Do you remember what you were like 17 years ago? I do, unfortunately. In 2003, I was a little 12-year-old shithead who was starting to discover the edgy humor of the mid-2000s. Jokes built around transphobia, homophobia, and ableist slurs were the funniest things on the planet for a good chunk of my teenage years thanks to a steady diet of South Park and similar “comedy.” Fast forward nearly two decades and one gender awakening later, and I would like to think I’ve grown and matured as a person while still acknowledging past mistakes. This journey, one that I’m sure many can relate to, is not too far off from what long-running webcomic Questionable Content has experienced in its still-ongoing 17-year run.
Written and illustrated by cartoonist Jeph Jacques, Questionable Content debuted on August 1st, 2003, during the early days of the webcomic rush. Starring misanthropic 20-something indie rocker white boy Marten Reed, his perverted robotic sidekick Pintsize, and his friend-but-maybe-more-someday Faye Whitaker, QC fit comfortably into the increasingly popular medium. In its first few hundred strips (as of this writing, the series is on comic #4,329), QC established itself as an edgy, punchline driven sitcom with a sexual edge and occasional music snob joke to solidify its era-appropriate voice.
The first 500 or so strips are…painful to get through from a 2020 perspective. Jacques’ art is extremely rough and underdeveloped, with little expression or body language to drive home punchlines, let alone dramatic beats. Little more than hair or glasses differentiate the characters. Jokes and banter routinely focus on ghoulish subjects like rape and assault, and none of the characters are remotely close to likable. Marten and Faye’s will-they-won’t-they dynamic, one of the pillars of the series in the early years, is built on toxic dynamics and poor communication, and there is little worthwhile to find. With Strip #501, however, Jacques tried something new.
In a 9-part series of strips titled “The Talk,” Faye opens up about her past trauma and why she has trouble letting people in—eventually revealing that her father committed suicide in front of her as a teen and left her with significant PTSD. To be clear, this arc is not good. Faye’s monologue is clunky, overwrought, and handles the weighty subject matter with little-to-no grace. Jacques’ art skills had not yet developed to a point where the emotional beats land with any sort of success. But it is one of the first signs of Jacques moving towards a place where offensive comedy isn’t the only thing QC has to offer, and the first step on the road that brought it to the wonderful place it has reached.
A running joke among QC fans, one that Jeph himself acknowledges, is his tendency to expand the cast. First joining Marten and Faye are Hannelore Ellicott-Chatham, a manic OCD-suffering stalker of Marten; Dora Bianchi, Faye’s goth boss, and eventually Marten’s girlfriend (and later ex); and Tai Hubbard, lesbian stoner librarian, supervisor to Marten, and eventual fiancee to Dora. All three of them are, initially, little more than thoroughly problematic stereotypes whose roles in the series entirely revolve around their relationship to Marten.
While this Marten-centric focus lingers for a fairly long time, the comic’s next signs of substantial growth come in a surprisingly innocuous strip: #974 from 2007. Tai and Marten discuss Tai’s butch and male-presenting past, with Marten worrying he had been using the wrong pronouns and Tai talking about a male friend with breasts who wears a binder. The comic still uses transphobic punchlines (albeit ones grounded in ignorance rather than malice) for a while after this comic. However, it is a shocking conversation to see in a comic written when George W. Bush was still president, and most people wouldn’t even consider the subject of proper pronoun use.
In the next thousand or so strips, gradual steps towards growth proceed as characters expand beyond shallow stereotypes and begin to feel like actual people. Faye can process her trauma and pursue a relationship for the first time since her father died. Hannelore pushes herself to try new things and joins Marten’s band. Dora’s constant flirtations are revealed to be rooted in personal insecurity and familial relationships rather than playing into bisexual stereotypes. The latter of which brings us to QC’s first significant tipping point: Dora and Marten’s break-up.
The pair’s relationship was rocky, due to both Dora’s insecurities and Marten’s passivity and lack of communication, which comes to a head in #1,797. After years of fights over Dora not respecting Marten’s wishes and Marten not being open and honest with his partner, the two split and leave a painful, awkward void within the cast. However, while 1000 strips prior, this would have been mined for maximum drama and “she’s such a bitch” jokes, Jacques writes a more mature storyline.
Faye doesn’t deny her anger (or threats of violence that she would eventually work through herself) at Dora for not listening to Marten, but still loves her friend and helps her find a therapist to work on her issues. Marten and Dora rely on their support systems and process the break-up without ripping their friend group apart. The rest of the cast doesn’t cut out or neglect either friend, and when Tai eventually expresses interest in pursuing Dora, Marten knows he has no right to object and wants both of them to be happy.
This turn, from cheap soap opera drama to healthy development and conflict resolution, forms the core of the modern identity of Questionable Content and fuels its continued success. In a world that is increasingly painful, harsh, and filled with hate, QC provides a 5-times-a-week dose of optimism, romance, and occasional laughs. That doesn’t mean the series is perfect beyond this point or that Jacques never makes mistakes. But Jacques’ comic has shown a constant desire to learn and grow from mistakes that few other comics, web or otherwise, can match.
One of the most prominent symbols of this drive to always improve is Claire Augustus. Introduced as a library intern working under Marten and Tai, she eventually joins their social circle proper and comes out to Marten (and eventually others) as a trans woman beginning in #2,323. Claire is of personal importance to me, as she was one of the first entirely positive and healthy trans characters that appeared in media I was following. Seeing her not only live a happy, fulfilled life but also be accepted by these characters I had grown to love and eventually pursuing a relationship with Marten was something that helped me notice the horrific transphobia I had internalized and work to improve myself. Which, as a trans woman coming up on my first year of being out, is something that I sincerely appreciate.
