Last summer, I did a couple of Q&As with some of my favorite web comics artists, Danielle Corsetto of Girls With Slingshots and Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content. Specifically, I was interested in how both of them planned to handle the somewhat arrested developments of their main characters, writer-cum-liquor-store employee Hazel in Girls With Slingshots, and low-level librarian Marten Reed in Questionable Content.
At the time, Corsetto said that “Most of the horrible things that happen to my characters are a means of developing themselves for their audience. I mean, I’m sure that in their off-panel lives they’re laughing, crying, getting into trouble, and having life-changing moments, but those moments aren’t disclosed in the comic until you’ve been thoroughly acquainted with the characters. When you meet someone for the first time, you generally don’t know much about them until they’re made vulnerable in a situation.” And Jeph explained that:
A lot of it is based on who I was in my twenties, and the Northampton folks I know who are that age now. When you’re living in a college town and all you’ve got is a liberal arts degree, you’re pretty much gonna take whatever job you can get that pays the bills and isn’t too demanding. I think the philosophy is that working a job that is relatively low-responsibility and low-committment gives you more time and energy to focus on the stuff you REALLY care about. That’s certainly how I felt about it when I was 23! But I also think that is a bit of an illusion and a trap that you can get caught in. Even if it’s a low commitment job, you’re still giving it hours and days and months and years of your time — suddenly you’re 25, or 29, and you haven’t really “done anything” with your life, and you’re not entirely sure how that happened. And that’s something I’m planning on exploring more in the relatively near future, with Marten in particular.
I bring this up now because I think both comics have done a particularly impressive job moving their characters forward in the past year. In Girls With Slingshots, Hazel’s come up against one of the most common and painful dilemmas of your twenties: the end stages of a relationship where the parties love each other deeply but are fundamentally incompatible. Corsetto’s done a lovely job of inverting the standard emotional lineup here (and to a certain extent, upending the Judd Apatovian vision of dude slackers), making Hazel the irresponsible, undirected, uncommunicative half of the couple. Zach knows he wants to get married, he’s moved into a place he’d like to share with Hazel but only if she’s willing to accept the emotional attachment that, for Zach, comes with that step. He may not have a fancy career plan, but he has a solid one, building up revenue from his taxi business and considering expanding it. Hazel, by contrast, is letting her writing talent languish, whether out of fear or laziness. She’s not contributing much to her site with Thea, working instead at a liquor store, a dead-end choice that fuels her increasingly worrisome drinking habit. I’ve been impressed with how unlikable Corsetto’s been willing to make Hazel, and how painful she’s managed to make Hazel and Zach’s breakup within the context of a fundamentally funny, warm comic. Hazel is someone who doesn’t absorb new information or change easily, and it takes confidence in the comic to upend its tone and dynamics to make the prospect of Hazel’s evolution feel realistic and deeply necessary.
Jacques has taken a somewhat lighter hand with Marten, whose flaws are perhaps less pronounced than Hazel’s, but whose inertia is impressive. A recent arc in which Marten is forced to give the Smif library’s new interns an orientation tour revealed, in a funny and sympathetic way, how much he’s learned, and how much he doesn’t actually know about what he’s doing. While Corsetto’s tackled a well-documented facet of a lot of people’s twenties, Jacques is taking on one of the big secrets: that it can take a really long time to figure out what you like doing, what you’re good at, and the even narrower subset of things that overlap those two disparate categories. It’s a process that often involves compromise, and definitely involves courage when you decide to change course.
To a certain extent, I’ve grown up with Hazel and Marten—I started out younger than both of them, and have grown past them as time moves faster in the real world than in the strips. It’s been a real privilege to have Corsetto and Jacques tell stories about people my age that are as good as these. And television networks looking for the next great show about twenty-somethings could do worse than to consider adapting these wonderful, evolving stories.