Homestuck in review: The Internet’s first masterpiece
Andrew Hussie’s maximalist epic was new art for a new age
It has been six months since Homestuck ended.
On April 13th, Andrew Hussie’s wildly ambitious and undeniably impressive webcomic finally (finally!) reached a conclusion, seven years to the day since it began. Though epilogues and a tie-in game are promised, now seems the only time to do to Homestuck what must be done on the Internet to all media: let’s write a review.
What is Homestuck?
That can be a tricky question. For those who weren’t fans, the Homestuck phenomenon has been perplexing at best, and at times infuriating. If you’ve been to anime conventions in the past five years, you’ve seen hundreds of eager Homestuck cosplayers, but despite common misconceptions, it isn’t an anime. In 2012, it made headlines when the video game tie-in raised 2.5 million dollars on Kickstarter, but it’s not a video game (at least most of the time.) It provokes strong reactions: Homestuck’s been called “The Internet’s Ulysses,” but also, after its finale, “a piece of shit that finally got flushed.”
If you ask a fan, you get a flood of enthusiastic nonsense: It’s… well, it’s a webcomic, but sometimes it’s more like an old-school text-based roleplaying game. It’s about a group of kids who are playing that game, and also cause the end of the world…. It’s about growing up, but there’s also time travel, and of course we can’t forget about the alien trolls! and there’s like, complex four-dimensional romance! and really touching moments, and surrealhumor, and so many callbacks, self-references, and running jokes I don’t know what it’s even about except for itself, I mean, the author appears as a character, and then gets killed, and the fourth wall isn’t just broken: fourth walls are a tool used by the characters to travel from the… well, see there are lots of universes, and dream universes-
Okay. Fine. The intense passion of Homestuck fans has become a meme in itself. The only way to be introduced to Homestuck and not immediately get overwhelmed is to start at the beginning.
Homestuck is a webcomic by Andrew Hussie, who has kept most biographic details private. He looks like this. He was born in 1979 (maybe.) At one point he studied computer science. He (probably) lives in Western Massachusetts. Besides his webcomics, he’s best known for a series of absurdist Star Trek: The Next Generation video edits.
In the mid-2000s, he put his first comics online, mostly one-offs of bizarre and horrifying scenarios.
Hussie’s juvenilia is the sort of vaguely disturbing yet remarkably creative content one often came across in that early Internet, after we all got access to the web but before huge social networks were there to regulate it. Most infamous is the “Humanimals” series, a sort of office comedy where the characters get more grotesquely sexual as the scenarios get more inane. If you look hard enough, you can find the roots of his later style in these early works; he already had a knack for blurring the lines between parody and sincerity until both angles are uncomfortable, and it’s clear he enjoyed messing with his audience from the start.
However, taken less charitably, his early comics never rise above shock humor. They can be somewhat offensive (his comics and writing were under the name “Team Special Olympics,” or “S_O” for short) and fans of Homestuck sometimes had negative reactions when his early work is rediscovered. On Hussie’s part, he’s claimed he still finds them hilarious.
In 2006, Hussie began a game with visitors to his website, who had mostly been recruited from the forums of long-running webcomic Penny Arcade. He started drawing mockups of a game in the style of ’80s text-based adventures: basic graphics, some obvious clues, and a running narration in the captions. Instead of a clunky program parsing the player’s commands, though, Hussie would act as dungeon master. Each time a new panel was posted in the thread, the next person to comment would see their command acted out in-game.
Hussie’s forum-goers shared his sarcastic sense of humor: the first panel showed a stick figure in jail, next to a large key, with the caption “There is nothing at all in your cell, useful or otherwise.” The first command given was “Attempt to pry open window.”
This would become Jailbreak, his first structured webcomic, and would prompt him to change his site’s name to MS Paint Adventures, dedicated to adventure games nominally scribbled in Microsoft Paint (though they’ve always been done in Photoshop.) After Jailbreak’s brief run, he posted Bard Quest on the new site. This was a real game: unlike the single narrative of Jailbreak chosen by the forum, Bard Quest has multiple options on each screen, so the readers can play out different storylines by themselves.
But Bard Quest isn’t nearly as much fun to play as Jailbreak is to read; perhaps planning stories out in advance boxed in Hussie’s creativity, or the collaborative spirit of the forum game was the secret to his style. The webcomic was abandoned after about a month in the summer of 2007, and Hussie announced the site would shut down indefinitely. He stayed away until the following spring.
