Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Webcomic Thoughts: The Value of Homestuck

I’m not one of those “Homestucks,” a term that here refers to a member of the Homestuck fandom (not quite as catchy or creative a name as Trekkies, Whovians, and Bronies, in my opinion).  In fact, I’ve only mentioned Homestuck once before on this blog, and that was to say it has the second-worst fandom I've encountered.  I’ve read Homestuck and I enjoy Homestuck, but I think that it is a terribly overrated webcomic.  There are people I’ve spoken to who could quote me as having said that Homestuck has no literary value and that studying it in a college course would be a waste of money (I’ve never actually said that last part but I’ve said something similar and implied that sentiment).

 As an English for New Media major, I am now eating those words.

 Homestuck is, by the way, a webcomic written by Andrew Hussie and is one of the stories he has written and hosted at MS Paint Adventures.  You can find it here ( brief warning: it starts out dull and it’s a VERY long read, but it’s also very entertaining once it gets moving).  Homestuck, however, is not like other comics.  Instead of using speech bubbles, it uses single-panel images (and sometimes animated gifs) with narration or dialogue boxes below the images.  It will also occasionally include music, short videos, or even fully interactive games.  There is also reader influence on the narrative.

 Basically, Homestuck is an experimental, one-of-a-kind story that is taking advantage of new media in a way that very few stories are.  Pretty much every other webcomic I’ve read could be translated to a print medium exactly as is.  Homestuck is truly a webcomic, not just a comic that’s on the web.  It is a new way of storytelling that couldn’t have existed just a few years prior.  And as an English for New Media major, I can say without a doubt that that shit is worth studying.  Maybe not for the story itself, but it is definitely worth examining just for how it’s told.

 Homestuck takes a lot of influence from interactive fiction games like Zork or Colossal Cave, and the game is framed as such.  It is told in second person (getting around being told from multiple viewpoints with the running gag “you are now X”) and contains text prompts—the difference being that instead of writing them in, they’re already written in for you.  Apparently there was originally a place for users to submit command prompts, but as the story grew more complex, Hussie had to drop it.  However, he retains that same style to this day.  So even from the first page of the story, a reader can tell that the story is meant to be interactive and, overall, a different kind of comic.

 Hussie also takes advantage of his medium by frequently including animated gifs to give the images just a bit more flavor.  The first one we see is again on the first page, but it’s just the protagonist looking around a bit and blinking.  The second one on the second page is what really sets the tone of how these gifs will be used.  After clicking the link to the next page asking what the protagonist’s name will be, we get this:

Wow.  Genius.  Absolutely genius.  I’m not even kidding.  This is a great way to introduce how gifs will be used in the webcomic.  They give you a little visual gag that images alone aren’t able to convey and that are too short to bother putting into video, as well as conveying just how much Hussie will be playing around with the fourth wall in about five seconds.  So we’re only on the first two pages of the comic, and we’ve learned several things:
  • Homestuck takes influence from interactive fiction
  • Homestuck may be somewhat interactive itself
  • Homestuck is not laid out like a traditional webcomic
  • Homestuck includes animated gifs
  • Homestuck has a self-aware sense of humor
  • The narrator breaks the fourth wall by interacting with the player/reader
  • The characters break the fourth wall by reacting to the player/reader

Eight key things (seven and a half if you don’t count the second point, but I believe original readers would have discovered that it was interactive right away) that end up being true throughout the comic all the way through, and it all shows up within the first minute of reading.  And that’s if you read slowly.

 The first act is by far the shortest and serves as an introduction to the story (as many first acts do), but it also includes a few pages with sound and concludes with a short video (consisting of animation and sound).  The first game (consisting of simply walking around and clicking on objects to interact with them) takes place very early in the second act.  These simple few things set the stage for the multimedia Homestuck will be using in the future.

 To briefly go back to Homestuck's structure, though: The separation of image and text allows for a very interesting use of variable pacing.  Sometimes, Hussie will drop text entirely and just show a series of images over individual web pages that either form a great visual gag or just provide tension.  Sometimes, a single image will contain a text box with a looooooong chunk of exposition.  Both are done in ways that traditional comics wouldn’t be able to—the first because the images would have to be full spreads (i.e., cover both pages) to have the same impact, and the second because that much text would take up several pages and cover the entire comic with speech bubbles.

 So that’s how Homestuck is laid out.  Just the fact that it’s a multimedia, interactive comic in the first place makes it incredibly unique, but I’ve got more to say.

 Andrew Hussie decided to make Homestuck up as he went along, scattering undefined story pieces as he progressed that he would be able to pick up later—something he referred to as “retroactive forshadowing.”  These objects had no real meaning when he created them, but he put them there knowing that he’d be posting the story episodically as he wrote it (itself a fascinating topic since it limits revision so heavily), so he gave himself options.  Why?  Because, as Hussie put it, “There was only one sure thing I knew when starting HS. That was that this thing would go batshit insane in ways I couldn't begin to imagine. In fact, it was practically the mission statement.”

So how did Hussie undertake writing this “batshit insane” story?  With the power of crowdsourcing.  Now, Hussie ultimately has ultimate control of the comic.  But a lot of what gets written is inspired by the readers and the Homestuck fandom.  Characters that people like can gain more attention.  Fan theories can become canon.  Hussie does a lot of pandering.  Why?  Because, above all, Homestuck is an experiment.

 The quality of the writing wavers.  It wavers heavily.  There are a lot of absolutely hilarious or amazing moments followed by a lot of pointless angst or terribly slow pacing.  There are great plot developments, and there are things that are really, really dumb.  A lot of this is due to Hussie attempting to experiment and take chances in order to gauge readers’ reactions, and every writer reading Homestuck should take note of this and watch for what works and what doesn’t.  Let me give you just a quick example: Vriska Serket.  She was designed to be a “base breaking” character: a character that people would have violently different opinions on.  She does a jig on the line between “cool and awesome” and “too blatantly cool and awesome and also unlikable.”  Some people, myself included, can’t stand her.  She’s the undisputed favorite character of others.

