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Andrew Hussie, the reluctant cult leader, on life after Homestuck

On revolution, telling stories, and logging off

Graphic featuring comic book artist Andrew Hussie and one of his characters Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Artist and writer Andrew Hussie is a reluctant father of internet fandom. His comic, Homestuck, published under the website MS Paint Adventures, followed a group of teens who accidentally brought about the end of the world with a copy of a video game. Hussie built a career by spinning dramatic and bumbling tales of the onslaughts of online life.

The interactive story of Homestuck strung out to epic proportions — it is over 8,000 pages long and ran from 2009 until 2016. At its peak, the comic entertained roughly 600,000 readers a day, and inspired one of the most robust cult followings of a generation — fans filled convention floors with cosplays of the characters and filled online forums and websites like Tumblr full of fan art. In 2012, around 24,000 backers pledged roughly $2 million to help bring Hiveswap, a video game version of the Homestuck, to life.

But Hussie was ready for something new, and in his words, “anti-cult.”

Hussie’s Psycholonials, a “visual novel” released in the spring of 2021, follows Zhen and Abby — two girls who must figure out what to do with a mess of a revolution and empire that they themselves prompted. In the first chapter of Psycholonials, Zhen, the novel’s main character, shoots and kills a cop. As it goes in the story, she was drunk driving, and after the cop gets physical with her, she grabs the gun from his holster and shoots. This event kickstarts her own story and accelerates the development of her own personal politics. Eventually, she goes on to write a widely read manifesto; taking the reins of a militant revolutionary group that wears goth clown makeup.

Throughout the course of Psycholonials, there are burning police stations, a revolution against the state, and a global pandemic — all mediated through the eyes of a young woman who’s trying to survive the fucked up world around her and while calling attention to its problems. The story feels like a retelling of the hell-year that was 2020, but Hussie started drafting the story back when everyone was just starting to be stuck inside for the first time.

“I remember having an unsettled feeling in the early days of the pandemic,” Hussie told Polygon over email, “seeing that probably hundreds of thousands of people were about to die due to a willful mishandling of the crisis, and the population appeared very listless, as if it was about to sit back and let that happen without putting up much of a fight.”

Hussie decided that the “comatose feeling” America was giving him would make a good foil for a much more “outlandish, escapist sort of revolutionary scenario that examined what such a revolt might look like in this era.”

He didn’t complete a draft until just a day before the first Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“The protests began, police stations started burning down, and it all felt pretty surreal, because I’d just spent a month writing about situations that looked a lot like this. But mainly I was relieved to see the protests happen, because it answered a more fundamental question I had before starting on this story, which was wondering whether the country had any real fight in it.”

And while the writer says he saw this nation-wide spark as a “very positive development,” he wondered “if this was even a story that needed telling anymore.”

In the end, he decided it was. Hussie said he returned to the 140,000 word long draft, cut the story in half, and “tried to make it feel like something legitimately worth reading to anyone who crossed the full span of 2020’s madness.”

The text in the image reads: “But the intensification of recent events hardly has been limited to circumstances on the island. The entire country has suddenly ignited in civil unrest over police brutality, and the extrajudicial murders of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Something is stirring in America.” Image: Andrew Hussie

Pyscholonials isn’t about Andrew Hussie and it isn’t a Homestuck sequel. (As he puts it, “it’s about the things it’s about.”) The story presents a modern path to revolution in which the catalyst for the overthrow of an imperialist system is not the military strongmen of old, but a young woman with social media savvy. The figure of revolution in the eyes of Hussie’s story is in fact, an influencer.

As Zhen’s, who also goes by “Z”, crusade grows, she continues to grapple with the responsibility that comes with inspiring such a snowballing movement. Toward the end of the story, Z and her best friend are forced to figure out what to do with the empire that they’ve built that has become difficult to control — a reality that Hussie himself is familiar with as a de facto leader of a fandom.

Hussie suggests the personal allegorical elements in Psycholonials are “more like points of inspiration.” This story is about Z after all, not himself. Still, he said that the text works as a thematic followup to his entire experience with building a fandom.