In March of 2008, Hussie returned with another crudely drawn figure trapped in a room, and another fake game, with all commands taken from the forum. Problem Sleuth, the game that put Andrew Hussie on the map, kept Jailbreak’s format, but it was soon clear the author was taking this story much, much more seriously.
In Jailbreak, Hussie had messed with his forum-goers by arbitrarily altering the rules of his game’s reality. When they asked to examine the pumpkin in the cell, he just wrote “What pumpkin?” and redrew the room with no pumpkin in it, reassuring them it had never been there. (“What Pumpkin” is now the name of Hussie’s media company, and a running joke throughout his works.) In this game, when they asked the Problem Sleuth to grab his gun, Hussie redrew the scene with a key, and insisted it had always been a key on the table.
But when they reached for the key, suddenly the character was cradling his gun. Putting it back in the inventory, it was a key. When they tried using the key on the door, he shot the doorknob off. Each time the object was used, it switched properties. This wasn’t a cheap joke.
This game’s sense of humor had rules.
When they tried opening a window, the window fell right off the wall, revealing it to be a fake with a safe behind it — even though they’d already thrown objects through the window, and yelled at the people outside. This was a moment of surreal humor, but it was also a clue. Like many old adventure games, Problem Sleuth features complicated object-based puzzles, and readers were soon trying to tie objects inside the room to ones outside, then move the window, or climb through the window, or most terrifyingly, push one dimension-defying open window through another.
The more demented Problem Sleuth’s physics got, the further Hussie pushed their limits. One item in game is a telescope that doesn’t magnify the objects behind it, but physically makes them larger; when readers realized they could reach through the telescope, it became considerably more useful. Another is a corset that can squeeze any objects into it: overloading the corset created a black hole, and Hussie deftly mixed technical information on Hawking radiation into his increasingly cosmic narrative. The plot sprawled, abandoning the noir conceit for a galactic-scaled epic. By the end of its run, some Problem Sleuth updates were just maps of the universe (well, universes) where the story took place, so readers could keep up.
The artwork had also drastically improved. Hussie started incorporating animation into his story, and though his art style remains based in simple drawings and copying and pasting, he’d remixed these doodles into legitimately exciting art.
This is, perhaps, the hardest thing to believe about Problem Sleuth: it was good. It wasn’t just creative or interesting, a pure experiment in form. It’s exciting, and fun to read, with no clear division between the story and its own self-parody, the text and the commentary on the text. Absurd humor and twisted logic slid seamlessly into classic adventure; you laughed when characters were in mortal danger, and cheered when they used a bust of Snoop Dogg to escape. It was simultaneously utter nonsense and took itself completely seriously, and both aspects worked.
While Jailbreak had taken a little over a hundred pages, Problem Sleuth would break a thousand. When it began, it had a few hundred readers from Hussie’s forums. It ended exactly one year after it began, on March 10th, 2009, with hundreds of thousands of fans.
(By the way, I was one of them; I finished Problem Sleuth just after it had ended, and saw the first panel of Hussie’s next project already up on the website. Too mentally exhausted to start another epic from the beginning, I closed out of the first page of Homestuck and forgot about the site for over a year.)
But really, what is Homestuck?
Problem Sleuth attracted a dedicated following, but only in a very specific niche. (To illustrate: a complex Problem Sleuth-based riddle was part of the 2010 MIT Mystery Hunt.) The complexity, scientific rigor, and reference-based humor attracted intensely nerdy fans of old games and sci-fi, but the story lacked something to give it universal appeal: characters.
By Hussie’s own admission, the characters of Problem Sleuth are largely ciphers on which the action plays out, only differentiated by appearance and a few broad personality types. Most notably, there isn’t any dialogue in Problem Sleuth; all conversations are simply described by the narration. By the end of its run, it would be reasonable to assume Andrew Hussie just isn’t very good at writing characters: he’d graduated from oddball humorist to hardworking puzzlemaster, but had little talent or inclination for dialogue and emotion.
I won’t even try to describe the plot of Homestuck. Just picture the cosmic scale I described of Problem Sleuth, then imagine ten times the complexity, the rule-bending surrealism, the invented terminology and off-beat humor, but permeated throughout with characters and conversations. And the most surprising reveal of all: Andrew Hussie is very, very good at writing characters.
Hussie’s dialogue is as clever and funny as the rest of his text, but he also shows the same obsessive care towards his characters as his plots: just as the simple scenarios of Problem Sleuth spiraled into labyrinthine epics, the personality archetypes laid out in the early acts of Homestuck turn into charming, complicated characters with distinct identities and emotional arcs.
