Land of memes and trolls: The epic and ridiculous self-aware world of Homestuck
How a webcomic inspired by video games earned millions of fans.
>POLYGON: WRITE A FEATURE ABOUT HOMESTUCK.
A boy stands in his room. Today is his birthday, and as fate would have it, also the day he embarks on a grand adventure. But before we can get started, please input his name in the provided text box.
This scenario could be the beginning of any number of games. Minus the insert-name-here text box, it could be the beginning of any number of stories. In this case, it's the beginning of Homestuck, the most recent and currently ongoing webcomic collected in MS Paint Adventures. Since its beginning in April of 2009, Homestuck has exploded to become one of the most ubiquitous - and devoted - fandoms on the internet.
Numbering in the millions, Homestuck fans vie with popular, established fanbases such as those of Doctor Who and The Avengers on sites like Tumblr and various imageboards. Their presence en masse brought once-mighty Flash game repository Newgrounds to its knees after it agreed to host a highly-anticipated update. If you've seen Facebook photos or forum avatars of strange-looking gray-skinned characters with orange horns, overheard conversations about "trolls" and actor Nicolas Cage, or read online exchanges taking place in l33t SP34K t)(at y0u CoUlD hAvE 2worn wwent out of style around the turn of the century, you've probably brushed elbows with Homestuck and its fandom.
>KICKSTARTER: FUND HOMESTUCK ADVENTURE GAME.
In September 2012, Homestuck fans put their money where their mouth was, backing a Kickstarter project to create an adventure game based on the series after its planned end in 2013. In a span of 24 hours, the Homestuck Kickstarter had raised almost $600,000 dollars, at the time the fourth-highest single-day toll in Kickstarter history (Obsidian's Project Eternity has since bumped it down to fifth). It reached its $700,000 goal in 32 hours with 7,699 backers, and shortly afterwards became the 12th million-dollar project ever on Kickstarter. By the time the Kickstarter closed, over 20,000 fans had backed the project to the tune of $2.48 million.
Perhaps the only thing more stunning than the rabid devotion and enthusiasm of Homestuck fans is the nigh-evangelical bent with which they inform others about just how awesome it is. The phrase "let me tell you about Homestuck" has become a memetic inside joke in the community, evoking images of an exuberant fan telling a friend about this new thing that they just have to read because it's incredible and no it gets so much better later on, I swear! It is a paean to those who preach from the Gospel of John (that is, protagonist John Egbert), proselytizing about a web series that they swear is like nothing you have ever read before.
In that, at least, they're right. So, let me tell you about Homestuck.
>POLYGON: TELL ME ABOUT HOMESTUCK.
Homestuck is the story of four 13-year-old kids who beta test a new video game, and in doing so doom the Earth to destruction by meteor swarm. They escape into the alternate reality of the game world, meet a group of internet trolls who turn out to be a set of alien teenagers who are also playing the game, and accidentally bestow godlike powers onto people who really shouldn't have them. Multiple timelines converge, all of reality winds up being reset, a pair of universes are utterly obliterated, and it all gets a bit crazy for a series where the entire first act consists of main hero John goofing around in his house futzing with an overly complicated inventory management system.
In the loosest definition, Homestuck is a webcomic because it is a series of images and words that sequentially tells a story, and it is hosted on the internet. An update might be a single image, it might be an animated .gif, or it might be an image accompanied by narration or a script-style dialogue between characters - and all that text adds up. Over three years into its run, Homestuck has chalked up over 5,000 individual updates alongside over 410,000 words (compare that to the 500,000-600,000 words in most translations of War and Peace). There is no static update schedule other than generally "breakneck;" some days might not see a single update, others might see five, 10 or more new panels added all at once.
HOMESTUCK IS THE STORY OF FOUR 13-YEAR-OLD KIDS WHO BETA TEST A NEW VIDEO GAME, AND IN DOING SO DOOM THE EARTH TO DESTRUCTION BY METEOR SWARM.
The biggest updates, however, aren't mere images at all. Homestuck notably uses Flash to great effect for purposes both mundane - the hero playing a haunting piano refrain - and climactic, like the 13-minute-long end-of-act finale that temporarily crippled Newgrounds. Some of the Flash-based updates are interactive framing devices that allow readers to select the character they'd like to focus on for the next few pages; others are full-on point-and-click adventure minigames. Many of the Flash updates include originally composed music, making Homestuck one of the only webcomics with its own soundtrack.
These shifts in storytelling format aren't simply side-stories or retellings of what viewers have already seen. Nor are these mere diversions for devoted fans to fill in gaps and expand their knowledge of the world. The animated .gif files, walls of text, Flash animations and interactive minigames are all, in their own ways, crucial for advancing the storyline; as part novel, part webcomic, part video game and part animated series,Homestuck is its own transmedia narrative.