Claire’s identity isn’t always handled perfectly. Her coming out to Marten falls into the trans monologue trope that media often do, and the steps Jacques takes to ensure that Claire, and QC, are positive, healthy representations of the trans experience can occasionally feel cloying. Like so many other things, Jacques has grown aware of this and taken steps to address the complaints of glossing over true trans experiences, such as Claire acknowledging that outside of their social circle, there are bigots that hate her for merely existing. These choices have helped enrich her character arc and presence as a member of the QC ensemble.
That ensemble has shifted over time, gradually replacing Marten as a central figure with a rotating spotlight that leaves no member of the cast as a true lead. This change in priorities has only strengthened the series, giving characters like Faye, Hannelore, and new additions like Roko Basilisk and Bubbles room to grow and find their own voices without having to define them by their relationship to a 20something white man.
These new additions, and the expanded cast in general, paint a far more diverse picture for Questionable Content as a whole. What started as a cast of 3 straight white friends has grown to feature folks from all walks of life. Claire, as mentioned, as well as Yay Newfriend (yes, that is their name and yes, it is a long story) break traditional gender identity norms. The likes of Brun, Dale, Emily, Renee and Tai help break up the sea of white people that dominated the series for years. Tai, Dora, Faye, Brun, Clinton, Elliott and more are either proudly queer from their debut or question their sexuality and explore their identity over their time in the spotlight. While these are all great additions, they are not perfectly executed. Through a combination of the pre-existing cast members and Jacques’ fondness of exploring the series’ sci-fi setting via androids, the cast members of color can often feel relegated to supporting roles rather than stars. It isn’t perfect and has plenty of room to improve, but QC has undeniably grown.
This growth is not only reflected in the writing but Jacques’ art. While still not a mindblowing showcase, Jacques has continued to work at his skills and refuses to stay complacent. New panel layouts and perspectives put an increased emphasis on reactions and emotion. Stepping away from sexual objectification, such as the several gratuitous holiday pin-ups present in the series’ early years, Jacques instead healthily highlights bodies in affirming and sexually positive ways. While I would never claim to read Questionable Content for the art alone, it has long since moved beyond something to tolerate for the characters into an enjoyable piece of the complete package.
The most recent additions, Roko and Bubbles, firmly solidify Questionable Content’s commitment to bettering its characters and relying on growth both with its storytelling and the politics it presents. Rather than rely on schlock drama and angst, characters better themselves and learn, with concepts ranging from wealth disparity, body dysphoria, and the broken nature of systems of power in America ingrained deeply into various plotlines. Roko is introduced as a police officer in #3,311, a job that isn’t particularly challenged as problematic in her first handful of appearances. However, as she is given time on her own and has run-ins with individuals whom the law has abandoned and abused, she has an epiphany and decides to quit the force. She initially questions her decision, but while sitting at her desk in the precinct in #3837, she plays back a conversation from a few strips prior where she had to specify she wasn’t the kind of cop that would hold a grudge.
Not that she wasn’t a bad cop. Not that she wouldn’t hurt someone. Just that she wasn’t the kind of cop who would wantonly abuse her power to be a petty bully. Realizing that she has even to clarify is an indictment of the entire policing system, she quits then and there. Refocusing her life on improving the rights of others as a social worker, she is now happier than ever and surrounded by friends and satisfied with what she is doing with her life. It is worth noting that, however compelling Basilisk’s story may be, it is presented from the point of view of a robotic woman, a fictional minority, and has no inclusion of the real-world racial biases that plague policing. While Jacques’ seeming hesitancy to dive into racially-focused stories is understandable given his being a white man, it becomes an increasingly noticeable absence in an increasingly racially diverse, socially aware, and progressive cast of characters.
Bubbles, sadly, had a much longer and more painful journey. First introduced in #3,003 as an emotionally distant bouncer for an underground robot fighting league Faye found work with, she eventually formed a bond with Faye that became stronger than either expected. Faye’s support allows Bubbles to process her trauma from her past as a soldier and her lack of identity from lost memories. Eventually, she opens up, metaphorically and literally, to become one of the most prominent members of the cast and Faye’s lover.
The pair’s romance built over hundreds of strips and culminated in #3,744 a heartwarming embrace of their love for each other despite neither one ever previously being attracted to women and has formed a genuinely healthy, supportive relationship that is one of the fixtures of the modern era of QC.
This piece has only covered a handful of the stories that Jacques has told over the 17-year run on Questionable Content. There are dozens more worth reading, such as Faye’s struggles with alcoholism, or the adorable budding romance between gentle giant Elliott and Claire’s sexuality-questioning brother Clinton, or even Tai and Dora’s relationship that will soon lead to the strip’s first wedding. There was never going to be enough room to cover every worthwhile story and showcase of growth that occurs in a still ongoing story with over 4,000 pages, and that’s a good thing. The fact that nearly two decades on, Questionable Content has succeeded where countless peers have stagnated and failed, maturing to reflect the world that we live in so effectively is a beautiful thing and one that has kept me reading every weekday for most of my adult life. Here’s hoping Jacques’ band of goofy, endearing sweethearts stick around for another 4,000 pages of slice-of-life comfort because I will be following right alongside them.