(From Questionable Content. Click for full-sized mind-scarring Internet memes.)
Since I’ve started doing these webcomic reviews again, I’ve been wondering if I’ve become a big ol’ softie. I was hardly ever John Solomon, but nonetheless one of the things I tended to do in my previous webcomic-reviewing life was to go against the conventional wisdom and have a lower opinion of the most popular webcomics. I wasn’t really a fan of Penny Arcade, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, or xkcd, and I absolutely tore into 8-Bit Theater and Scary Go Round, two comics that often seem to be cited as a cut above even the ones I mentioned before, and certainly the latter seems to have actually influenced a good number of (far superior) webcomics. Yet since returning to webcomic reviews, I’ve liked Homestuck and Gunnerkrigg Court, and next week I’ll talk about how I like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal as well. Even Axe Cop I didn’t think was completely devoid of redeeming characteristics.
That’s gotten me wondering whether or not my tastes in webcomics have shifted, especially since I went through a substantial shift in my worldview around the same time my webcomics reviews petered out last time. It can’t be that, by some bizarre coincidence, the popular webcomics I reviewed last time just happened to be the overrated ones, whereas the ones I’m reviewing this time just happen to be the genuinely good ones – especially since both Gunnerkrigg Court and Questionable Content were on my docket for a review before I went on hiatus. I can’t help but wonder if I would hate Scary Go Round quite as much if I were reviewing it today, and I certainly can’t help but wonder if my opinion of Questionable Content would be different if I were reviewing it before the summer of 2009, and not because of any developments in the comic itself. (Then again, considering the reasons I’ve liked Ctrl+Alt+Del…)
That is not to say, of course, that the developments in the comic itself haven’t shifted my perception of the comic. In fact, Questionable Content represents the longest archive binge I’ve successfully pulled off so far (unless you count Homestuck), and I can’t think of another comic where my opinion of it changed so much while I was reading it, certainly while the comic itself changed relatively little.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. The very earliest comics are absolutely terrible. They’re like if Ctrl+Alt+Del and Something Positive had a love child that had all their negative aspects and none of their positive ones. The art has the full B^U thing going on, the comic itself is at best generic and aimless, and there are quite a few vindictive shots at things Jeph Jacques hates. In fact, I’m going to save you the trouble and summarize the events of those earliest comics so you don’t have to suffer through them:
Marten Reed is a lonely, dumpy guy with a crappy, low-paying job who gets nervous around girls and lives alone with his “AnthroPC” Pintsize. One day a new girl in town named Faye walks up to him and his friend Steve and asks if they’d like to hang out with her, completely platonically; later, she invites him to dinner, and as time passes they bond over their shared love (and nerdom) of indie rock. One day Faye burns down her apartment and asks to move in with Marten, which leads to Marten constantly struggling with any attraction he might have towards her, made worse by the possible hints that the attraction might be mutual. Meanwhile, Faye’s coworker at the local coffee shop, Sara, has been nursing a crush on Marten but, when she finally works up the guts to say something, realizes she never crushed on Marten himself so much as what he represented to her. Oh, and Pintsize engages in various kinds of comic relief, including downing cake mix at least twice, the latter of which results in him getting a new chassis that shoots lasers. There, now you can start reading from here when the comic is slightly more tolerable, and you should know everything you need to know going forward, aside from Marten’s backstory (which gets expanded on later anyway).
Now, with a setup like that, you’d probably expect some sort of Three’s Company-type of situation with Marten and Faye constantly getting into uncomfortable situations with one another and dancing around their feelings for one another. But while there is a considerable amount of that in the early comics, as it goes along something funny happens: Marten and Faye eventually develop a genuine platonic friendship.
The comic is not so concerned with playing up the tension between them for our benefit so much as inviting us to follow them around as they go about their daily lives; it’s not even all that much of a humor comic except for what might be called “in-universe” humor, that humor that arises from the jokes the characters themselves tell that they themselves are in on. Potential comparisons between Marten and Ethan don’t go away entirely, but he increasingly seems to become more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy from a female perspective, at least one more mature than that of the typical sixteen-year-old girl with Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson posters on her walls, a cute, sweet, sensitive young man who genuinely cares about his female friends rather than simply jonesing to get into their pants. It’s hard to tell whether it’s more comparable to Seinfeld or Friends (the latter of which would be very ironic considering the occasional early strip that takes a shot at it).
TV Tropes had spoiled both of the two major turning points in the comic’s development for me, so even before it happened, and even knowing what the result was going to be, I found myself actively rooting for Marten and Dora to work out. My enthusiasm softened when I saw how it ended up happening, with them up and deciding they’re going to be a couple now, without even knowing how much of anything there was between them. Maybe that’s just my personal preference against a more contractual model of love and relationships and for a more organic, free-flowing one. At any rate, for a while it seemed to work out pretty well regardless, to the point I think they could have made it work if they weren’t so neurotic about it. Pretty much everyone in the comic has their issues; Dora worries about whether Marten is still pining for Faye, Faye can’t open up to anyone out of fear of what happened to her father, Marten simply worries about his own shortcomings and whether or not he’s worthy of anything. For a while after Faye opens up about her issues, the most apt comparison for Questionable Content is probably a Woody Allen movie, with everyone constantly worrying about their various problems.
