In this blog piece, Joachim Buur, who has just completed his MA in English Literature at Cardiff University discusses his work on Andrew Hussie’s webcomic Homestuck and the implications it has for fans in the digital world.
I’m honoured to be here as a rookie scholar and a fan to tell you a bit about the paper I gave at the Word. Image. Digital. Symposium, whose full title is ‘The Symbionic Cybertext Machine: Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck and its Fans as a Cyborg Collective’. Unfortunately I don’t have nearly enough room here to make the title make sense, so instead I hope to give you some idea of the general thrust of my paper. Shortly put, it’s about the webcomic Homestuck and the ways in which its author Andrew Hussie and his fans have gone through a co-evolution process, together working to create a narrative experience which could only have arisen (and only makes sense) in an online social context.
I suspect that most readers won’t be familiar with Homestuck — still, it’s currently the largest webcomic in existence, with just over 10,000 pages numbering a staggering 875,000 words in total. At its core, Homestuck is a story-driven webcomic — that is, a comic hosted online. It comes in a page format (rather than strip) and has a single long-running storyline, which has been released incrementally over exactly seven years in countless little updates. As for what it looks like, I think it is best in this case to show rather than tell. Homestuck quickly outgrows the purview of your regular webcomic, incorporating animations, music, remixed photos and art pulled from the internet and even short sections that have to be played like a video game.
The first page of Homestuck
In accordance with its peculiar aesthetics, the story is all over the place. The gist of it is that there are four kids who await the release of the video game ‘Sburb’, which they soon discover possesses terrible reality-altering powers. The story takes place almost entirely within the Sburb game world, and the kids must win the game to create a new universe. The internal reality of Homestuck is known as Paradox Space, and is held together by spatial and temporal paradoxes. Accordingly, the plot is a baffling series of time-travelling and dimension-spanning gambits. To defeat the main villain, the indestructible cosmic entity Lord English, the kids must make use of all the ‘game mechanics’ that Sburb has to offer, as well as its glitches and exploits.
Starting out in a decidedly goofy mode, the story quickly evolves (devolves?) into a grotesque and sprawling, but at times serious and heartfelt tale. All the seemingly mismatched ideas that it piles onto itself turn out to resonate together amazingly well, producing something that I and a lot of fellow readers felt was weirder, bigger, and more unique than anything we had seen before. Homestuck is low-brow, vulgar and irreverent, but manages to deal with pop culture, teenage drama, creation myths, complex metaphysics, the hero’s quest and the plight of the internet-bound generation all in the same breath. In everything — from the art styles to the plot, its cultural borrowings and the way in which characters communicate exclusively over chat clients — Homestuck embodies the internet age.
Clockwise from top left: the kids, Lord English, the Sburb game world, Sburb video game
Hussie has professed that his Homestuck creation process involved little to no editing: “The challenge is always to take whatever idea I have for what’s next, do it now, and somehow make it work, even if it’s kind of stupid or just totally nuts.” It must be said that as a result, Homestuck is a rather inconsistent, dense and oddly-paced work that is pretty difficult to get through. Indeed, it has been called ‘the Ulysses of the internet’, a title not wholly undeserved in terms of readability. A lot of the time, reading often comes down to slogging.
And yet, Homestuck has had a vast and spirited fanbase for most of its run. As with any other online fanbase, Homestuck fans engage in the mass production of ‘fan artefacts’ such as artwork, fan fiction, memes and videos. The complete Homestuck soundtrack now comprises a total of 27 volumes, all composed by fan contributors. Hussie has always encouraged active fan participation; and what’s more, he has always made grateful and gratuitous use of his fans’ ideas and commentaries to steer the direction of Homestuck. As he once explained, ‘the themes the story deals with usually flow in the path of least resistance, as carved out by the forces of nature which are represented by the greater interests and enthusiasms of the readership.’ This is not limited to an extensive use of fan-submitted art and music, as Homestuck is also filled to the brim with in-jokes, nods and jabs directed at the fans. Experienced readers will get the distinct sense that every page is speaking directly to the fans.
Hussie’s regard for his fans is not limited to a meta-level, either: it consistently and concretely crops up in plot development. An illustrative example is the character of Vriska Serket, who at one point so far eclipsed other characters in popularity that discussions about her would incite controversy without fail. Fans were fiercely divided over her flaws and merits as a character, and Hussie quickly picked up on this. He began to give her increasingly prominent roles in the plot, whitewashing her flaws and deliberately fueling the controversy. She was even brought back from the dead, and ultimately rose to play an instrumental part in defeating the big bad. It is an example of the deliberate subversion of fan expectations for which Hussie has become notorious. At the same time, it demonstrates the specificity with which Homestuck was written for a certain audience: that is, the very audience it generated in the first place. The kind of thing that happened with Vriska could only be understood by those in the know about the goings-on in the fandom and its idiosyncratic culture.
A selection of Homestuck fan contributions/activities
Homestuck’s evolution over the years can thus be summed up as follows: with each update, Hussie inspired the formation of fan-cultural elements, which he then internalised into the comic in forms ranging from simple references and jokes to grand subversions that come to dictate the entire plot. There was a symbiosis at play: Homestuck spawned its own fandom, co-evolved with that fandom, made itself about that fandom, and therefore slowly grew dependent on that fandom for its own meaning. Naturally, the relationship works the same in reverse. Viewed in this light, the fandom begins to take on a medium-like quality, since to a large extent Homestuck relies on the fans to interpet, work out and explain the ideas it wants to communicate. As such, the fandom acts not only as an important creative driver for Homestuck, but also as the filter through which the Homestuck text is transmitted to the audience. I have likened reading Homestuck to ‘reading a fandom’ rather than reading a comic.
Author-fan feedback loops are, of course, not a phenomenon unique to the internet, but the degree of symbiosis exhibited by the Homestuck-fan complex – to the point where the work is intelligible only with a working knowledge of the fanbase – is undoubtedly strongly aided by an online context. It is the near-instant communication of ideas, the close proximity between author and reader, and the ease with which fan artefacts are created using digital technology that have allowed the phenomenon of Homestuck to come into being. They allow author and fandom to become so entangled as to act like a unified, yet multivalent text-creation machine.
A glimpse of Homestuck’s enormous variety
As such, what I believe Homestuck brings to the fiction-writing table is not any sort of novel type of metaphorical meaning or novel way of reading that is unique to the internet. Rather, it embodies a new writing procedure. Hussie has allowed his work to enter into a co-writing process with one of the internet’s most intriguing literary inventions: a productive fandom capable of existing in the very same medium as the work it celebrates and of acting as an extension and embodiment of that medium. What is the internet but a colossal instantiation of communication? In a sense, Homestuck is the manifestation of a particular chunk of the communication web.
Now we come can answer the question of what makes Homestuck a work of ‘pure internet’. It is the process by which it was composed that is internet-specific, as well as its life support system, the symbiotic relationship with fans. As a natural consequence of co-opting its fans into its own creation, Homestuck channels the ‘spirit’ of the internet, characterised by playfulness, irreverence, mockery of the lofty and celeberation of the lowly. It is a work that is deeply reverent towards the internet and its denizens. Furthermore, in all its vulgarity it has became something grand and utterly absurd which is difficult to fully comprehend – again like the internet itself.
My aim has not been to make a case for Homestuck as a literary text, but rather to give you a glimpse of why it might be considered emblematic of a certain type of literary phenomenon that goes on online. Nevertheless, I hope I have inspired some of you to go out and read it! It is worth the slog.