Welcome to the latest installment of my comics review column here at Skiffy & Fanty! Every month, I use this space to shine a spotlight on SF&F comics (print comics, graphic novels, and webcomics) that I believe deserve more attention from SF&F readers.
Today, I want to take a closer look at a comparatively well-known but, these days, infrequently discussed long-running webcomic — because it just delivered a huge plot and character payoff and thus is also the comic that made me the most squeeful this month— Questionable Content. (This review contains spoilers!)
Questionable Content, written and drawn by Jeph Jacques
I’ve fallen into and out of a bunch of webcomics over the years. Some, because they ended, like Narbonic, Girls With Slingshots and Anders Loves Maria (just don’t ask me to talk about that ending!). Some, because my interests and the creators’ diverged, like Sinfest. Some, because I fell behind and I don’t have the time anymore to binge them and get caught up, like Girl Genius!
Some, on the other hand, I’ve stuck with, and they’ve stuck with me. And while I’ve read my share of comedies and relationship-driven slice-of-life stories, currently, my webcomics reading is all SFFnal to a greater or lesser degree: Order of the Stick, Galaxion, PvP, Table Titans, Skin Horse. And the reason we’re here today, Questionable Content.
Questionable Content has always had SFFnal elements — the very first installment, in 2003 (there are 3745 as I write this) featured Marten, the character who for a long time was at least nominally the protagonist, arriving home and talking about his day with his AnthroPC, Pintsize. AnthroPCs are, essentially, AIs in robotic bodies, who are something between a phone, a best friend, and pet that’s much smarter than you.
But for much of run of QC, the AnthroPCs and other AIs were backgrounded. Pintsize himself is a comedic provocateur, and generally filled the role of the chaos-bringing, wacky sidekick to Marten. The strip started out as slice-of-life and indie-rock focused, before becoming more of a relationship-driven situation comedy. Over time, it became a true ensemble, with Marten taking a more supporting role for entire storylines, with months of narrative foregrounding other characters and relationships.
The strip also became increasingly, beautifully diverse. Mental health issues for some cast members are addressed with intelligence and sensitivity. And one reason that Marten hasn’t been driving as much plot lately is that he’s settled into what seems to be a very happy and functional relationship with Claire, who’s trans. Similarly, Dora, who was always cheerfully bi, was in a relationship with Marten, but is now dating a woman, Tai. There’s a bit of a shortage of people of colour among the main cast — the closest is Tai, who’s kind of ambiguously tan — but there are significant and recurring African-American and Asian-American characters.
And the AnthroPCs were always there. More robots and AIs were introduced (meek Winslow, kind but often frustrated Momo, bread fetishist cop Roko Basilisk, and cynical ex-con May are just some of the most prominent) showing a tremendous range of personalities and capabilities.
And, of course, there’s Bubbles. More about Bubbles later.
It became clear that the world of QC had been through a fairly low-key and very soft Singularity. AI happened. It’s much, much smarter than us, if no wiser. Fortunately, it also generally likes us and wants to be friends. But AIs are also something of a feared and oppressed minority. AnthroPCs are explicitly property, and while some AIs seem to have some civil rights — Station, the AI that runs an orbital facility for a vaguely cyberpunky tech megacorp, owns a small but very valuable percentage of the company that built him — others are in a much more precarious position.
That, in fact, has a lot to do with how Faye met Bubbles.
Faye began the strip as an unrequited love interest for Marten, and if you had said she was initially pretty much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I would have only qualified that by pointing out that she was a particularly earthy, violent version.
But Faye grew and changed too. She and Marten became genuinely best friends and got over the will-they-or-won’t-they. She had other relationships. Her drinking, originally played for laughs, became a serious issue that she had to address (most webcomics don’t finesse the comedic-to-serious transition as well as Jacques did with this one). She went into therapy.
As part of the process of getting back on top of her life after a particularly rough patch, Faye needed a job; she found one, fixing robots damaged in an illegal fighting ring. Faye handled repairs. Bubbles, a traumatized former combat robot, was the enforcer.