If I had reviewed QC when I originally intended to and my opinion of it isn’t affected by my shift in worldview, I might have considered it one of the three best webcomics I’d then read, right up there with Darths and Droids and The Order of the Stick, though of course there is no way QC could have possibly measured up to the sheer awesomeness that is OOTS. Certainly I’d cite it as an example of a comic that does a lot of things right that a lot of other comics don’t. Instead, I have to consider it one of the more frustrating webcomics I’ve ever read. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is QC‘s propensity for flirting with PVP/Goats Syndrome.
It seems odd to say that when QC has never even really flirted with Cerebus Syndrome; if anything, it’s more like a reverse Cerebus Syndrome that ends up approaching something resembling PVP/Goats Syndrome from the opposite direction, adding ridiculous elements to a fairly serious, story-based webcomic (with the in-universe humor I mentioned earlier). Now, I didn’t have a problem with Pintsize and his fellow AnthroPCs; I thought of them much like Dogbert and his fellow collection of talking animals in Dilbert, a break from reality you just accept and don’t think about too much, and which ultimately doesn’t detract from the down-to-earth nature of the comic. QC was, at its core, a comic about a bunch of twentysomethings struggling with love, relationships, and life in the real world, and having little robotic mascots was just something you looked past.
As time went on, though, much like Dogbert opened the door for the Dilbert workplace to become infested with one-dimensional exaggerated cariactures of annoying coworker stereotypes, Jacques increasingly dropped signs that the QC version of Northampton was more than a little weird, the first of which was Pizza Girl, but which became overt with the storyline involving the VespAvenger. In and of itself, I didn’t really have a problem with the notion of a woman running around on a Vespa avenging perceived wronged girlfriends; after all, Seattle has self-proclaimed real-life superheroes running around. Nor did I have a problem, in and of itself, with the plan Marten and his friends hatched up to get revenge on her for attacking people who turned out to be innocents. But when her Vespa turned out to be a Transformer (and no, I am not making that up)… that tainted the whole storyline for me. At that point I was just wondering when Marten would start knocking the heads off of living statues with golf clubs.
Thankfully Jacques dialed back the weirdness factor after that, but it was still apparent that the QC cast led… interesting lives (certainly compared to before), and ever since the second major development the comic has flirted with this variant of PVP/Goats Syndrome more than ever, for which I largely blame the character of Marigold. I liked Marigold as a character in and of herself, the cute geek girl who’s too socially shut-in to realize how much she has going for her if she’d just open up more (kind of a more realistic portrayal of a Lilah-type “gamer chick”), and rooted for her to at least open up enough to go on a date, but in retrospect her introduction seems to be heralding Jacques going more after the anime-style audience that’s flocked to Megatokyo and Homestuck, as evidenced by the fact that, while Faye and Dora are (for now) portrayed with full lips, Marigold (and now, even Hannelore) are portrayed more with straight lines that allow them to engage in more anime-esque expressions like the “cat smile” (which even Faye and Dora have flirted with).
The more direct herald of PVP/Goats Syndrome, though, is Marigold’s anime-styled AnthroPC Momo, who I originally didn’t really see any differently from any other AnthroPC… until she picked up her new chassis, which makes her look like a seventeen-year-old anime girl (who occasionally has the most SGR-inspired art I’ve ever seen from QC) and makes the comic seem like an anime waiting to happen at any moment she’s on screen. Then there was the recent really extended storyline on board Hannelore’s dad’s space station; even though her dad living on a space station had been established before, it still felt awfully sci-fi for what had heretofore been, at heart, a straight-up slice-of-life comic, especially since it felt like Marten, Marigold, and Hannelore were just along for the ride through all the weird sciency stuff, despite, or perhaps because of, their having their own subplots.
I’m still going to add QC to my RSS feeds on a provisional basis, but I continue to reserve the right to pull out if the comic’s descent into PVP/Goats Syndrome continues, and I have a feeling if I had reviewed it when I originally intended, it would be an epic “you had me and you lost me”-style breakup now. What makes me all the more apprehensive about it is that I kind of feel like the comic is losing its soul, the reason I liked it so much to begin with. Part of that is because of the encroaching weirdness, but part of it is just that there are so many characters that it’s hard to care about them all, especially with the addition of the Secret Bakery crew, who seem to be becoming regular cast members despite not being all that much fleshed out. (It didn’t help that Tangents described them as being “Mirror Universe Opposites” and “Bizarro World Twins“, which since I wasn’t reading the comic myself at the time, made me worry that they were part of the comic’s PVP/Goats Syndrome somehow as well, like there was an extended storyline in which the cast went to a literal mirror universe. In the end, though, my biggest problem ended up being that it didn’t make sense we wouldn’t have encountered them before now, at least until I started thinking about what they represented about the comic.)
It all makes me wonder if QC is starting to reach its twilight, starting to jump the shark if you will, if Jeph Jacques may be starting to run out of ideas so he’s throwing a bunch of silly concepts at the wall and seeing if they stick. I’d call it Dilbert Syndrome if webcomics criticism didn’t have enough “syndromes” already and “Dilbert Syndrome” couldn’t describe a number of different things. (Maybe this is what I should use “Goats Syndrome” for.) I’m willing to stick with it because of how good QC can be at its best, but you may want to stop reading after this comic and imagine that everyone lives happily ever after. That’s not a good sign when someone says “the comic’s okay if you read within this defined start and end point”, but even a QC off its peak is better than a lot of other webcomics. Even if QC goes off the deep end while I’m reading it, we’ll always have the days when a snarky little slice-of-life webcomic about a boy from California, his female friends, and their myriad relationships was one of the best on the Internet.