Questioning your life is adulthood, Lisa. [...] And I think that's "why we're here." To learn the right questions to ask.
Sara Kim (née Velte), a serious, introspective college freshman, settles into her dorm while reflecting on her recent change of surname, her uncertainty about which medium she wishes to pursue an acting career in, and what sort of woman she wants to be with. Her queer sexual orientation is the only thing in her life she's sure about. Interrupting her reverie is her roommate and high school friend Lisa Winklemeyer, her impulsive, hyperkinetic and silly foil, who nonetheless admits that she too is uncertain about what college will bring.
On that note, the two of them head off to their residence floor orientation. As everyone takes turns introducing themselves—revealing a mix of sexual orientations as well as a refusal by some (including Lisa) to label themselves—Sara attempts unsuccessfully to flirt with Temperance, a vulnerable-looking woman who starts to talk about her "home life" but breaks off. Hank, the intense, brooding and somewhat sarcastic student resident assistant for the floor, outlines the dorm rules, only for Lisa to mock him, bringing the meeting to an abrupt end.
Feeling badly for Hank, Sara asks him for advice on how to start the year off right, and he gratefully obliges at length. Later that day, however, Lisa reveals the reason she was rude to Hank: she'd looked him up online and found that he'd posted negative comments about the school's Lambda League (an LGBT
student organization); also, that he seemed to turn colder as floormates began to speak of their bisexuality. The next day, as Sara and Lisa encounter Hank again, Sara tests him by asking him to direct her to the Lambda office. He advises against going, but not for the reason Sara and Lisa expect: he feels the organization generates "too little" drama.
As the two of them tour the campus to find their classes, Lisa notices Sara overtly checking out every attractive woman she sees, and cautions Sara about her past tendency to fall instantly head over heels for girls in rapid succession. Sara assures her she's not going to be like that anymore, but then immediately excuses herself to chase after the cheerful, somewhat ditzy Fiona Ziegfried. The exasperated Lisa returns alone to her dorm, only to overhear Hank, on the phone with his mother, saying that he'll never come back to his hometown because everyone there tries to ignore or cover up the murder of a guy close to him. Lisa abruptly shifts from disliking Hank to crushing on him.
The next morning, Lisa, Sara and Fiona head off to their first classes. The first lecture of Sara's modern philosophy course, on René Descartes's method of doubting everything in order to establish what's real, perplexes her in that it causes her to wonder "What's the point?" and to feel an inner nothingness. In contrast, Lisa, with her love of memes and other creative uses of language, spends her first linguistics lecture in ecstasy. She also takes instantly to her afternoon creative writing class, writing a short story about a romance between two gay men in Dachau, one of whom she secretly pictures as Hank. Sara, however, experiences complete writing block and feels the nothingness continuing to spread within her.
That evening, Sara asks Fiona to a movie, and afterwards gathers up the courage to take her hand and invite her back to her room. Fiona accepts, but then suggests they double date sometime, throwing Sara off, as she can't get a handle on whether Fiona is interested in her romantically, or indeed is interested in women at all.
Meanwhile, Lisa, still mooning over Hank, drops by her dorm lounge and finds him there. Playing it cool, she apologizes to him for her earlier rudeness and, convinced he likes her, later rushes off giddily, while leaving her story behind. When she returns to pick it up, she discovers him reading it and runs out in panic, sure that he'll recognize himself in the story and consider her sick. At that very moment, her phone rings and she has a tense conversation with Stan, her high school friend with benefits, attending college elsewhere. When Stan calls himself her boyfriend (after they'd agreed from the start not to get that close), but then subsequently asks if it's okay for him to flirt and possibly hook up with girls at a rush party he's attending, this upsets Lisa further, and she lashes out at him. She then apologizes and says goodbye, sensing this will effectively be their last conversation.
Later, Sara returns to her room to vent her frustration to Lisa over not knowing where she stands with Fiona. Lisa, who's been crying into her pillow, abruptly suggests they put on "slutastic" clothes and go to a rush party of their own, presumably to get laid. However, the party they choose at random turns out, much to their embarassment, to be that of Lambda Alpha Zeta, an exclusively-lesbian women's fraternity. Sara, taken with the fervent discussion of queer issues, feels immediately at home, while Lisa chats up and flirts with an upperclassman sister. However, Sara accidentally lets slip to Leah, one of the chapter leaders, that Lisa has (as she thinks) a boyfriend. Leah glowers in Lisa's direction, then, with a false smile, hands her a copy of the LAZ charter and, suggesting she read it over, ushers her out of the building. She then lies to Sara that Lisa had left on her own initiative after being "turned off" by LAZ's political nature.
