In my previous post on the textures of the everyday, I explored the blend of everyday occurrences during wartime. How do people who live during times of war construct their day-to-day lives?

In this post, I want to extend the notion of the quotidian to a popular web comic called Questionable Content. This daily comic, created by Jeph Jacques, is about the lives of urban twenty-somethings, some of whom work at a coffee shop or at a library, but all of whom are attempting to create and maintain friendships and romances as well as trying to figure out what they want out of life. (You might think of the television show Friends as a mainstream media parallel.)

There is little action in the comic; most of the strips are dialogue-based, in which the characters talk their relationships into being. Here are two images from the same comic strip (#1720) that show Dora, the coffee shop owner, hiring new employees:

1720 hiring practices at coffee of doom panel 1

The language that Dora uses clearly demarcates her role as ‘boss,’ and the silence of the other characters likewise demarcates their role as ‘employee.’ The joke, of course, is resolved in the final panel of the strip:

1720 hiring practices at coffee of doom panel 5

Dora realizes that she has overshot the mark with her speech and attempts to soften the impact. Faye, a long-term employee, reads Dora’s social role not simply as ‘boss’ but a blend of ‘boss’ and ‘friend,’ which of course is very tricky territory in the workplace.

 

Readers of Questionable Content, though, know that there are elements of the comic that might nudge it outside the boundary of the realistic quotidian. There is a small but significant set of robots that (who?) complement the human characters. The humans and robots interact in unremarkable ways. By this, I mean that conversations occur between humans and robots just as conversations occur between humans. Almost no distinction is made between these characters with a few exceptions. Even the robots are occasionally prone to making socially awkward comments or to behaving in socially inappropriate ways. For example, the robot Pint Size has a range of topics and a point of view that is slightly askew from that of the human characters (comic #660).

660 musical instruments and sexism

Most often, Pint Size verges on sexual harrassment, of both humans and other robots. Although this happens rarely, Pint Size behaves in ways that make a few individual comic strips NSFW.

How do we perceive comics like Questionable Content? Do we think of them as outlandish, futuristic, inflected ever so subtly by science fiction? Does it count as a comic that manages to achieve a strong sense of the everyday, the very essence of the quotidian?

About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

3 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    Is there any backstory explaining the presence of the robots?

    I think that there is a very broad question here regarding how we interpret comics generally when they go off the ‘realistic’ rails. I am struggling with similar issues in terms of how to understand John Byrne’s run(s) on The Sensational She-Hulk, which is chock-full of metafictional fourth-wall-breakage and strange abilities (such as traveling between dimensions by tearing holes in the page). The interesting question there is how to interpret these stories vis-a-vis the (in a certain sense) more realistic Marvel titles such as the Avengers where the She-Hulk also appears. Are the metafictional stories merely imaginary? If not, does the She-Hulk also have these strange abilities when appearing in the Avengers comics, and just choose not to use them?

    Your question seems to be similar, although not exactly the same. How should we interpret the presence of these robots in a strip that, in every other respect, signals us to interpret it as a slice-of-life, realistic, everyday strip? Your comparison to Friends is apt – how would the audience have responded if Joey suddenly discovered he could fly? They would probably have written it off as a dream sequence or something. But we don’t seem to do the same thing with comics. On the contrary, we seem to accept and even expect such occasional departures from ‘realism’ in even the most realistic comics.

    I think this is telling us something really, really important about comics (but I am still trying to figure out exactly what that is). Many authors (myself included!) have emphasized the ‘self-referentiality’ or ‘metafictionality’ of comics, but I think your question involves something broader than these terms suggest. There is nothing metafictional about the presence of robots in questionable content (at least, not in the overt, obvious sense that The Sensational She-Hulk is metafictional). But there is a sharp subversion of expectations. Comics seem to encourage, if not outright require, that expectations occasionally be up-ended in this way. Perhaps it has something to do with the tensions inherent in the word-image marriage, but perhaps not.

    Great question – I am hoping that there will be a Part III (or more) to this series!

  2. I’m sure there is a robot backstory of some kind, but I can’t remember off the top of my head. One thing I can say is that one of the humans (Hannelore) spent much of her growing-up years on a space station, being raised by her scientist father and the artificial intelligence that occupies (possesses?) the station itself. Sometimes Hannelore’s expectations of the everyday clash with those of her friends, sometimes leading to hilarity.

    I hadn’t thought about metafiction at all, so I appreciate your point here about She-Hulk. These narrative devices (robots, characters ripping the very pages of the comic they appear in) are somehow very different from similar devices in other media. If Joey in Friends learned how to fly, it would definitely be a dream sequence and the story arc would end with a joke about his intelligence and/or his looks.

    Thanks for the insight, Roy! I think we’ve got more work to do on this.

  3. […] way characters manage their everyday lives vis-à-vis the danger of bombings in one instance and in interactions with robots in the other. But how do we read this comic…this story about a birthday party for a ghost? To […]

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