“In a personal sense, this story is an odd fusion of two allegories. It loosely correlates with my past experience of presiding over a big fandom and watching it spin out of control, using much more fantastical elements like revolution and global conquest as the backdrop. It’s also an allegory for what I’m doing presently with Psycholonials. Z decides to launch a new brand, and to rebrand her own image by making a clownsona, and then roll out new content to the public as a way of turning the page on whatever she was up to before. This is basically what I did, and these two ideas mix together in the narrative.”

Prior to releasing this story, Hussie struggled to pinpoint what his brand was as the creator of Homestuck. “But understanding that Psycholonials is chiefly an anti-cult narrative should help point to how I view the Homestuck phenomenon. I came to regard that fandom as being pretty close to a cult. Not formally, and nowhere near as dangerous as more conventional cults can be, but close enough to draw meaningful comparisons. And that’s about how I’ve come to regard all fandoms now.”

A grid of drawn photos drawn like instagram on the right— on the left is text that reads: “Few have taken to the Jubilite lifestyle with more gusto than Abby herself. In the previous week she has unveiled her new clownsona to uproarious acclaim. Abblepie is a hit, and her clownsona posts are getting higher levels of engagement than even she’s used to.” Image: Andrew Hussie

It’s impossible to talk about Hussie’s sentiments toward his following without discussing the following itself. The Homestuck following was (and is in many ways still) very involved with the project. In some ways this was prompted — Hussie took fan input while writing the original story and incorporated it into the final product. In its heyday, the Homestuck fandom iterated and developed a lot of cultures that have come to characterize fandom today. At time of publication, there are roughly 57,000 works of fanfiction dedicated to the series on Archive of Our Own. Back then, fans popularized in-character discussions where fans could roleplay characters through an online chat. Dedicated fans even created a browser extension that notified you the moment new Homestuck content went up.

Fans still regularly obsess over questions and details of Hussie’s life and work. A quick search on Reddit reveals dozens of threads discussing questions like “What happened to andrew hussie?” and other posts tracking the creator’s activity on social media platforms like Tumblr. People dissect drama around his work and become amateur reporters on matters internal to his company. On a scarier note, fans have even gone as far as to find Hussie’s brother’s social media accounts, according to those who posted it.

“Anyone who presides over something popular is forced to play the role of an informal cult leader, which is what it felt like throughout most of Homestuck’s run, and even well beyond.” He said, “Some online personalities will revel in that role, and actually start behaving like a true cult leader. But those with more of an anti-cult stance, which describes myself, will occupy the position reluctantly.”

To him, a “reluctant cult leader” will withdraw from the spotlight and rarely address their followers. However, even then, Hussie thinks, a distance from the leader could possibly lead to an even more insatiable fandom.

Being a recluse can “suppress cultism in some ways (by not having someone at the top constantly throwing red meat to a hungry base, which inflames obsession and radicalism),” Hussie said, “but in other ways I think cryptid [sic] behavior can intensify cultism. A cryptid leader leaves a major vacuum of content, direction, messaging, personal information, all the stuff a frenzied cultist craves. So what fills that vacuum is rampant speculation. Conspiracy theories, outright fabrications, connecting dots on whatever precious facts are known to paint whatever picture the theorizer wants to paint.

“The content vacuum created by a cryptid leader results in overwhelming conditions of parasociality, and the projections of personality, morality, and biographical data onto the blank-slate leader can get ludicrous, and often pretty spiteful. Then again, depending on the atmosphere of any given moment in fandom, there may be at least as many simps projecting absurd deification fantasises on the leader.”

A from Pyscholonials holds a gun up Image: Andrew Hussie

What Hussie describes is a dynamic that we see play out again and again online. In her article, “How Twitter can ruin a life” Emily VanDerWerff tells the story of an anonymous writer turned enemy of the internet, and how just a pseudonym and a birth year gave people on Twitter enough fuel to bully the author out of writing. And then there are all the people who can’t shroud themselves in secrecy. Streamers have to become increasingly savvy about the need to defend personal boundaries without provoking the ire of fans. On Twitter, creatives, journalists, and anyone with a modest following agonize over what people think they know about them online, and trolls regularly obsess over personal information around topics like mental health. In this sense, fandom itself, with examples like Homestuck, was the precursor to the asymmetrical relationships that have come to characterize so much of online life.