>ANDREW HUSSIE: DEVOTE EXISTENCE TO WEBCOMIC.
At the center of the media web that is Homestuck lies series creator, writer, and artist Andrew Hussie. On a former Formspring account, the Massachusetts-based artist described working on Homestuck as less like a full-time job and more like an "all-encompassing lifestyle," noting that the time he spends either writing, drawing, animating, or just "spacing out at [his] monitor while contemplating all the moving parts" occupies something just short of all of his waking hours. In terms of sheer numbers, his productivity and passion has paid off: Thanks to its ever-mutable update schedule and flexible format, Homestuck has averaged four and a half new pages per day since its beginning on April 13th, 2009. It reached the 5,000-page mark in June 2012, a milestone thus far equaled in webcomics only by long-runners Kevin and Kell (which began in 1995), Sluggy Freelance (1997), and Jerkcity (1998).
THE MASSACHUSETTS-BASED ARTIST DESCRIBED WORKING ON HOMESTUCK AS LESS LIKE A FULL-TIME JOB AND MORE LIKE AN "ALL-ENCOMPASSING LIFESTYLE"
Perhaps paradoxically, Hussie said on a Tumblr account that his hardest work is done when the comic isn't updating at its customary ludicrous pace. When Homestuck goes on hiatus, and the fans begin to get antsy, Hussie is often wrestling with Flash for the next animation or interactive game, describing the labor involved as "goddamn ridiculous" on Formspring. The irony of animation hiatuses, said Hussie on Tumblr, is that while the devoted reader sees nothing, "I'm working at least twice as hard, doing nothing else. It's a break for [the fans], but an anti-break for me."
The mother of all animation pauses preceded the aforementioned 13-minute act finale that hamstrung Newgrounds' servers when two million fans pounced all at once. Prior to the release of the "Cascade" animation on October 25th, 2011, Homestuck had last updated at the end of August, resulting in two months without any new updates for fans. Part of the longer-than-expected hiatus could be chalked up to constantly "putting out fires" in Flash, said Hussie on Tumblr, but there was also an element of "collaboration overload." As the ending to Homestuck's Act 5, by far the longest of the seven Hussie has planned, "Cascade" was developed as the cinematic high-water-mark of the series, and that meant tapping talented artists from within the massive and thriving Homestuckfan community to help make it as grand as possible.
"GETTING SO MANY PEOPLE TO PITCH IN TO SUCH A BIG PROJECT ACTUALLY DELAYED THE PROCESS NON-TRIVIALLY."
"Getting so many people to pitch in to such a big project actually delayed the process non-trivially," said Hussie on Tumblr, noting that planning and managing the division of labor was a timesink unto itself - and that's before one factors in the time it takes for the artist to actually draw and return their assigned pieces and the number of revisions and tweaks it takes to produce something ready to be included in the animation. None of this, said Hussie, is an impediment when he works on his own and can "usually just charge right in and begin animating."
The final integrated product, however, was something he was "ecstatic with." Recruiting artists to each do individual parts of the final whole resulted in significantly more detail to the images than he would have ever bothered with on his own.
"Cascade" wasn't the first time Hussie had collaborated with others in the production of Homestuck. Since the release of "WV?: Rise Up" in 2010, dozens of artists in the community have been recruited to contribute art to the comic, usually providing more artistic detail than is found in Hussie's highly-stylized, oft-minimalist images. Nor does Hussie compose the series' soundtrack himself; that work is done by the collaborators on the Homestuck music team, who have together produced more than 20 albums on Bandcamp.
>MUSICIAN: BE THE COLLABORATIVE ARTIST.
"We have about 17 active musicians, who all have their own schedules and their own take on what Homestuck should sound like," says music production coordinator Toby "Radiation" Fox. Though he'd been reading MS Paint Adventures since its previous installment, Problem Sleuth, Fox wasn't part of theHomestuck music team when it started in April 2009. The very first MSPA song to be featured on the site had been a fan-madeProblem Sleuth title screen tune by Mark Hadley, who would go on to create indie horror game Slender.
"Right before Homestuck began, Andrew put up a news post on the front page asking for musicians to participate in his next project," says Fox, who estimates that about 40 people initially responded. He, however, wasn't one of them: "At the time I didn't think of myself as a composer." Later, he began to post piano covers of the comic's music on the MSPA forums, and Hussie took note of his work alongside that of other fan musicians, and added them to the team.