And there’s a lot of character in Homestuck. At an estimated 800,000 words, it’s one of the longest written works in the English language, and almost all of that is dialogue.
Much of it is inane. Some of it is profound. That’s a balance that holds true to real conversations, as well. (Hussie borrowed some dialogue in the beginning from his own chat conversations.) That’s how fans always seem to refer to the IM conversations in Homestuck; they’re startlingly real.
For the most part, characters don’t talk face to face, but communicate over instant messenger. There have been some feeble experiments to write chat dialogue (books like TTYL), but there’s a particular rhythm to online conversations, a way they shift in and out of deep emotion and self-referential riffing, that no author but Hussie has ever really captured. (Bryan Lee O’Malley, author of Scott Pilgrim, agrees in an excellent interview.) For kids who grew up on IM and chatrooms, the rambling cadence of Homestuck dialogue is immediately familiar. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; I was just trying to explain what Homestuck is.
One reason Homestuck fans are so off-putting is their tendency to answer “What is Homestuck?” with gibberish. Kernelsprites! Troll quadrants! The universe is a frog! All the most exciting moments depend so much on the wonky worldbuilding it can’t be summarized. You can’t compare it to similar works, either, because there are none. It’s sort of like The Secret of Monkey Island as coded by Thomas Pynchon. It’s like if House of Leaves was adapted by Monty Python, or Tristram Shandy rewritten by Franz Kafka. Maybe if Borges had written A Wrinkle in Time, but was kind of drunk at the time, and was really, really into dumb memes.
If you want to know what happens in Homestuck, the only way is to read it. Hussie seems fond of giving extremely simple summaries; his first, a “creation myth about kids in houses,” is evocative but not actually very clear. On the other hand, in a response to a fan question on his now-defunct formspring page he once said:
If asked to define it, “a story that’s also a puzzle” is as close to true as any answer I’d give.
I think that’s how I’d describe Problem Sleuth. I’ve come to describe Homestuck as “Problem Sleuth, but with real people.” Homestuck is a narrative that’s also a puzzle, that’s also wrapped around a truly emotional core. It’s a game of five-dimensional chess where you care about every pawn. On to the more interesting question:
Why is Homestuck?
Every review of Homestuck points out how much it depends on its medium. As the Atlantic called it, it clearly is “a story that could only be told online.” It’s not always clear why reviewers feel this way, though. What is it about Homestuck that ties it to the Internet? What made me call it “the Internet’s first masterpiece”? (Yes, we are getting there.)
The last panel of Problem Sleuth gives the credits: Lots of minor roles are credited to “Andrew,” but the last line simply reads “STORY: YOU.”
There are some who think the great promise of Internet art is collaboration; many voices joining together as one to produce a work that no individual could. Is that what makes Homestuck such a unique product of the internet? Did the forum allow, for the first time, a truly collective piece of story-telling?
A problem: those credits are less than accurate. In Problem Sleuth, unlike Jailbreak, Hussie didn’t take the first suggested command as his input; he picked his favorite out of all suggestions. This gave him tremendous creative control, as he explained in one of his last blog posts:
The hero approaches three doors. Which will you choose? Obviously all three doors will be suggested with a large enough pool of suggestors, plus plenty of clever non sequitur “option D” commands. Knowing this, which door the hero goes through was always up to the author, whether he pre-planned it, or merely delayed the decision until the suggestions were made.
So was Problem Sleuth’s collaborative nature just a gimmick, another joke played on the reader? Hussie’s relationship with his readers is complicated, and he has a tendency to insult his readers in and out of the comic. It was in this post he seems the most annoyed with them:
[There] will always be tension between the author and the suggestors, whose main purpose is to leave their distinctive personal stamp on the story, and as a result, often resort to the outlandish, the overly elaborate, or the non sequitur. These are fine to embrace in small doses, but they are poison to a cohesive story if resorted to regularly.
In an interview on a now-defunct blog, Hussie gives his readers more credit:
But that said, I don’t want to marginalize user input’s role in forming the story either. Some things, many things, enter the story that I just did not anticipate. Catch phrases especially seem to blossom through user commands. Things like “shit just got real”, or “punch ___ in snout to establish superiority”, or “ride ___ like mechanical bull”. All those and plenty more were originally authored by random users, who’s names I’ve long forgotten or never even knew, and unfortunately are relegated to a great pool of anonymous yet critical contributors to this story.
Still, giving readers credit for the running jokes isn’t much better. Were the complexity and worldbuilding that made Problem Sleuth so great were all Hussie’s? Were we really just stumbling through the world he had already built?
