Last month, comic artist and writer Andrew Hussie’s Kickstarter campaign raised nearly 2.5 million dollars—from over 24,000 individual contributors—to make a video game version of his popular web comic Homestuck; his initial goal of $700,000 was reached within 32 hours of the Kickstarter launch. His is the eighth-largest earner in Kickstarter history. Homestuck—a webcomic once called the Ulysses of the Internet—is created by Hussie under the umbrella of MS Paint Adventures, which are formatted as a hybrid of a comic, a choose-your-own-adventure book, a video game, and hyper-textual novel. It surrounds a group of kids who play a game, Sburb, that changes the universe.
There are multiple character arcs, aliens called trolls, (spoiler!) the creations of universes in the form of a frog (our universe included), multiple timelines, complicated relationships, and more than enough to sustain a fandom. It’s a world complex enough to merit its own Wikipedia: a fan-generated site parallel to Wikipedia that documents Hussie’s comics on MS Paint Adventures (or MSPA), with the most articles in the Homestuck category. (I’ve used this vast, involved, and obsessed wiki as a source for quite a bit of my research that follows.) Homestuck pushes the limits of the Internet as a medium, just as net art did in the early 2000s, manipulating glitches in the new digital form. It at once embodies and complicates Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted line, “The medium is the message.” Its content and form are ever-shifting and vast; Hussie mimics, fictionalizes, teases, and subverts the area of the Internet within which Homestuck exists.
To go any further into the Homestuck storyline than what’s above would be foolish: it is the length of an epic and requires a commitment to reading it start to finish. To make that commitment is to sign away all of your free time: trust me, the world completely sucks you in. Unfinished, Homestuck is already over 5,000 pages long. It takes time (and risks a finger cramp) just to scroll through the page list. I was introduced to Homestuck slightly late in the game, so I marathoned through sometimes hundreds of pages/panels throughout a given day. You may notice in the screengrabs included here that most of the links are purple: I have caught up. In fact, I took a screengrab when all of the links in the Latest Pages column were read. To be up-to-date, at this point, is an accomplishment.
Hussie has earned his readers’ trust not just in spite of, but because of his ever-shifting storylines, timelines, and forms. Most of the pages are one panel of a .gif file that may be on a loop animation with text beneath it. Sometimes, there is a textlog of a conversation; other times, there are extended flash animations or an interactive minigame. Even within the flash animations, the format is constantly changing and growing. Because of this, Homestuck has incited cosplay (participants are called Homestucks) and attracts about one million unique visitors to the site a day. What’s more, it is a totally self-sustaining community that is willing to put down as much as $10,000 for their fan trolls to (briefly) become canon (a part of the actual comic), a prize offered through the Kickstarter. Few outside of the community have heard of Homestuck and its sister comics at MSPA, but Hussie’s creation has become something of a phenomenon of the Internet, as both a boom in a culture as well as a phenomenon of the medium itself. But first, we must understand what Homestuck does and how it fosters such a devoted community.
Below is the first panel of the Homestuck story. It introduces one of the main characters, John Egbert. The reader follows him for the next few panels, and he becomes a temporary avatar—an extension of the self. Immediately, this panel gives the character a sense of place, mirroring the reader’s place. A young man stands in his bedroom: presumably, where one might begin reading the comic.
Because of the immense length of this epic, and also to indulge the idea that Homestuck is a game, there is the option to “Save Game” at the bottom of every panel, so the site will remember where each reader has left off upon returning to the site. Hussie could have easily chosen different wording, but instead, he enforces that Homestuck is primarily understood to be a game—a cross between a choose your-own-adventure story and a video game.
There is an implied character here of the player in Homestuck and the other MS Paint Adventures. The player is this nebulous figure that exists and changes the Homestuck world, and the identity of player versus reader fluctuates from page to page. The player is told to “Enter Name.” After promptly clicking the hyperlink below the text, the player’s sense of total control and influence dissipates. The story has a definitive direction: it does not allow the player to type in a name, but rather, gives the character one itself. In this way, the player is no longer a player, but a reader again. Throughout Homestuck, this is the balance we shift between: player, reader, and an occasional sense of authorship for some.
The story sticks with John for a little while, but the player’s avatar shifts from character to character. For this reason, commands are preceded by the name of the character acting. An example of this would be the panel above, in which the player had been using the character Dave as their avatar, but the direction was to tell the reader (and the reader’s current avatar, Dave) to “Be the Other Guy.” Herein lay (playfully) existential questions: the reader is given multiple identities and does not experience the Homestuck world through an individual’s lens. One’s perspective, avatar, and identity can change from panel to panel. Hussie plays with expectations and backhandedly reminds the reader (player?) of this false sense of control. Occasionally, these speech-acts lead to unhappy (i.e., unfulfilled) performatives. In one case, we get the “Be the other guy” command again, but the following page informs the reader that you can’t be the other guy because the other guy is dead.
Much of the actions and interactions in Homestuck—especially initially in the comic—exists on a computer, on the Internet. The game-within-a-game quality emphasizes itself here, drawing parallels between the character, whose objective is to win the game Sburb, and the player, who is sitting at a computer playing Homestuck on MS Paint Adventures. (There is also a comic-within-a-comic quality: characters within Homestuck read a site called MS Paint Adventures and there is an actual Hussie-created comic that characters read and subtly foreshadows events to come in actual Homestuck adventure.) All of the operating systems on the characters’ computers are largely based off of pre-existing OSs. John’s operating system, above, is based on Windows XP, while other characters use systems strikingly similar to Macintosh OS X, Windows 7, and the interface featured in Minority Report.