Sara's feeling of elation turns to one of inadequacy and stupidity when she finds it difficult to follow some of the more intellectual conversations going on. However, as the party breaks up, Leah assures her that she'll be okay, and Sara, seeing Leah as a mentor, returns to her dorm now crushing on her. Later that night, she wakes from a combination nightmare and erotic dream about Leah to find a pair of men's underwear on her bed. Above her, a pre-operative Québecois transgender woman, Chrissie, awakens in confusion and flees the room in panic and anger with herself and with Lisa, who tries in vain to comfort her.
The next morning, Sara, noticing Lisa sleeping late, wakes her and asks her about the previous night. Lisa volunteers only that she'd picked her up on her way back to the dorm, and that Chrissie has "issues"; otherwise, she seems unconcerned and even cavalier about the incident. Seeing that Lisa is apparently intent on staying in bed, Sara senses something's wrong, but leaves for class without comment.
Hank comes by to return Lisa's story and, hearing no response to his knock, enters the room, only to be caught off guard when Lisa wakes up and asks him sullenly what he thought of it. He says that the scene in which Dr. Josef Mengele prevents a Jewish woman prisoner from covering herself made him concerned that she'd suffered sexual abuse in the past. She says she wishes
that were the case because then she'd feel she'd have a legitimate reason to feel depressed, when in fact she knows she's had an easy life. Hank's initial response is irritation, as he takes her for just another sheltered, naive frosh. While not denying this, Lisa tells him the full story of what happened with Chrissie.
Upset over being kicked out of LAZ on top of everything else, Lisa had struck up a conversation with Chrissie and, noticing her arousal, had invited her back to her dorm. Chrissie hesitated to come in, claiming she wasn't "normal." Lisa reassured her that she could see her "bulge" right off, and found it sexy. Notwithstanding Chrissie's hesitation and discomfort, Lisa seductively talked her inside and they slept together. However, despite the mutual consent, neither partner found it enjoyable, Lisa because Chrissie was too rough and Chrissie because she was ashamed of her male genitalia, hence her later fleeing in anger and shame. This, Lisa tells Hank, makes her feel all the worse because she realizes Chrissie has far more serious problems than her, and yet she still feels badly that her usual gift for making people happy has failed her. She acknowledges that the sex she'd had with Stan had been much more playful, and hopes she can experience that again. Now feeling better, Lisa rushes off to her history of music class and finds she's missed the entire lecture. Nonetheless, she finds others eager to lend her their notes as a way of flirting with her.
Later that day, Sara, reading Descartes in the library, has an extended Imagine Spot
in which the philosopher comes to life and beats her up, while castigating her for failing to take responsibility for her own mind, instead allowing others, and her own libido, to dictate what she should be. He then tosses her, out of the cabin in which he'd written his Meditations on First Philosophy
, into the snow to die. However, Sara, as memories of her past identity struggles haunt her, manages to break back into the cabin and rough Descartes up, while reminding him he was no different from her, in following "the pack" before managing to figure things out for himself. She says acting Sartre's No Exit
had taught her "every goddamn day on Earth is a chance to define who we are." The philosopher says she's beginning to understand, and he and the cabin fade away.
At that very moment, Leah invites Sara to a study session at LAZ. While tweeting Lisa to let her know where she'll be, Sara discovers via Lisa's tweets that she hadn't left the rush party voluntarily after all and that she accuses the fraternity of biphobia. At first, Sara thinks her friend is peeved that not everyone finds her entertaining, but then reflects that in high school, that never led her to assume others were biphobic. So she confronts Leah about the previous night. Caught off guard, Leah repeats the lie she'd told Sara the previous night, but Sara no longer buys it, so Leah says she doesn't want "fauxmosexuals and experimenters" at LAZ. Seeing that she's losing Sara as a potential conquest, she turns conciliatory and suggests the two of them "go somewhere" private. Sara is momentarily tempted, but walks away, as the imaginary Descartes smiles in approval.