I apologize for the diversion, as in this case it doesn’t really matter: Homestuck dropped the audience submissions entirely after a few months. Music and animations were contributed by a small group of collaborators, but for the most part, Homestuck was conceived, written, and drawn by Hussie alone.
We’ll get back to this later.
Others get excited about Internet art because of the unique powers of the medium itself. Panels in Problem Sleuth were occasionally animated gifs, but Homestuck expanded its palette to include detailed Flash animations, music, and eventually, playable minigames.
This is what led popular Internet analysis blog Storming the Ivory Tower to dub Homestuck a “Hypercomic,” a “comic that can only exist within the confines of a digital environment.” To StIT’s Sam Keeper, what makes Homestuck so great is that it’s the first webcomic to take full advantage of all the different media one can display on the internet, and put those media to work in service of the story.
I’m not sure I buy it. The minigames can be interesting, but they’re rarely necessary, or the best way of furthering the story; they seem more like experiments, the story in service of the exploration of the medium. I like the animations, but in Hussie’s words, from his Kickstarter pitch:
While the story includes hours of animation, and thousands of relatively static panels, the overarching experience is actually more similar to reading a book. […] The result is an unusual media hybrid. Something that reads like a heavily illustrated novel […] It’s a story I’ve tried to make as much a pure expression of its medium as possible.
I think the animations and games are the “trying” to make it an expression of the medium. They’re an experiment; Hussie exhaustively exploring the properties of his medium the same way he exhaustively explores characters, but they aren’t why the story exists. Put another way, I think the Flash animations are there because Homestuck is on the Internet, but Homestuck wasn’t put on the Internet so it could have Flash animations.
Mordicai Knode, writer for science fiction site Tor.com, took a different tack and called Homestuck “The First Great Work of Internet Fiction” for living up to the early promise of hypertext fiction. That title sounds a lot like mine; is that what I think makes Homestuck so important?
Fiction written in hypertext has been promised since before the technology existed to support it. Hypertext (text which links to other text) is the basis of works like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which takes the shape of an epic poem and its hundreds of annotations; the annotations start to tell their own story, and to fully understand Pale Fire you need to awkwardly flip back and forth between the pages, tracking each link.
But the Web is built on hypertext, and for a time there was great hope that the technology would redefine storytelling as we know it. Futurists of the ’90s eagerly awaited the new frontier of hypertext fiction, envisioning a world where stories would no longer be linear narratives, but worlds to be explored.
That flood never came. As it turns out, authors think in single narratives, and even if they wrote many paths through a story, there was usually a preferred one. Hypertext fiction was difficult to write or read and rarely worth the trouble. Was Hussie’s achievement to finally give hypertext fiction its masterpiece?
Well, another problem: Homestuck isn’t really hypertext fiction.
Sure, each panel is a webpage connected by links, but almost every panel only has one link, and that’s to the next panel. There are only a few times a page links to outside content, or to a different point in the narrative, and it’s often for the sake of a quick joke. Even when the links start doubling back on themselves later in the story (yes, there is definitely time travel) there’s only one ending to Homestuck, and only one path to get there.
Hypertext fiction has gotten better (Failbetter Games’ Fallen London is an underrated mixture of gaming, worldbuilding, and solid prose) but it was Bard Quest’s conceit, not Homestuck’s. After all, you can buy printed copies of Homestuck with only minor alterations. What’s special about Homestuck isn’t just that it was built in HTML.
You said this was a review. How is Homestuck?
People who grew up online don’t think of the Internet as a series of hyperlinks. Clicking a link has become such a natural motion it doesn’t register as traveling from one place to the next. The Internet is just the air we live in, and acquiring information is as easy as breathing.
If you want to freak out Millennials, don’t show us old records or rotary telephones; we know enough hipsters that those objects are familiar. Tell them how hard it was to get an answer to something before the Internet. You needed to go to the library to learn facts. Read the paper all the way through to know what was going on. Most unimaginably of all, how sometimes, before the Internet, you wouldn’t know something and you just couldn’t find anyone who did; you just had to live with unanswered curiosity. That feeling of not knowing is completely alien to the current generation.
Now the ability to know is so present you can feel it behind your eyelids. When we’re curious about a restaurant, it’s an instinctive motion to pull out our phones and find the opinions of hundreds of strangers. Before, after, and during an episode of TV we’re reading reviews, commentary, live reactions and summaries. Slightly curious? About anything at all? The information you need is there, and the hyperlinking to a webpage is unconscious; it’s there immediately. It’s a fundamental part of the way we perceive the world, and even if you aren’t constantly gathering data on everything you encounter, the knowledge that you could changes the way you approach life. How have we changed?