Bubbles and Faye liked each other. Neither of them much liked their boss, the criminal robot Corpse Witch, who was holding Bubbles’ memories hostage and threatening them both. That situation… okay, it was complicated, and it took a couple of years to resolve, and the incredibly powerful, hyper-intelligent AIs who quietly keep an eye on their fellow artificial intelligences from behind the scenes played a role.
But eventually, Corpse Witch was out of the picture, and Faye and Bubbles went into business together, running a happily entirely legal robot repair shop. They liked each other. And over time, it started to look like they also liked each other.
Jacques, who from my perspective sure seems to know a thing or two about steering a ship, let this play out over time. Faye and Bubbles had to become closer, open up to each other, about their respective pain. They had to deal with the practicalities of running a business. But.
But the question was there for readers, and when their mutual responses to a nominally platonic backrub — the set-up is right there in the excerpt from #3733, up above — led to emotions that neither of them could ignore, the question was there for Faye and Bubbles too.
Hey, maybe we should call them FayBles? Hmm, maybe not.
But the really wonderful thing about the turn this story is taken isn’t that this moment, itself, was surprising — it’s been building for a long time, and promised romantic payoffs in Questionable Content tend to follow through. It is, after all, a relationship-driven comedy about romance and robots.
No, the exciting thing to me is that the romantic and SFFnal threads in QC are finally, after some fifteen years of story, finally weaving together, and it opens up so many more questions, and so many possibilities!
Faye’s relationships over the course of the strip have been with human guys; she’s never identified as being attracted to women or robots, let alone both. Now, as Marten says while talking the issue through with Faye in #3736, “Maybe Bubbles is the exception. It happens.”
But the whole question of AI/robots/AnthroPCs and gender is fascinating. It’s never been entirely clear over the course of the strip why the AIs — even disembodied ones! — even have gender, unless it’s for the sake of the humans in their lives. We don’t know why or how the AIs experience their gender, or the intersection between that and sexual desire or romantic love, although at least some of them clearly do (it’s implicit that Station, for instance, has strong feelings for Hannelore that he quietly accepts are unrequited, but since it would take an entire other column to unpack Hannelore, just take this as an example for now). Is gender programmed or designed into them? Is sexual orientation? Are those properties that emerge from their experience and interaction with humans? Like, I can envision the AnthroPCs and other robots whose roles are primarily to provide companionship of one sort or another to humans being intended to have or emulate gender; but why would that be the case for Bubbles, who was a military combat robot, yet who both appears to be and apparently identifies as a woman?
In short, simply by portraying romantic and sexual attraction, and a burgeoning relationship, between a human woman who previously identified as straight, and robot woman, Jacques will be asking questions, and encouraging his readers to ask questions, about the nature of AI, of gender, of sexual orientation, of love, and how all those things are perceived, both separately and as they intertwine.
It’s been quite a journey from a dude with a wacky robot sidekick name-checking bands and kvetching about his love life. It also is, or has the potential to be, genuinely excellent, thought-provoking science fiction.
I’d love to see Questionable Content on next year’s Best Graphic Story Hugo ballot for this storyline — if only because Jeph Jacques has a deep appreciation for science fiction and the honour would be meaningful for him — but it’s not likely to happen. Story arcs of the webcomic are diffuse and challenging to pin down; Jacques didn’t exactly separate the burgeoning Faye/Bubbles romance into a discrete chapter. Neither is there one single stand-out daily installment, at least not so far. And even when the story appears in a print collection, that’s likely to be some years down the road. There’s not an easily-collected unit of story for a would-be Hugo nominator to point to.
But if you can’t nominate it for a Hugo, you can certainly read it.
Since you do need to start somewhere, I recommend #3001, where the Faye/Bubbles story begins. You’ll be missing some of the background, of course — and by all means, go back and read the strip from the start if you want! — but that will give you their story, and lots more besides, and two years of context for the characters and their lives before the big payoff.
At which point, I suspect you’ll be hooked. Which is fine, because there’s going to be more Questionable Content, more questions, maybe some answers, more Faye, more Bubbles, and many more ships to come in.
Acknowledgements and Disclosures: I would like to acknowledge that Toronto, and the land it now occupies, where I live and work, has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island. I am grateful to have the opportunity to live and work in the community of Toronto, on this territory.
I have no personal or professional relationships with Jeph Jacques. The webcomic is free to read online.