The next day, Lisa is saddened to see Chrissie at a distance, wearing a trenchcoat in warm weather, presumably to hide her body. Meanwhile, Sara finally establishes that Fiona isn't interested in women (although her sister is), but Sara's content to be just friends. Later, back in their room, she and Lisa discuss adulthood as they choke down their shared first beer.
- Ambiguously QUILTBAG: Hank and Fiona. Campbell eventually confirmed on the comic's Facebook page and forum, what most readers had suspected: that Hank is gay, while a strip toward the chapter's end confirmed that Fiona is straight.
- Arc Words
- "Question/Questioning," in line with the chapter's Letter Motif title. Used here in the sense of questioning not only one's sexuality, but also other aspects of one's life.
- "Nothing" is a recurring keyword in Sara's plotline.
- Ascended Meme: When Lisa and Sara's floor are making introductions, Lisa makes a joke about her detached head walking on her pigtails like a spider, a frequent gag in fanart.
- Bi the Way: Lisa. She mainly likes guys, but doesn't rule girls out. She does, however, refuse to categorize herself.
Fuck all fuck-labels!
- Cannot Tell a Joke: Sara shows hints of this here.
- Caught with Your Pants Down: On their first night in the dorm, Lisa, assuming that Sara's asleep, has phone sex with Stan. In fact, Sara's awake, and more than a little weirded out.
- Conspicuous Trenchcoat: Lisa spots Chrissie wearing a trenchcoat in warm weather, ostensibly due to her severe gender dysphoria, which their recent sexual encounter had exacerbated.
- Contest Winner Cameo: For the two-strip sequence in which Sara's and Lisa's dorm neighbours introduce themselves during a floor meeting, Campbell invited readers to submit their first names, along with a photo and self-description, from which he and Waltrip created composite characters.
- *Cough* Snark *Cough*: Discussed by Emma with regard to her sorority sister Uma's use of the trope.
Emma: So all the moves the current [U.S. presidential] administration has made—
Uma: *Coughwhilenotfullysupportinggaymarriagecough* [...]
Emma: The coughing joke doesn't really work if you put too many words in there.
- Discretion Shot: In the strip where Lisa and Chrissie have sex, the art style shifts abruptly in the last panel from realistic, partially-nude depictions of the two characters to an abstract expressionist representation of their skin colours, as well as strands of Lisa's hair and the colours of the bedsheets and the wall. This is done not so much for reasons of censorship as it is for dramatic purposes, in order to convey the ambiguous and problematic nature of the experience for both characters.
- Expy: Vitriolic Best Buds Uma and Emma of LAZ are thinly-veiled versions of Sara's high school friends Penny (long blonde hair, quick temper) and Aggie (medium-length, asymmetrical, odd-coloured hair, Deadpan Snarker). Sara lampshades this by commenting, as she watches them argue, "I didn't realize how much I missed this."
- Imagine Spot: Sara has an extended one, in which she tussles with Descartes and thereby learns to start thinking for herself.
- Internalized Categorism: Chrissie, a trans woman, is ashamed of her penis. She also hates herself for repeatedly being attracted to, and having penetrative sex with, women.
- Ironic Echo: Leah talks about wishing she had managed her conflicts better in her previous year of college. One passive-aggressive booting out of Lisa and one badly mismanaged conversation with Sara later, it's obvious she still hasn't learned how.
- Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Both main characters have this problem. In Sara's case, it's her main weakness. She not only crushes on women in rapid succession, but idealizes nearly every object of her crush as Ms. Right. As for Lisa, a bad phone call with Stan led her to actively try and find what she hoped to be a guilt-free lay to get over it...leading her to an encounter with Chrissie that both individuals have been shown to have regretted almost immediately.
- Lovable Alpha Bitch: Penny, in a Flashback where Sara comes out to her in sophomore year and struggles with what to call herself: "Sara, your friends aren't going to abandon you for picking the wrong label. Unless that label is Kohl's, but that goes without saying."
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Deconstructed. When Lisa discovers that this trait of hers doesn't work on everyone in all situations, indeed backfires miserably in Chrissie's case, she falls into a funk.
I thought if nothing else, I could make other people smile. That's the one thing I always had. But that girl I was with last night...when it was over, she hated herself more than before. And me, too.