First off, the idea that the Internet makes us only appreciate bite-sized, 140 character media is ridiculous. Millions of viewers are tuning in to Game of Thrones, the hyper-complex fantasy series that, in book form, was only stuffed into the backpacks of the highest echelon of geeks. Marvel is dominating mainstream movie-making not with standalone characters but a complicated shared universe that everyone’s trying to emulate. Most who rushed to see Captain America: Civil War didn’t see at least some of the preceding Avengers, Captain America, or Iron Man films that set up the plot, but it didn’t matter; they could just quickly check summaries of the relevant world-building before they hit the theater.
We’re all nerds, or at least we can all act like them. The rise of nerd culture isn’t an accident, it’s a structural inevitability of the way we get information. To be a nerd is to love things thoroughly, not just reading a work but diving into its fictional world, learning its history, theorizing about its rules, speculating alternate plotlines or romantic pairings. (You don’t have to love science fiction and fantasy to be a nerd, but this is why those genres are so popular with us. A novel set in the real world offers only a story. Fantasy and science fiction, despite their differences, have united nerds by promising depth, if only for those willing to ignore the real world for the time it takes to dive.)
With modern technology, everything you see has a halo of context around it, as accessible as a memory. You don’t need to remember the characters to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, as every episode will be summarized, each important plot point highlighted, even the easter eggs pointed out online before and after. Millennials don’t cultivate our knowledge like crops; we live in a jungle of abundance, and pluck information from the Web as we need.
That’s the first reason Homestuck’s been so successful; in an age when we’re all hungry for deep fiction, it promises infinite depth.
Confession: much of the time I was reading Homestuck, I didn’t completely follow what was going on. But I’m not sure anyone did; Hussie claimed that at his peak output, he never kept any notes, and even coming from the author that’s hard to believe! (His summary of the first year of Homestuck was a terse 5,500 words.) I, like everyone else, was regularly supplementing my view of the comic with visits to the forums, the wiki, the subreddit, and the endless theory-curating tumblrs.
I believe Homestuck is the first work of media intended from the beginning to be read through the perceptual filter of the Internet. It’s this support network of information that’s allowed so many different kinds of people to appreciate Homestuck from any angle they prefer. If you want Problem Sleuth-style puzzles, there’s complex riddles galore! Interested in hypothetical societies? There’s a whole alternate universe of alien trolls, with a complicated history and culture to imagine! Just want to pair your favorite characters? Affection is merely one dimension of romance available to Homestuck ‘shippers; troll culture features four ways to pair, based on the suits of playing cards, and both fans and characters in the story appreciate tabling all the ways the many characters can be aligned. Again, all of this content isn’t just interesting, but good; as weird as the ‘shipping section of the fandom may seem, Hussie’s romantic quadrants are creative and oddly intuitive. (Who among us can’t understand romantic hatred?) Instead of getting lost in Homestuck’s tangle, we travel through it as one moves through a dream: no matter how bizarre it gets, the knowledge we need is always there, as if it had been in the back of our mind all along.
TV shows and movies are still using the Internet clumsily; some bonus content is put online, the writers do a reddit AMA, but the work itself is directed at the individual. Homestuck is the first media directed at people for whom the Internet is a way of life, the constantly connected, information-rich community, rather than the individual viewer. Homestuck may not have been written by all of us, but it was written for all of us; since its beginnings as a forum game, Hussie’s writing can only be read by a team constantly supplying each other with knowledge.
Hey, that brings us back to collaboration!
What does a story told by a group of people look like? I think the Internet actually has produced a purely group-generated collaborative story: it looks like Twitch Plays Pokemon.
Twitch.tv is a video streaming site, mainly used by gamers to livestream their play while fans congregate in a linked chatroom (if watching other people play video games sounds strange to you, you now know how I feel about sports.) In 2014, an anonymous programmer launched a “social experiment:” they loaded up a game of 1996’s Pokemon Red, but the controls were in the hands of a chatbot, which pulled commands directly from the fans’ chatroom.
All of the commands. Anyone who ever typed a valid command saw the player character, “Red,” perform their action, until Red was constantly running in circles, opening and closing menus. The hilarious chaos sent the project viral, bringing hundreds of thousands of voices to drag Red helplessly around the map.