“It seems that whatever small ways I was able to control that brand, back when I still was interested in doing so, has since become dramatically overwritten by the preposterous hallucinatory projections of a zealous fandom.”

Hussie’s apprehension of fandom — and the wild projections that come with presiding over one — seem appropriate given how public comments on his work ignite controversy within the fandom. In a video published in April 2021, Canadian YouTuber Sarah Z delved into the history of Homestuck and Hiveswap, with a focus on the turbulent development cycle of Hiveswap. In a flurry of accusations, the video called out both the studio’s financial decisions and Hussie’s own creative work as it pertained to the release of the game. The video, predictably, provoked speculation over the true timeline and events surrounding the game’s development. Hussie initially spoke to Polygon before the Sarah Z video, but agreed to follow up conversations after its release. While he declined to be quoted directly, he feels that the video missed important contextualization that he had intended to provide to the YouTuber in a conversation.

It’s a prime example of how — even years after Homestuck and Hiveswap were completed — the distance Hussie keeps between himself and his fandom doesn’t keep his work from spiraling out into controversy. Following the incident, What Pumpkin, Hussie’s former Homestuck production company (which he has since left), threatened to sue Sarah Z. In response, the YouTuber made a video about their threat, which according to the legal document shared by the Sarah Z cited “false, speculative claims,” propelling the matter even further into the public theater. An otherwise slumbering fandom ignited as people filled Reddit forums with speculation.

Still, Hussie doesn’t think every aspect of fandom is “completely horrible.” Some forms — like writing fanfiction or creating fan art — are a positive, fun activity. But Hussie questions those practices as a form of “fandom,” and redefines what the word really means today.

“When I speak of fandom I’m referring to the activity which is more indicative of obsession, hyperfixation, the need for a sense of belonging to a greater movement, and starting to let that feeling shape your identity. I’m not sure how much there is that’s truly positive about those things, but there is plenty which is negative. A member of fandom may have a good attitude for a while, but since their involvement is predicated on obsession or very strongly held feelings, that positive attitude can turn on a dime, and it can take very little to trigger extreme negativity. It can be a turn in the story they don’t like, the way a fictional character is treated, or the way other members of fandom they disagree with are behaving. So it’s not that I’m saying fandom is all bad, instead I’d just say that the appearance of anything positive about fandom should be treated with suspicion, and as if it could become destructive at any moment for any reason. The same can be said for any cultist.”

An image of a girl looking at a phone. The text to the left of it reads: “Z: yeah but I still agonize stupidly and wonder if I should just question the source of this torment. the internet is fucking insane. it just sits there as a bedeviling temptation. this massive ominously humming well of static potential, just. beckoning you. constantly. Image: Andrew Hussie

Where does this leave a generation that grew up online, many of whom were devout Homestuck readers? Pyscholonials doesn’t give in to hopelessness. While it’s about revolution, it’s told in a refreshingly modern and relevant way. The language is deeply rooted in the now, and leans into the internet vernacular with words like “simp,” “e-girls,” “reply guys,” and “cringe.” At one point, one of the protagonists moves from being a fan, to dating a member of the popular K-pop group BTS (which also happens to be one of the biggest, most influential fandoms of the moment). Even considering the medium of the text itself, it’s a remarkably online object. You can purchase the interactive fiction on Steam. It’s digitally illustrated and lets you click through like you would in a narrative game. It’s a contemporary text that carries the history of Hussie’s work and online life — for better and for worse.

I asked Hussie if he thinks everyone should just log off. Possibly in a bid to avoid pulpiting to any fans, or even me the writer, he said he doesn’t think his story is telling each and every person to cut themselves off. “It’s not that I think people should, it’s that everyone already knows they should,” he said.

“The [Online Poisoned] often even joke with self awareness about their bad internet habits, but [they] just keep doing it,” Hussie said. “That’s how obsessive preoccupation works, and it’s an accelerator of these forms of online cultism. No one needs me to tell anyone this, but stories can always serve as reminders.”