Writing archive

“Homestuck” for Dummies (By Request)

— Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Can I Tell You About Homestuck?

We here at Project: Ballad sure do like a whole lot of webcomics – we’d never dare list ‘em all, for fear of leaving someone out – but we find ourselves talking about Homestuck an awful lot. We’d been doing it quite a bit more, recently – I guess the folks at TCAF who hadn’t known finally cottoned to the comic’s popularity – and we’ve had a few people ask us for a little guide to what the Hell’s up with this comic we’re always on about. Hopefully this little primer can help you out.

What is “Homestuck?”

“Homestuck” is a long-running webcomic created by Andrew Hussie. You can find it at MS Paint Adventures, where it’s the fourth and most notable comic by Hussie in this style. At the time of this writing, the comic is still ongoing. It is in the final few acts, but that isn’t much of an indicator as to when things will draw to a close.

Why do I care?

Er, because it’s good?

Kevin and I have both written pieces on Homestuck‘s strengths before: I talked about Hussie’s unique command of pacing, and Kevin talked about an especially unique sequence in the comic’s fifth act. We think highly of the comic as a comic. Watching Andrew Hussie evolve from a “funny cartoonist” to a “great cartoonist” has been a singular pleasure.

The comic has been interesting for its use of multimedia and for its interesting structural choices. This hasn’t been the draw for many, but it’s arguably the reason that attention should be paid.

The other reason, of course, is because Homestuck is now incredibly popular amongst a certain crowd – an active, creatively-engaged crowd of fans who at this point outnumber the readers of most US print comics. They’re particularly obsessive, as well, and their Homestuck-related memes have infected the internet all over the place, and their cosplay rushes are crowding conventions all over. Figuring out “what’s the deal?” is enough of a draw for some people.

Can I start reading from the current page?

No, that’d be the reader-experience equivalent of suicide. It’s a long, intricate story – start from the beginning.

What’s it about?

Okay, this isn’t nearly as hard as some excited fans might have it, but a caveat: Because the story opens in an exploratory way, in which the characters are just as unclear on the structure of the story as the reader, any plot point is, technically, a form of spoiler. Knowing more about the story won’t damage “surprises” so much as make the earliest acts feel less like a mystery.

That said, the story at its heart isn’t so confusing. John Egbert and his three online friends agree to play a game together. This game, it turns out, affects their own reality in interesting ways. It is discovered that the game is a tool designed to birth new universes, and the kids go on a quest in order to create a new world. Things go pretty wrong, though, and that’s when things get interesting.

Wait – games and comics?

I know, right? Honestly, you don’t need to know that much about games to follow along – the story establishes the rules of its own world pretty early on, and then operates within those rules. At first, it seems arbitrary, but the comic eventually explains the reasons for virtually everything. If you are into games, though, you might appreciate the (well-acknowledged) debt the comic owes to the 16-bit classic Earthbound; many of the strange gaming abstractions that inform the early acts are also heavily inspired by The Sims.

This sounds kinda complicated, actually…

Eh. Here’s the most important thing about Homestuck, something that often gets swallowed up in the fan furor over pairings and patron characters and all that: The comic is a humor-delivery vehicle first and foremost at all times. If the plot machinations of the later acts seem overly intricate, that’s only because contextually, those twists make the whole thing funnier. Assuming you don’t skim or skip huge chunks of it, it’s really not as hard to follow as it might be to explain.

Do I have to do all the multimedia stuff?

For the most part, if you gloss over the most interactive sections, you’ll still pick up what’s going on overall – Hussie’s been pretty good about that – but you’ll miss out on a great deal of important storytelling. The “animation” sequences, though, are pretty damned important. Despite being some of the most memorable artifacts of the comic experience, they’re really used more sparingly than first glance might suggest.

Is it still technically comics if…

Look, if you and me are going to sit down at a table with Hussie, Scott McCloud, and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey to argue this out, that’s fine, but it’s going to get far away from the subject at hand.

So, why the strange comic format?