Collectively, they did manage to beat Pokemon Red (after 16 days of constant play), but something even stranger occurred along the way. Each Pokemon was given a name by the Twitch chatroom, and they’re all as coherent as you’d expect a collectively typed name to be: their first Pokemon was a Charmander named “ABBBBBBK(.” To keep things easy in chat, players started referring to it as “Abby.”
Then they gave it a gender: obviously, “Abby” was a girl’s name. Then a personality. Perhaps it’s impossible for someone to invest so much effort into a game and not get emotionally attached as well. Each Pokemon was given a collectively agreed-upon story: the Pidgeot “aaabaaajss” showed early leadership, and became “Bird Jesus,” savior of the party. That, of course, made the Zapdos “AA-j” the “Archangel of Justice” (or “John the Zaptist,” or “Battery Jesus.”) Most famously, the player constantly opened their inventory and tried to use the first item, the generally useless Helix Fossil. The commenters quickly realized that he was really consulting the Helix Fossil, which became a guide, oracle, and god all in one. The “social experiment” was no longer about beating the game: Twitch Plays Pokemon became something between a story and a religion.
Distributed between the stream itself, discussions on reddit and tumblr, and the surprisingly high-quality art coming out of Deviantart, the Twitch Plays Pokemon community had all the structure of a modern Internet fandom, just without the canon at its center. The actual events in game provided the bare minimum of story elements; the community turned every accident into an increasingly bizarre plot (peruse the wiki to see what I mean.) And the style of Twitch Plays Pokemon’s “plot,” with its complexity, off-beat humor, and cosmic scale, is oddly similar to Homestuck’s.
Didn’t I say all this was irrelevant? The fandom didn’t write Homestuck, Andrew Hussie did. As prolific as the fandom was, the story was still carried by a single person, and it was better for it; It’s hard to imagine anyone reaching the level of serious, emotional investment in Twitch Plays Pokemon that Homestuck fans were infamous for. Twitch Plays Pokemon was a fascinating mess, but not a masterpiece. (Homestuck fans did get a chance to run their own community without Hussie: he took a one-year “Gigapause,” starting in October of 2013, to plan out the final acts and bring the tangled narrative to a conclusion. It was not a great time for the community: it stagnated, many people left, and the art produced quickly descended into .)
So what did the fans do? What was our contribution? As mentioned, Hussie’s interactions with fans are often antagonistic. When he had an account on formspring, a site that lets one respond to anonymous questions, his answers ranged from detailed articulations of how he constructed a story and what he was trying to accomplish to brusque, dismissive sarcasm. He could come across as egotistic at one point, and self-deprecating to the point of self-hatred the next (e.g.) More than anything, he seemed to resent accusations that he was “trolling” his audience, that all the twists and turns in Homestuck were purely to shock his audience for his own entertainment. As he put it:
When you […] have your expectations subverted in in some way and say HUSSIE’S TROLLING US AGAIN, you sound silly. You sound like you don’t understand what trolling is, or what I’m actually doing here.
When plot developments killed off beloved characters or ruined readers’ expectations, he could lose fans. He invariably claimed this was a good thing.
I’ve been trying to shake off all of my fans so hard for so long with my every story decision, but they are all such tenacious sons of bitches. I am the mailman. You are the yappy little dog. This site is my pant cuff.
One could see his dislike of fans as an affectation; he was pouring unimaginable hours into Homestuck, and it’s difficult to believe he didn’t care if anyone read it. Given his previous work, though, it’s not that implausible. Homestuck’s fandom skewed younger than he was used to, and it flourished on Tumblr, where a culture of bottom-up social justice and call-outs of problematic behavior clashed with his irreverent, sometimes offensive sense of humor. Even with those differences aside, Hussie’s disregard for fans came before he was widely known; any earlier criticisms of Problem Sleuth had been dismissed with similar arrogance.
And, of course, he was trolling his fans. There are too many moments in Homestuck that could only be there to deliberately screw with the reader, and Hussie insisting that he definitely wasn’t a troll comes across as just another level of the joke. There are trolls who appear in the comic: first as internet trolls, then revealed as literal troll-like aliens, who divert the story right at a dramatic cliffhanger and all type in a difficult-to-read leet-speak. Hussie’s admitted to trolling to an extent:
There is a little truth to it, in the sense that creating alien kid characters who were both internet trolls, AND literal trolls could very well have been a kind of racial avatarization of my own semi-trolling tendencies as an author, which had been on display well before their appearance. Psyche-outs, cagey self referential stuff and the like, it’s all a little spunky, and I remain aware of this, and this stuff does fall into a certain class of trolling. Totally granted.
