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When familiarity breeds empathy

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Top9QCbunchWebcomics are part of my morning ritual. The first thing I do when I open my browser, before even checking e-mail or facebook, is check for new installments. Over the years, various webcomics have come and gone, but one in particular has been a fixture for years and years: Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content.

Questionable Content chronicles the lives of aimless twenty-something Marten and his friends. It takes place in a slightly warped (or maybe future) version of the word. Marten has a companion robot, Pintsize, who mostly makes dick-jokes. Occasionally other futuristic elements make an appearance. QC is often funny, but many of the comics don’t have a punchline or joke, and instead focus on longer story lines.

On such storyline has been making me anxious lately. It crept up on me, really. It wasn’t until comic 2875, posted a few weeks ago, that I realized just how worried I was. Yes, truly worried – for a fictional character. For Faye.

Faye is one of Marten’s friends, and formerly a love interest. She’s one of the core characters: she was introduced all the way back in the third ever comic. And while Faye has always had a tendency to use alcohol as a coping mechanism, I had filed that away as a character quirk. A source of drunken humor. Somehow I’d even managed to forget that her alcohol abuse had come up in therapy, and that her dad had been an alcoholic.

Probably, this was at least in part because I empathize with Faye. I’ve been known to drink a bit too much after a stressful day, after all, and framing that as a problem seemed over the top. But in comic 2875, Faye did something I’ve never done: she took a swig of bourbon in the morning, just after waking up. In 2878, she made it worse, drinking sneakily at work. Things didn’t improve from there. It was a bit strange, realizing I was truly worried for a character in what I’d always considered to be somewhat shallow, quick entertainment.

Is it that strange, though? After all, Marten, Faye, Dora and the rest have been daily companions for years. Roger Ebert once referred to movies as “a machine that generated empathy”. Webcomics may not have some tools the movies have – the ability to use swelling violins and close-ups on an actors face, for example – but they have one weapon in their arsenal that movies don’t: familiarity, the kind that you can only achieve by checking in with characters over and over, a few times a week for years on end.

With Questionable Content, Jeph Jacques has created such an empathy machine. He knows how to use it as a tool in his storyteller’s arsenal: comic 2893 would not have been able to generate such suspense if the audience wasn’t rooting for Faye to make it.

What I admire about Jeph is the also uses this familiarity to let us empathize with characters we don’t often see. Female nerd Marigold, for instance, or Hannelore, who has OCD. But also, in what’s been a quietly radical storyline percolating at the same time as that of Faye’s alcoholism, Claire and her budding relationship with Marten.

We were first introduced to Claire as just a girl, a somewhat shy redhead, one of the interns at the library where Marten works, who maybe took her internship a little too seriously. Over a hundred comics later, once we’d gotten to know her, she came out to Marten as trans. And in the past few months, they’ve tentatively started dating.

To many people on the QC subreddit and elsewhere, this courtship raises a question: what, exactly, does Claire have between her legs? But Jeph has made it clear that he is not going to provide an answer. In a climate where much of the debate surrounding transgender people is still focused on prurient curiosity about genitalia, that’s refreshing. And by not addressing it, he forces his audience to see Claire as a person first and foremost.

I’m not always as interested in Questionable Content. Like all long-running series, there are fallow periods. Sometimes reading it feels like routine more than anything. But the characters endure, and due to their familiarity, their stories can have a bigger impact than you would expect.

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