Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Questionable Choices

It's a break from films today, as Hello, Mr. Anderson takes another look at a medium I've long been a fan. Those who remember my look back at David Willis's webcomic It's Walky! and his new regular series Dumbing of Age knows what a fan I am of the genre; I read webcomics every day, often discovering new titles and constantly adding them to my list of browser bookmarks. It was actually through Willis that I became familiar with the name of Jeph Jacques; Willis would mention him whenever the two were at the same convention or whenever he would post a guest strip on Jacques's site. That most recently brought me to the point of discovering Questionable Content, a slice-of-life comic set in the city of Northampton, in my own state of Massachusetts. While I admit I've never been to the city that influences this title, I've heard nothing but good things from my partner in crime and best friend The Opinioness. Northampton is widely known as a central display of art, music and counterculture, with a thriving LGBT community and alternative medical practices that are obviously a huge influence on QC. The comic itself began in August of 2003, at first posted twice a week but eventually expanded to post every Monday through Friday when Jacques left his day job to focus on creating content full-time. There are over nineteen-hundred comics released on Questionable Content's site, and it took me nearly an entire weekend of non-stop browsing to absorb them into my system.

Questionable Content centers around a group of friends living in Northampton in the present day. Marten Reed is a California boy and indie rock enthusiast who moved to the city following his (now ex) girlfriend. He randomly meets fellow indie fan Faye Whitaker and the two fast become friends. Though you might at first imagine this story going down the obvious romantic route of boy meets girl, Faye has no romantic interest in Marten, and the two instead become best friends who end up living together after Faye accidentally burns down her apartment. The two build an eclectic group of friends, and the comic focuses on the everyday lives of the troupe, from romantic liaisons to drunken banter.

Where do they get their period-clothing, I wonder?
From day one, it's obvious just how "indie" QC is, from its musical inspirations to counterculture parodies. The indie rock conversations early on are deeply opinionated but easy to follow, and made easier by Jacques's lessening of that theme later in the comic's life. The comic follows many themes that would be banned from your local newspaper; it speaks frankly about sex, alcoholism, relationship sabotage and bisexuality, but doesn't treat these things as mere humorous asides. Sure, you'll probably laugh at the jokes presented, but the story also treats these themes with the seriousness they deserve. When one character decides to go see a therapist, it isn't a big joke, like those you might see on network television. When a couple break up, there are consequences both long and short-term. Questionable Content is so realistic in its storytelling that you can look past the more outlandish elements as mere aberrations.

Character is one way webcomics either thrive or die. There are many examples of titles that either don't introduce new characters or fail at making memorable personalities for the readers to latch onto. No matter how much you might like a particular character, too much from them means you might get sick of them relatively quickly. Questionable Content thankfully has some of the strongest and most unique characters I've seen on the web, and has constantly added more to the benefit of the series as a whole. Originally focusing on Marten and Faye, Jacques did well by surrounding them with Dora, a bisexual ex-goth and cafe owner and Faye's boss, and Pintsize, an "AnthroPC" or AI computer who has been Martin's companion since forever. Dora was simply adorable, and Pintsize managed to elicit most of the laughs from the audience. From there Jacques went further, creating Dora's successful man-whore brother Sven, eccentric OCD-suffering Hannalore, Marten's lesbian boss Tai, and W.O.W. fan and former shut-in Marigold, to name a few. Hannalore especially is a lot of fun to read, as you're never sure what hilarity will erupt from her mouth next. Even though Marten is technically the comic's leading male, the story is often dictated by the ladies, with Faye, Dora and the others stealing whole storylines while Marten stands back and reacts. That female-centric narrative alone makes for a different experience than most popular titles.

As my friend Nick has pointed out, you would be forgiven to start from the beginning of the story and cringe at the artwork that litters the pages. It's well past 150 pages before the artwork approaches anything resembling "acceptable" by professional standards, and until then you're better off focusing on the dialogue and humor. Once Jacques leaps that artistic hurdle, however, his art is a wonder to behold, and constantly improves over the course of the series. Character design especially is key, as characters are often easily recognizable and have their own "looks" that differentiate them from the others. Long story short, a little patience here leads to a visual artistry not many cartoonists can match.

As I said, I managed to get through just over nineteen hundred comics in the span of a weekend. The reason I was able to pack in so much viewing was that I literally could not tear myself away from the site for very long before being inevitably drawn back in like a trout on the line. Local ties notwithstanding, I truly enjoyed reading the entire existing series cover to cover. It's become my new favorite webcomic, surpassing the love I harbor for It's Walky!, Schlock Mercenary, and Real Life by some degree. I'll be reading it every day, and I can easily recommend it to any who can take a few minutes out of their day to read their funnies.

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