IT’S HARD AND NOBODY UNDERSTANDS: Annotations and Commentary on Andrew Hussie’s HomestuckPosted: October 28, 2012
Things have been a little quiet around here lately. That’s partially because other duties have beckoned (Psych Today, book stuff, a new part-time job) but also because I’ve been kicking around a little project that’s turned out to be much larger and more complicated than I anticipated. As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books, and I’m particularly interested in works that try new or interesting things with the medium. I’ve recently gotten a little tangled up in a very popular online serial published by author/illustrator Andrew Hussie. Although I’ve poked around, I haven’t seen much substantive criticism of this particular comic on any of the usual blogs, so I thought I’d attempt some of my own.
So, deep breath…
It’s a webcomic. It’s a serial illustrated novel. It’s a record label for indie electronica. It’s the worst RPG sourcebook ever. It’s Infinite Jest meets Scott Pilgrim meets 4Chan. It’s David Lynch and Suda 51’s remake of Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. It’s one of those Scholastic Book Club videogame novelizations/”strategy guides” they made in the 80s for stuff like Castlevania, about the greatest videogame of all time, except the videogame doesn’t exist. It is a memetic parasite that drags its host into isolation and obsession like something out of Lovecraft.
Homestuck, brainchild of MS Paint Adventures mastermind Andrew Hussie, is the story of John: a kid playing a videogame that can alter the fabric of his universe. With the help of a co-player (who screws with John’s environment using a giant green cursor a la SimCity) John builds a portal and enters a videogame world – complete with vicious monsters, hapless villagers, and a heroic destiny. The circumstances of the adventure, the “rules” of the game, are complex and frequently obscure – Hussie trusts his audience to read between the lies and parse out his world’s dizzying mythology. Time-travel, parallel worlds, alternate selves and extradimensional travel eventually come into play. It’s a trip.
And the complexity of Homestuck’s universe is matched by the ceaseless innovation of Hussie’s storytelling. Homestuck does things with words and pictures I have never seen before, in comics or any other medium, ever. The formal experimentation here allows Hussie to play with perspective, continuity, and metatextuality. Not only are these techniques formally innovative, they also directly relate to the story’s central themes of adolescence, creativity, responsibility, solipsism, irony, and the conflict between free will and determinism.
For these reasons, Homestuck is very difficult to get into, and even veteran readers may miss critical information. I’ve written these annotations with a new reader in mind, and I hope you’ll find them helpful in orienting yourself in Homestuck’s dizzying world. What follows are my annotations for the first act of Hussie’s planned seven act opus: you can download further annotations on the second act here. I’ll post here to keep you updated as I continue writing and revising the annotations.
What this guide is not:
Up ‘til now, despite it’s massive, loyal and financially lucrative base of readers, no one’s attempted serious criticism of Homestuck. This is a vast and intricate work, and one worthy of serious consideration by diverse intellects.
I am not diverse intellects. I’m working off of a three-year-old undergraduate degree in English Literature and a couple of Wikipedia pages. There are entire schools of critical thought that could be productively applied to Homestuck that I’m simply not qualified to employ. What I’m trying to do here is start a conversation about the work, its merits and its flaws – but it’s only a start, and hopefully not a conclusion.
This also means that I have not attempted to catalogue every instance of a particular turn of phrase or image composition over the course of the series. Such an undertaking might be useful, but it’s beyond the scope of what I, one bro, can accomplish.
In addition: this document is not intended an apologia for Homestuck or for Hussie. As I’m sure Hussie would be the first to admit, Homestuck is an experimental and improvisational work, and as such is vulnerable to digressions and to editorial oversight. When I notice contradictions, or unclear storytelling, or problematic themes, I will point them out and pick them apart and try to make sense of them in the context of the whole. Homestuck is deeply flawed, but even its flaws can be instructive.
And that’s why I’m convinced that critical analysis of Homestuck is so important. Homestuck, as both a text and a phenomenon, is unprecedented. If you are interested in the cutting edge of comics storytelling and graphic lit, you need to read Homestuck. If you care about the future of popular fiction and serialized fiction, you need to be reading Homestuck. If you’re a major publisher and you despair of readers supporting your work in an age of rampant piracy and free digital content, you need to be reading Homestuck.
It’s a steep climb, but we’ll be making it together – I hope I can keep you from missing a step and taking a tumble. But if you do, remember, you knew exactly what you were getting into.
I warned you about stairs, bro.
I told you, dog.