Well, it’s sort of a longer story than is necessary to get a handle on it, but… the earliest “MS Paint Adventures” comics were designed as a game on a forum, in which the story was created in response to reader input. Even as the comics got more complex – more like real stories – Hussie would accept reader input. So each single image, or series of images, was in response to input. This format has standardized, sort of, but Homestuck hasn’t accepted direct input since the first act of the story, and even then it was heavily directed. He still creates in a way where his fandom’s in-jokes and theorizing informs the short-term direction of things, but nobody can issue “commands” anymore, as he’s more interested in telling an actual story – albeit one that is at times quite deliberately silly.

What’s all this about Trolls?

Okay.

So, technically the trolls themselves are “spoilers,” but you’ve seen them all over the internet and in your convention centers, so I guess pretending they don’t exist would be pretty silly! The simple version – without getting into more recent developments, with character copies and universe reboots and all that – is that there are twelve of them, and each one has a Zodiac symbol, and they’re all alien kids whose culture intended for them to be killers.

All that stuff we said up above, regarding “creating universes” with the game that the plot revolves around? Basically, these alien kids created the universe of our main characters. They help out… sort of.

They’re internet trolls. Get it?

One thing to watch out for, though – given that they’re aliens, they have a decidedly unique outlook on affection.

So, quality aside, why the fandom obsession? And why is it associated with anime/manga?

A lot of reasons, I think. This is a little off the “primer” angle, though, so enter at your own risk.

I think the fact that the characters are pretty instantly recognizable for what they are, while still finding depth (to varying degrees) as time goes on is something that can’t be understated. It’s not inherently an indicator of quality, either – lots of great things don’t have that instant, archetypal recognition built into its characters, and lots of terrible things do. But Homestuck does do this well, and it’s sort of a staple of genre fiction that picks up a certain type of fandom.

Here’s something that’s interesting, though: While Homestuck is not “formulaic” in the sense that we use the term (predictable and dull because it follows a familiar story formula), there is an element of “formula” in its structure, a sort of algorithm that governs things, that I think encourages readers with certain obsessive tendencies.

This is what I mean. There are four kids who each have a musical talent, a strange guardian, a screenname, a weapon specialty, and unique hobbies. There are twelve trolls who each have Zodiac signs as well as the other traits. There are four “agents” with their own specific traits that recur, and then you have the Felt, who each have a power and a color and… everything is regimented, compartmentalized. Characters are unique, but you can array them on a spreadsheet. The act of “prototyping,” a plot-important action in the story, has its own specific rules that can be codified and numbered. There are processes. On a structural level, there’s a certain fascinating mathematic to it. And to a certain kind of fan, that is appealing on a level that is independent of the comic’s quality.

Of course, the thing about having these divisions is that you can A) draw divisions (Favorites, and also separately ones you can identify with) and B) cycle through an infinite number of possible romantic permutations… if you’re into that sort of thing, which some fans certainly are.

Manga and anime might not be like Homestuck in its method of storytelling, but they frequently utilize this sort of calculation. This is why Fruits Basket had its array of calendar animals, and why Death Note had its specific list of rules that drove the machinations of its dual (and dueling) protagonists. Tetsuya Nomura reached the exact same audiences with “Organization XIII” in the Kingdom Hearts series.

That Hussie’s deliberately taken this codification and largely applied it to types of fandom itself within the story is no accident.

And don’t forget… that “reader input” thing, even in its current “inspiration only” form – there’s no better way to get your audience heavily invested in your work.

I’m sure 95% of the fans are cool folk and all, but the obsession has been sorta offputting…

Sure! But that’s true of a lot of stuff both great and terrible. Read for yourself, decide for yourself. No comic is for everybody. None.

Anything else I should be on the lookout for?

Yeah. Recurrence and closed loops. If you can get a handle on how things deliberately repeat (either for reasons of humor or of tragedy) and how you sometimes get the answer before the question, the comic’ll be a fun as Hell trip into a very strange place.

All this smarty-pants talk… is it really that funny?

Oh, Hell yes.