But tries to clarify:
It’s all fuel for getting readers riled up a bit, and if you read it and get this itchy, agitated feeling in the back of your mind, that sensation is called “being trolled”.
None of this should be taken literally as a head-on attempt to troll the reader. It’s just not that black and white. The purpose here is still entertainment, and humor, and advancing the plot in ways that have not become clear yet. I think in working on the troll stuff I have learned a little about my own policy toward satire. It’s never absolute. Everything I mock is always embraced in some way.
What is Hussie “actually doing here”? In an earlier question, he phrases it this way:
There is a very real component of this that resembles a huge social experiment. I’m not just putting pressure on the limits of a story’s format. I appear to be doing this with the psyche of the readership as well. I have discovered many obscure buttons which can be pushed. I am taking extensive notes.
Where am I going with this? Why is this taking so long? Why not just put in one more quote from Hussie:
The meta-saturation of the story continues to fuel my interaction with the readers, and listening/responding to them probably keeps the relationship between the narrative and the reader still feeling like it is an open channel, even though suggestions have been closed for a while.
Homestuck was not a collaboration in the way Jailbreak. We, the audience, did not contribute to the plot, and only offered up occasional names, or donated music. What we contributed, constantly, were our reactions.
Art has long been a paradoxical pursuit: it is a solitary pursuit, but one that cannot exist without an audience. The novelist must work alone, imagining a reader in her mind and trying their hardest to see their own work from other eyes. But Homestuck was written with a large, vocal fanbase constantly reacting to Hussie’s every move. He didn’t have to imagine how the reader would react; he could constantly play us like an instrument, tuning the story carefully to produce the right reaction.
This is an exercise deeply rooted in Internet trolling, but taken to the level of art. Trolls practice the ability to provoke reactions out of sadism, a desire to see someone else hurt and see the power they hold. Hussie took his work seriously, and wanted to make something emotionally engaging for its own sake — but he used the techniques of trolling to do so.
If an author on the Internet blithely ignores their fans, writes a complete work and published it without checking the reactions once, it’s no different than old media. If they constantly cater to fans and try to give everyone what they want, as so many collaborative art projects try to do, the work suffers in quality and loses its focus. It lacks any emotional weight, as each fan just wants their own happy ending. I believe Hussie hit on the secret to making engaging art in a new media age: you have to paint yourself somewhat as the enemy. You have to be kind enough to your fans that you want to make a story they’ll care about, with real meaning and real consequences, and you have to be cruel enough to want to kill their favorite characters while they cry to you about it.
In his Kickstarter pitch, Hussie wrote:
The story is really a kind of dialogue between the readers and author. There is always a sense that the story is aware of the individual reader, and the readership overall.
I think the second sentence captures it better than the first. Mutual dialogue between readers and author, endless collaboration, produces art like Twitch Plays Pokemon: fascinating, but directionless and meaningless. It is the asymmetric relationship between the author and reader that remains essential, but has been completely transformed by the Internet. The story was born of a two-part mental system: Hussie, an ego, designing the specifics of the story, and the fans, the vast collective id of Homestuck. We were a part of the collective intelligence that created this art — it could not have been made without us — but we were the part that had to be suppressed, harnessed, and defeated for it to work. That was the art of Homestuck: the art of manipulating an online community, turning the raw emotion of a crowd into usable narrative as a sculptor turns clay into a statue. I can only hope that more art is created on this model in the future.
There’s one more reason I think Homestuck is so pioneering, if not in structure, than in content. Above, I touched on how realistic Hussie’s IM conversations seem to anyone who grew up in online chatrooms. The odd thing about saying Hussie writes realistic dialogue is that his dialogue, like his artwork, is filled with callbacks, references, and copying and pasting. Different characters will have the same conversation pages later, changing only specific names. Characters talk in movie quotes, or memes. It should feel stilted and artificial.
But if it feels artificial, it’s only in the way that all communication feels artificial these days. The Internet changes how you write. Being exposed to more written text in a week than a previous generation would have seen in a year changes the way you type your messages, encouraging you to borrow phrases and styles from that which has been written before. Moreover, it’s made us all unbearably self-aware. Every moment in your life has been experienced countless times over, and those people have written at length on what it’s like to fall in love, or break up, or be hungry, or hate school, or feel alone in a crowd, and so on forever. We all borrow language to express ourselves, but now we can borrow language constantly, borrow whole phrases, memes, out of context gifs, and understand the way that everything in our lives is being experienced by everyone around us.