"I decided that my only goal was to get my music in the comic," says Fox, and as a then-senior in high school, he had quite a bit of free time. "I started predicting where the comic was going to go and sending relevant tracks directly to Andrew," he says. His work paid off with "Atomyk Ebonpyre," which was featured as the music in the animation "Dave: Accelerate." "Over time I kind of established that I 'get' what he wants pretty well," says Fox, whose reliability eventually led Hussie to tap him as the comic's production coordinator for music.
"Andrew isn't really a musician," says Fox, and he animates to the music rather than the other way around - which, to Fox, is one of the most rewarding parts about working on a project likeHomestuck. Hussie is "amazing at extrapolating visuals from the music, and that's honestly the most exciting part of having your song in the comic - seeing what visuals he creates to go with the audio after imagining your own."
The flip side is that even if Fox helps offer Hussie suggestions for potential songs to use for upcoming animations or games, he's almost always in the dark regarding their context. "I never give anyone, artist or musician, any more information than they need to know," said Hussie on Tumblr. Rather than tell Fox that an upcoming scene might involve one character shooting another, he'll simply suggest an acceleration in tempo, or the addition of another character motif. "As silly as it sounds, I don't like spoiling stuff even for people working on it," he said. "I'd rather leave as much a surprise for them too."
>ARTIST: CREATE CANON WITHOUT CONTEXT.
Working blind is a challenge for visual artists, too. Daria, a 16-year-old illustrator who lives in Russia's Ural mountains and who goes by the online handle Xamag, was one of the many community artists tapped to contribute art to "Cascade." "It can be a bit troubling, since you don't know the context," she tells Polygon. The tasks she was given for her assigned images included the barest minimum of description: "A shot of the five remaining trolls on the meteor. They are still on the roof. They are all standing, looking up into the sky at something. There is green light illuminating them from above."
But beyond the joy and surprise of finally seeing your works in context, Daria says that the lack of strict guidance gives artists a boatload of freedom for interpretation. As long as she didn't "forget about details important for the story," says Daria, "like that Sollux is wearing Feferi's glasses ... everything [was] OK" with her contributions. Beyond her work in "Cascade," Hussie recruited her to design animated dialogue portraits for the most recent interactive Flash-game updates to match the characters' walk-around sprites, and had allowed her to interpret the characters as she wished. Hussie "isn't hypercritical," she says, having only requested two corrections out of all of her submitted work, "and the only time limitation he gives is 'the sooner the better.'"
"OF COURSE SOMETIMES YOU ARE AFRAID OF MAKING A MISTAKE YOU ARE GOING TO REGRET LATER."
In some ways, having that much interpretive power on what will ultimately be canonized can be overwhelming. "Of course sometimes you are afraid of making a mistake you are going to regret later, especially if it is drawing without context," says Daria. "There are moments you wish you could change something: For example, I would like to redraw my old contributions for 'Cascade,' or small annoying things like Latula's teeth or Kanaya's funny pose in the background [of the 'Cascade' art], because fans are fond of speculating about details." But ultimately, as the final authority rests with Hussie, if he gives the thumbs-up to something, she doesn't need to worry about it.
Homestuck fans' obsession with dissecting every update for minor clues - interpreting artistic foibles such as the aforementioned background pose or a character possessing straight teeth as opposed to her counterpart's sawtooth grin as some kind of metatextual hint about where the story is headed, for example - is something that community artists, as well as Hussie himself, have to manage and handle. But Daria says the fandom's enthusiasm is also one of the biggest joys of contributing art, not only as a part of canon but as a simple fan artist. "It is like a giant wave that carries you away with other people; it's a very exciting feeling ... sometimes I wish I could just hug everyone who worked on the updates."
THE HOMESTUCK FANDOM HAS BEEN PART OF THE SERIES FROM THE START.
>ANDREW HUSSIE: PLAY DUNGEON-MASTER FOR THOUSANDS.
Though it might not have been anywhere close to the size it is now, the Homestuckfandom has been an integral part of the series from the very beginning - even impacting the story directly in its earliest days. The very first installment of MS Paint Adventures, Jailbreak, originated as a forum game of sorts on what would eventually become the MSPA forums - forum members posted commands for the characters in the comic and so drove the story. (Incidentally, only the very first page of Jailbreak was actually drawn with MS Paint; Hussie approximates the Paint style in Photoshop for all the others).
Eventually, accepting only the first command given - no matter how outlandish - proved to create an entirely too-convoluted narrative to make sense of. In subsequent adventure Bard Quest, Hussie provided multiple choice links in a choose-your-own-adventure format, though soon found the branching narrative overly unwieldy and growing too complex. With the third installment, Problem Sleuth, Hussie hit upon a winning formula - readers could submit suggestions for the characters in a suggestion box on the site's main page, but he would have the ultimate selection over which reader command to use in order to advance the story.