 Basically, Andrew Hussie has a very strong relationship with his fans.  It’s an ambivalent one to be sure—as much as he panders to them (to the point of tweaking a few jokes when they caused some backlash), he also trolls them very heavily.  The whole thing is basically a game for him, seeing how far he can push his experiment before it collapses (the answer is surprisingly far), to the point of Homestuck almost feeling like a sociology experiment.  And as the writing industry changes, this sort of relationship is what we should be looking carefully at. Social media is changing the relationship between creators and readers, making the gap between them just a little bit smaller.

 So how good is Homestuck as a story?  I’m leaving the answer of that question up to you, since it's not important to what I'm saying.  If nothing else, Homestuck is worth looking at because of how it’s written.  Hussie is paving the way for new media writers by taking storytelling chances and by testing reader reaction.  That is the value of Homestuck, and while my opinions on it may be mixed, I hold Hussie in high esteem.


  1. To preface, I have not read Homestuck.

    What elements of the multimedia nature of Homestuck do you think are most valuable/important, and how do you think it would have been different if some elements were missing?

    I have drafted a story that I planned on turning into a series of novels. When I realized the scope of my work, however, I realized that it would take me several decades to finish the series. So I'm reconsidering the format.

    How important do you think the crowd-sourcing and RPG videogame elements of Homestuck are to its success? In other words, do you think it is possible to 'port' a lengthy, conventional story to the web format?

    To be specific, I would plan on keeping the visual art and the text/narration separate the way Homestuck did. Either I would hire an artist, or else the art would be sub-par. I would try to use music to subtly convey mood, much in the way movies use it unobtrusively.

    I would do away with the interactive aspects such as flash games, although I would of course keep the fandom feedback to gauge reader reaction. But in your opinion, how much of the GIF animation is necessary? I would away with the minor animation of simple GIFs, and instead use stills.

    The more complex GIFs, though, like your example above, convey a lot of information about the form of the narrative. Of the seven points you make about that GIF, I think points 3 and 5 accurately describe my idea. I know they can be conveyed without using GIF animation. However, points 2, 6, and 7 would take a backseat to the narrative itself. Only when a theme or moral needed to be communicated to the reader community (the fandom, if I may be pretentious enough to hypothesize having one) would the narrator or characters break the fourth wall, and the series is only as interactive as the preexisting story allows for the inevitable fan theories and predictions.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Also I forgot to ask... that last paragraph about GIF animation was supposed to lead up to the question "Is GIF animation an essential part of the multimedia experience for the reader?"

      Hussie himself describes Homestuck as "the overarching experience is actually more similar to reading a book."

      My point is that I would like to try and use multimedia to cut down on the production time for a lengthy work, and make the story more reader-friendly by precisely using storytelling methods other than text.

      If I were looking for an artist for the visuals, in your opinion would I additionally need to look for someone with knowledge of how to make GIF artwork, or could the motion-image aspect be cut from the form?

    2. Thanks for the response! Let me see if I can answer your questions.

      Homestuck's multimedia success lies largely in GIFs or still images paired with text and in flash videos. The video games are, admittedly, a bit superfluous. He does the games in several different ways, but they all seem to lack that vital element that makes them feel necessary. The best integration would probably be something along the lines of the Myst homage.
      The reader interaction is a huge part of Homestuck's success. The Interactive Fiction style just lends itself to that very well. As for porting traditional narratives: first, I'd say "adapt" rather than "port," since a port is just a straight shift from one platform to another and e-books, streaming, and the like all pretty much fall into the "port" category. As for whether something can be adapted...yes, but it depends on the story and, more importantly, the formatting. The internet offers endless possibilities for formatting, and it's how you tell the story that matters.

      For Homestuck, GIF animation is pretty key since it uses GIFs to provide a sense of motion and it's part of it's style. It's hardly necessary in general, though. I'd maybe recommend checking out Hyperbole and a Half for an example of narratives that use still images. I admit that I haven't actually read more than an article or two, but it's something that's primarily text-based with images to add emphasis, so it might help you out.

      Ultimately, though, you should know one thing: making something multimedia is a terrible way to cut back on work. Maybe you're not doing all the work, but you still need to find people who have the skills you lack, manage them, communicate your vision to them so they can portray it accurately, and other things that I'm probably forgetting. In addition, you'll have to make sure that they actually WANT to work with you, whether it's through some form of compensation or just a shared artistic vision. Not an easy process, and while it may cut back on the writing you do, it will probably actually take more work. And that's assuming that there are no delays for whatever reason, which would increase production time dramatically.

      Really, the only thing that switching something to a multimedia format would reduce is the amount of text in the story. If you're worried about length and time, a better idea might be to drastically rethink the structure of your story. Do you have superfluous characters? Are all your plot points really necessary? Can you cut things entirely? Remember, brevity is the soul of wit! Fantasy writers in particular seem to have this problem, for some reason. Even J.R.R. Tolkien seemed far more interested in playing around with his world and showcasing his languages than telling a story. If you want to make something shorter, changing mediums won't necessarily help. Instead, concentrate on dialing back your scope and refining your focus.

      Hope that helps! I'd love to chat with you more if you're interested, though!

  2. I know this article isn't exactly new, but this was a really interesting read. I'm an English major and I want to take a linguistics track for a post grad degree and study Internet English, on the side I do new media art so this is right up my alley. You are making me consider changing to a English for New Media degree, though. I just wish it were offered here.

    You've given me things to think about in terms of the use of new media. Have a lovely day~