The space station arc is easily my favorite thing ever to happen in QC. Granted, I tend to biased toward science fiction, but Jacques usually amusing jokes are somehow magnified by the presence of a sentient space station.

This shift also marks Jacques’ evolution into a much more thoughtful writer. He’s always given a great deal of thought to his characters, why they’re so flawed and what can be done to turn them into fully functional adults, but now he’s thinking far more about the QC universe at large. I may not be completely convinced about why robots live as household companions to humans, but I respect his attempt to resolve the issue. And the expansion into science fiction has allowed him to stretch his ample imagination into new spaces.

Better world building and technofun aren’t the only places where Jacques is showing off his stepped up writing process. In the course of the space station story line, the Station humiliated a female military officer with an embarrassing photo and then tried to apologize by offering her millions of dollars in corporate shares. Originally, that was meant to be the end of that interaction, but Jacques says he was uncomfortable with the way he’d left things. In the end, he decided to have the officer explain to the Station that what he did was sexual harassment and return the money.

It’s lovely to see that Jacques is being so careful — and having some much fun — in rendering the new sides of his formerly earthbound world. I’m looking forward to seeing what other scifi ideas he has in store — and maybe getting a few more holographic animals orbiting around his characters’ heads.

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