- Meaningful Rename: Sara's inner monologue, in the first two strips, reveals that shortly before entering college she legally changed her last name from "Velte" to "Kim." The name change in itself was due to the libellous "lesbian rape" viral video (see here for background) that has dogged her since early junior year of high school. She chose "Kim," rather than her mother Iseul's last name "Kwan," as an "extra reminder" to Iseul that she's her own person.
- Memetic Mutation: In-universe, Lisa invokes this by creating, and attempting to spread, new memes. She films herself "ducking" (a novel combination of Duck Face and owling), and refers to her creative writing class as "cree-wri," predicting it'll catch on.
- My Beloved Smother: Iseul, though she genuinely loves Sara, shows elements of this trope. When she and her husband Theo first take her to campus, Iseul reminds her that she "can always come home." She also gets in a dig at Sara's lesbianism, something which Sara notes occurs once in every conversation with her.
- Nightmare Sequence: Sara has one within a single strip. As she ages instantly from childhood to mid-adolescence, a pixellated mass she calls "the Nothing"—here a previously-seen visual metaphor for the emptiness she feels inside—pursues her at the beach and enters her. The dream briefly turns erotic as her latest crush, Leah, seduces her at her current age. Then it abruptly transitions into a "Not Wearing Pants" Dream when Sara is suddenly in class, wearing "underwear" (actually the skimpy outfit Lisa pushed her to wear the night before) and everyone laughing at her. She's actually woken up when someone else's underwear falls on her bunk.
- No Bisexuals: Obviously averted with Lisa, but Leah of the LAZ sorority believes this, to the point that she passive-aggressively forces Lisa out after hearing she has a boyfriend, assuming she's just "playing."
- Panty Shot: Lisa gets quite a lot of propulsion on her skirt for simply hopping off the top bunk.
- Sad Clown / Stepford Snarker: Lisa's main weakness. She has trouble admitting to others, and to some extent even to herself, when she's miserable and masks it both by ramping up her Genki Girl tendencies and through snarking.
- Sexiled: Subverted twice.
- On their first night in their dorm, Lisa has phone sex with Stan, without notifying Sara beforehand, having simply assumed Sara was asleep. The next day, the two of them agree to add phone sex and "quickies" to their roommate agreement.
- Two nights later, Lisa brings Chrissie back to the dorm to sleep with her. The next morning, she apologizes to Sara (who'd overheard Chrissie waking up and momentarily feared for her life, due to the strange voice) for not hanging a sock on the door. She'd assumed that Sara had hooked up with someone from the rush party and therefore wouldn't be back that night.
- She Is Not My Girlfriend: Gender-flipped version with Lisa, who, in talking to her FWB Stan, is adamant that he not call himself her boyfriend, so as to keep their relationship commitment-free and thus heartbreak-free. Nevertheless, Stan's wish, in the same conversation, to be free to hook up with another girl at a rush party clearly hits a sore spot with Lisa, as she lashes out at him again and, after hanging up with the feeling it's over between them, goes back to her room to cry. Furthermore, when reminiscing to Hank the next morning about how good sex with Stan was, she catches herself using the word "boyfriend" and quickly amends it to "partner." Also, Sara, when speaking to others about Lisa out of her earshot, twice refers to Stan as Lisa's boyfriend.
- Snow Means Death: Descartes throws Sara out into a blizzard, telling her, "You deserve the snow. Hypothermia. Non-existence." In addition to a figurative way of saying that if she won't use her mind, she may as well not exist ("You cannot think," he tells her, "[therefore y]ou cannot be"), this is an allusion to the historical Descartes's death from pneumonia, contracted during exposure to a harsh Swedish winter.
- A Tankard of Moose Urine: How beer tastes to first-time drinkers Sara and Lisa.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: LAZ sisters Uma and Emma engage in constant, heated political arguments yet, according to Campbell, are good friends.
- Webcomic Time: The chapter, which covers about five days in the characters' lives, ran for six months.
- What Did I Do Last Night?: Played for Drama with Lisa's casual bedmate Chrissie, who wakes in a panic because she's a male-to-female pre-operative trans person who's sufficiently confused in her identity that she keeps having penetrative sexual intercourse and subsequently regretting it.
- Wheel o' Feet: Lisa as she dodges thunderclouds of doom.