Hussie has also created fictional instant messaging systems that the characters use to communicate with one another: the first set of fictional kids interact with Pesterchum; the trolls use Trollian. Hussie knows his readers: they have grown up with computers and have learned to socialize as much through AIM as they have through socializing in physical space. His readers understand that people have multiple identities: a traditional name (John), a screen name (or in this case “Chum Handle,” ectoBiologist), and a typing quirk (John types in blue with all lowercase letters with the occasional outburst in all caps). Above, one can see the button to “Show Pesterlog” which opens up into a chat log that is formatted similarly to that of AIM’s. For the Homestuck audience, this type of communication is not only believable; it feels natural.
The communication within the comic helps incite communication with-out. The characters within the game model behaviors that encourage fostering relationships between readers via the Internet. All of the characters in Homestuck know each other exclusively through the Internet prior to meeting through Sburb: they consider each other best friends in spite of their lack of physical contact. Because the activity within Homestuck exists largely online for the characters as well as for the readers, there is an unintended invitation to be involved in an Internet (often Homestuck-related) community, which lends itself to the message boards, subreddit, and the subsequent (sometimes, IRL) friendships that come from it (and its meetups).
Hussie is mythologized and worshipped by his fans as creator of their beloved comic. The MSPA Wikipedia’s article for Hussie states, “Andrew Hussie is the coolest person in the Universe.” The word “Universe” is hyperlinked to a disambiguation page, asking if you want the Homestuck Universe or the Universe of another MS Paint Adventure, Problem Sleuth. This is really telling: Hussie may be the man who writes Homestuck and other adventures, but the universe that he exists in, and the Universe that they are referring to, exists solely within what has been created by Hussie.
Hussie is constantly breaking the fourth wall in Homestuck, using it as a literal object as well as a figure of speech. Here, we are looking at the literal fourth wall: Hussie is seen working in his “study” (a pulled image of Andrew Carnegie’s study; see: what?). Though this could be critiqued as solipsism, Homestuck’s self-awareness and self-defacement undercuts this risk. In spite of his character having a mythology within the story and altering its plot, the self-insertion is often self-deprecating. The command at the bottom of this page acknowledges that this section is “highly indulgent” and another admits, “This is stupid.”
Hussie is active on Twitter, frequently updates his blog, and has two now-inactive formsprings. (Hussie could not keep up with the influx of questions, but he now has an ask box on his Tumblr). Here, he acts as creator, as a person who exists outside of the MS Paint Adventures world, but his self-insertion makes his identity much more ambiguous. In the background of the above panel, there is a painting that Hussie actually bought through a sequence of bizarre events; he calls the painting “The Need for Steed.” Above, the previous panel is on his screen: indeed, he is creator of the known Homestuck world—and he exists outside of it—but his character also interacts with the other Homestuck characters, has been seen in the comic cosplaying for Homestuck, and has even proposed to one of the trolls. Hussie had a suggestion box for readers to submit to, but less than a year into Homestuck, this box was locked and Hussie took full control of the plot. But here, the reader—or, in this case, the player—“activates” the fourth wall in this panel, giving Hussie permission to insert himself into the story. For this quick diversion of the comic that is all-too aware of itself, the player is commanding AH (Andrew Hussie). Though Hussie has created this set path and the player still has no control of the events unfolding, the actions here are implicating the supposed creator. If the player is controlling the creator, who is the true author of this work? Questions of authorship and Hussie’s identity (author vs. myth) become less clear in spite of the average player’s lack of control: the passive player makes for an active reader. A user on the MSPA Wikipedia noted that Hussie is an anagram for “He is us.” There is no way that that is intentional—Hussie is, to my knowledge, his birth name—but most users buy into his identity as a fan as well as creator.
Hussie’s self-insertion encourages self-identification and interaction from his readers, but Homestuck is so aware of itself and its fandom that it is self-defacing and self referential even in this regard. One character, a troll, is essentially an anime fangirl and one of the most important characters in Homestuck is a juggalo. Beyond this, there are several references to fan fiction, and some characters indulge in creating them. Certain parts of Homestuck, with its endless relationship triangles and complications, mimi,c fan fiction in themselves. Hussie ships a lot of characters mostly because he looks at what readers want in their headcanon and fan fiction (as an alternative to the suggestion box). There is an emphasis on the reader participating through different venues in order to participate in the actual story line. Above is an excerpt from a pesterlog between two characters (from two different planets). Hussie knows that fan fiction exists—he even participates in it—but this conversation not only shows us the range of bashfulness in admitting to writing fan fiction but it implicitly accepts and acknowledges that fan fiction for Homestuck exists. There are many fans who create their own fantrolls: extensions of themselves that are able to exist in the Homestuck Universe (disambiguation).
Given how many social media and blogging platforms are already available to us, we expect a new platform to justify its existence. McLuhan states in his seminal essay, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, that the “personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” This is to say that each medium is, indeed, an “extension of ourselves,” and that new technology manifests such extensions. It is participatory without being completely participatory, which may be why readers are willing to fund a Kickstarter for the development of a Homestuck video game: fans want the opportunity to become the player (not reader) wholesale. Homestuck is compelling to fans because it capitalizes on already fan-driven interests and takes them a step further: it indulges in what fans want to indulge in, validates the natural impulse to create fan fiction, mythologize, and hold a sense of authorship.