This was the format in which Hussie began the fourth MS Paint Adventure, Homestuck. For the first several chapters of the story, readers submitted suggestions in the form of commands like one might find in a text-based adventure game: >John: Examine contents of chest; >Dave: Get a towel or something! The earliest days of Homestuckwere "a lot like being the Dungeon Master of an RPG involving thousands of people, dealing with a similar balance of planning and improvisation," said Hussie on Tumblr.
>FANS: INFLUENCE STORY THROUGH FORCE OF MEMETIC WILL.
As those thousands swelled to millions, maintaining the suggestion box became untenable, and Hussie removed it from the website. Instead, he continued the reader/story interplay in a different manner - noting trends in the fanbase via comic canon. When an unclear piece of art made it appear as though one of the characters was wearing pants pulled up to his chest, the fans went wild, drawing hundreds of pieces of art of "pantskat."
Two hundred pages later, said character's predecessor - their planet's equivalent of Christ - was revealed to have been executed in his chest-high Righteous Leggings; what began as a memetic joke about background art became canonized as the story's own Shroud of Turin. A popular romantic pairing in the fandom, dubbed "Cotton Candy" thanks to the characters' bright pink and bright blue signature colors, is referenced in-universe by a visual gag. Though Hussie is still fully in control of the plot, the readers influence it en masse via the force of their existence and fandom. The story itself is aware of the reader. What else would you expect from a narrative where the fourth wall is a physical object that exists only to be broken?
"[Homestuck is] a story I've tried to make as much a pure expression of its medium as possible," said Hussie on his Kickstarter page, and it's hard to argue that he's wrong. Even by the standards of an era where communal interest on the internet breeds memes and fans the flames of nostalgia faster than ever,Homestuck is still astoundingly referential. Not only is it referential to bits of pop culture likeThe Neverending Story, Hook, and Con Air(and boy, is it ever referential to Con Air), but it's staggeringly referential to itself: Over the course of 5,000 pages, Hussie has produced a numbingly-high amount of running gags and material to reference in an endless recursion of self-produced visual and textual memes.
"[HOMESTUCK IS] A STORY I'VE TRIED TO MAKE AS MUCH A PURE EXPRESSION OF ITS MEDIUM AS POSSIBLE," SAYS HUSSIE, AND IT'S HARD TO ARGUE THAT HE'S WRONG.
>HOMESTUCK: BECOME SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
On a narrative front, Hussie's experiments with Flash enableHomestuck to be as ludicrously metatextual as it is. A character accidentally puts a CD onto an antique record player, scratching it. This CD turns out to be the CD that Homestuck the video game-as-narrative-device is played on, causing a subsequent Flash animation to glitch horrifically; after all, you're playing it on a scratched disc!
The in-universe process of repairing the disc transfers the story to a new omniscient narrator, whose scrapbook ends up being torn, allowing the reader to peruse one of several individual narratives in the order they choose. Meanwhile, the top banner of the MSPA site - traditionally a logo/ad banner - now becomes a secondary window to tell a story in parallel, and indeed several later scene transitions fail to make any sense if you haven't been following the story above the "usual" updates.
Beyond having the freedom to advance the story through any number of different formats like animated gifs, pure text, or interactive Flash animations, this is the flexibility of the fully realized digital format. With Homestuck, Hussie uses the digital medium to change how the story is told and consumed by its countless readers, and that is why it, if nothing else, is like nothing else you have ever read.
But it isn't little tricks of parallel storytelling or moments that allow the reader to briefly direct the narrative as they choose that really make Homestuck the expression of digital media that it is: It's its tacit acknowledgment of, and dialogue with, its massive fanbase. Whether it's directly incorporating talented fans as contributors - as is the case with Daria and numerous other artists and musicians - or simply giving nods to running jokes and persistent memes within the fandom, Homestuck and Andrew Hussie interact with their readers far more and far more often than any other series of this size does in recent memory.
"The story is really a kind of dialogue between the readers and author," said Hussie on the Kickstarter page. "There is always a sense that the story is aware of the individual reader, and the readership overall, much the way an adventure game tends to be cognizant of the player." Homestuck is the webcomics' equivalent to an adventure game, so his statement holds doubly true.
Having more than doubled its goal in a number of days, Homestuck was guaranteed to be crowd-funded when the Kickstarter finished in early October.
It was crowd-sourced long before then.
Kickstarter, Andrew Hussie, MS Paint Adventures
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