Friday, February 27, 2015

Manic Pixies, Questionable Content, and Going Hungry on Slices of Life

So I got into a discussion about QC the other day. Save for Penny Arcade, it's the comic I have been reading the longest. In college I binged the first half or so of the comic in about two days, and I've kept reading since, only ever falling about a month behind when I forget stuff. But when Grace asks me why, I never have a good answer. Now that I think about it, it's really a hate-read situation.

"Why the hate?" A friend asked. The drama between Martin and Faye, and later, Martin and Dora, really drove the comic. We knew these characters, and their conversations frequently had this Cards Against Humanity bent (often thanks to Pintsize). It really was Questionable Content, on occasion. But now the comic's range seems to span from mopey to precious. It got soft. And right on her cue, another friend brought up Hannelore.

Oh Hannelore. Harbinger of the QC's decline. Well. That's not fair. It's actually patently inaccurate. Jeph's faithful love her. They eat her up. They can't get enough of dear Hanners, which is why most of the cast is now are neurotic, quirky injenues. So I am in the minority.

The character who first appeared in the comic, this chain-smoking, intense, Lisbeth Salander-esque chick who was stalking Martin, without any romantic intent was compelling. Ah! A breath of fresh air from romantic pursuits! It was also kind of scary and kind of weird. Conflict. Intrigue. It's exactly what the comic doesn't have any more. Her transformation into a precious, nervous-wreck who rattles off phobias with endearingly eccentric behavior that is supposed to represent social awkwardness was a mark of a change in tone.

It's like Jeph made the exact opposite of the character he intended to write and draw, tried again, and liked his second attempt so much that the comic has slowly started to revolve around her archetype; the platonic manic pixie dream girl. That was the beginning of backing away from urgency, controversy and snark, but also the point where it really found it's audience.

On a conceptual level, I do not have a problem with MPDGs; from Holly Golightly to Ramona Flowers, there have been some fun, bad-ass manic pixies. But they usually had a goal, and the aimless MPDG has become a fucking zeigeist. Zooey Deschanel did a number on us.

Rather, everybody got really nice, and fascinating shit stopped happening. The space station arc was kind of fun, but there was never anything at risk. I think the characters I have the most problems with, Martin and most of his platonic pixies, are the ones who seem content to not get their shit together. To be comfortable with the lack of any goal or drive. I think that's why it has felt like there was a good 3 to 4 years where NOTHING HAPPENED. The last arc has been better, thanks to Faye having a life-threatening problem, and Dora reacting to it like an actual human being (always happy to see Penelope popping in too).

So husband of Hanner lover, one of my best friends, asked, "What's wrong with nothing happening?" My eye twitched a little.

I need something to happen in a story, and that something has to mean something, or mean nothing in a way that moves the reader. It doesn't have to involve gunfights, or warp drives, or motherfucking sorcerers (though almost all of my stories go that way). People don't even have to be assholes, or dying, but there needs to be an agenda. Slice of life played perfectly straight always leaves me hangry.

The closest thing to sliced life I can enjoy is a sitcom like Seinfeld, HIMYM, or Friends. Seinfeld was famously billed as the show about nothing. But each episode is this weird, awesomely circular comedy led by four assholes with very distinctive characters. Jerry is a shallow smartass. Kramer is a spastic eccentric. George is a nebbish sadsack. Elaine is a neurotic bitch. They are all selfish, but each in their own way. There is very little in the way of macro-plot or continuity. Arrested Development takes this to the next level, because the show is actually hyper-plotted, but nothing ever ends up changing, despite deeply self-referential continuity.

A bunch of people hanging out in a coffee shop with no real direction and no tension between them bores me. Maybe it could work with stronger jokes; I realized I just described the first couple seasons of Friends. And that sounds alright in real-life; a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But I don't go to fiction for real life. I go to it for something more focused and saturated with meaning. The really weird thing is that QC is very moralistic, but the hyper liberal millennial opinions (opinions I share, by the way,) are presented without conflict or rebuttal. Older generations take exception to our politics and we have to deal with it. Many other millennials have issues with some of these issues.

So far, Claire is the perfect example of this frustration. Trans acceptance is like the next big civil rights frontier. Trans is a fraught, ambiguous term: I'm not even clear on what Claire means by "trans." Is she a post-op, and if so, was it by decision or was she sex-ambiguous at birth? How does she feel about that distinction? In QC land, everyone is super supportive and cool with it. That fumbles an issue deserving serious discussion, and Jeph's platform is big enough to make that discussion matter. I think being progressive entails more than being agreeable towards people who are marginalized.

So much of the QC has been reduced to Jeph introducing kawaii westernized waifus with "issues" that are actually just flavors. It's like this weird, politically correct, platonic harem. Hell, I think that was actually the punchline to a comic about 5 years ago. Somewhere along the way, that self-awareness was lost.

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