It’s a little too cute to say that Homestuck’s plot, with its absurdity and self-reference, is symbolic of the current generation’s journey into an absurd digital world, a future where the rules of interaction are being made up on the fly. People have found the process of growing up surreal in every era. Yet, though it may just be my bias as someone who grew up over the course of Homestuck’s run, it really does seem to capture what it’s like to be a youth today better than almost any media out there. The characters in Homestuck are suffering under the weight of their own self-awareness, as we are, but making friends, and falling in love, and growing up on the Internet, as we do.
To Millennials, almost all fiction is historical fiction. Mainstream media is drastically out of date, and depicts a world that doesn’t exist. Movies are still hitting theaters that are set in high school, but don’t feature characters constantly engrossed in their phones; heck, we’ve barely established a visual language for text messaging on screen. Books are written by an older generation, and they feature characters who do not have the perceptual filter of the Internet, the shimmering layer of context around everything they see, and thus have minds we cannot understand. Homestuck features people inundated with pop culture memetics and constantly texting back and forth; these are people we recognize. Hussie is the Internet’s hometown hero, and this is the first serious work of media for, by, and about the Internet’s children.
Jesus Christ. Holy shit. I meant like… this is supposed to be a review. How is it? Like is it any good?
Yeah, it’s alright. It’s not perfect. With a work this maximalist, there can never be a satisfying ending; Hussie replaced a fascinating, complex villain who seemed to be the ultimate antagonist of the story with another, even more powerful villain who was the real threat — three times. The pause in 2013 definitely pushed away a lot of the fanbase, and the slow pace of updates since then kept the excitement low. There’s a definite sense that Hussie was tired of the comic by the end, and while he certainly can’t be blamed for that, many fans were decidedly disappointed with the conclusion. It’s probably too confusing, and may be too socially problematic. It’s pretty good.
Here’s a funny thing about reviews: the original purpose of them, back in those bizarre and terrifying pre-Internet days, was to help people make up their minds on purchasing the media being reviewed. Movies and books and music cost money, and you needed a trusted journalist to tell you if an album was good, because you couldn’t hear it until you’d already bought it (again, an insane concept to today’s youth.) So, do I recommend Homestuck? Should you drop everything and start reading it?
You can’t. Homestuck is over, and I mean over, not just that it isn’t updating. “Homestuck,” the masterpiece, was the event, the community, the shifting pace of updates, the constant chatter between fandom and author. Homestuck is done. If you missed it, you missed it. It may still be worth reading the comic, but it won’t be Homestuck. Despite the Internet’s ability to catalog forever all pre-existing forms of art, all audio and video and text, humans have a knack for making art out of whatever can’t be preserved. Hussie was a sculptor of communities, and this community has dissipated.
So why review? Album reviews didn’t go away once people could listen to music for free. The review itself became just another layer of art, a way of expressing yourself, even if only by talking about the work of others. In this culture of endlessly abundant knowledge, where we all know nothing is original, commenting on other works is as close as we get to making something new.
I think Homestuck is important. I think it’s underrated, and I don’t want to watch it be forgotten; I think it will be more influential than anyone gives it credit for, and years from now, when the idea that what it means to make art on the Internet is to manipulate and shape a community will be widely understood, I don’t want people to forget that one incredibly dense comic with the weird alien trolls in it. It’s already been influential: Undertale, last year’s widely acclaimed genre-bending and fourth-wall-breaking art game, is a clear successor, with Toby Fox, the game’s creator, having led the music production for Homestuck, and the game having been coded in part in Andrew Hussie’s basement. I wish Homestuck had been mentioned more in those reviews. I might just feel the usual angst of a fan who wants people to like what I like. There was a sense, though, that moved everyone who dove deep into Homestuck, a powerful sense that this wasn’t just good, but important. This was a step towards something. This was something new.
Homestuck isn’t perfect, but it is a masterpiece. It’s the first work of art on the Internet — not the Internet as technically defined, not the network of computers and hypertext that has had artists experimenting for decades, but the Internet as it is, this field of information, this sea of communities that have become just as real, if not more so, than those we form in physical space, this endless flow of messages that wash over our psyche throughout the day and shape the parameters of our thoughts. The Internet is the place and the medium, the very substance that Homestuck was made out of. Who cares if it let us down in the final acts? It was amazing, and unprecedented, while it lasted.
I think the future of art looks more like Homestuck than most people would think. Besides, Andrew Hussie is a genius, in every sense of the word, and I can at least tell you to keep an eye on whatever he tries next. I’m excited for this future.
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