What this guide is:
I have an academic background in literary criticism and creative writing. I’m also a longtime comic book fan, and I’ve done a little reading on sequential storytelling. So my criticism of Homestuck will focus on a couple of areas:
- Recurring themes (some of which I listed above, some of which we’ll develop over the course of these annotations), particularly engagement with and criticism of contemporary youth and internet culture.
- Character development and subtext. I’m of the DotA, close reading school, so we’ll be picking apart little stuff (turns of phrase, off-hand moments) to see what they imply about the characters.
- Sequential storytelling. Like I’ve said, I’m a comics fan. The MS Paint Adventures format isn’t quite like anything else I’ve encountered in graphic literature, but Hussie employs many of the tricks we see in print comics and traditional media – or finds clever ways to incorporate sound and animation.
Eventually, I’d like this document to include an appendix featuring short essays on major characters and themes. I’m also very interested in other attempts criticism of Homestuck, and I’d be thrilled to learn of something important that I’ve missed: if you have corrections or concerns, get in touch, and I’ll be happy to credit you in future revisions.
Now, on to the…
1901 – From the very beginning, Homestuck alludes to the mechanics of videogames and interactive fiction, while denying the reader any kind of meaningful participation in the narrative.
This is a fundamental rule of the story’s presentation: Homestuck is told in the second person, with the audience as “player,” directing the actions of the characters in the story. Except obviously we aren’t actually controlling anything – Homestuck is a comic, not a videogame, and no matter how badly we want to we can’t choose this beady-eyed fellow’s name.
And the format is unique as well. You get one “panel” per “page” – but this single unit of storytelling (very handy for annotation purposes, incidentally) could be anything from a still image, to a short animation, to an interactive game, to a music video. Text and art are generally separate, and many pages feature simple illustrations but huge blocks of text.
The other unique thing about Homestuck is that the reader will always move forward by clicking the link at the bottom of the page; the mere process of proceeding through the narrative implicates the reader in its progression in a way that, say, reading a book or a comic doesn’t, and the author will employ a variety of ingenious ways of exploiting this over the course of the text.
Moving on: Homestuck was published on April 13th, or 4/13. 413 is kind of the LOST number of Homestuck, appearing again and again so suggest some kind of creepy cosmic synchronicity. I tried, and eventually gave up, on documenting every instance of this number in the comic. But they are there if you want to look for them.
1902 – “Zoosmell Pooplord.” Already we’re getting into “trolling,” which, for the uninitiated, is a very peculiar sort of perversity in discourse unique to the internet. The practice is named after troll fishing, in which a net is let out to drift through the ocean, allowing passing fish to entangle themselves. Online trolling started when clever agitators learned to set traps on message boards by posting particularly incendiary comments, and then sit back and enjoy the chaos as infuriated commentators tried to engage with their nonsense. From here, trolling has expanded to encompass any exploitation of the anonymity and reach of the internet to start trouble. Start a conversation online and I guarantee: someone, anonymously, will respond with the most inappropriate answer imaginable. And you’ll have no idea whether they mean it, or whether they’re just trying to mess with your head.
Tellingly, here, the author blames this choice of name on his readers – it is taken for granted that, were we given such a level of control over the comic, we would try to derail the narrative by giving the protagonist the most ludicrous name possible…
1903 – “John Egbert.”
…except we aren’t allowed to. The author makes it clear immediately who’s really pulling the strings. Note John’s response to both suggestions: he grimaces at the first and smiles at the second. Even though he may not have control over his destiny (any more than we, the audience, can control it) he is allowed an emotional response to his circumstances.
1904 – We get our first glimpse at John’s highly dubious taste in media.
1905-7 – We get a bit of business involving the abstract representation of John’s “sprite” and the message is clear: reality is fluid in Homestuck, and visual and gameplay abstractions can be employed or ignored by the author at whim to serve the needs of the story. John is both a thirteen-year-old boy with a family and history, and at the same time a videogame character with no prior existence who needs to be named by the reader.
The device of the reader helping John move his cake is a little incongruous, and is quickly abandoned by the comic – although at this stage of the story it’s likely employed as a way to further disorient the reader re:his or her agency – we see an icon representing “our” mouse when really all we can do is keep clicking on the next command. Also, shades of this concept will remain in the interface of the SBURB game.
The narrative refers to John’s “Captchalogue” and “Sylladex” for the first time: a videogamesque item storage system, with quirks that will figure prominently in the antics of the first few acts. Oddly, when referring to these devices the narrator tells John: “You have no idea what that actually means though.” This is quickly proven false, as the story establishes that John and all other characters have access to this system and have since birth. But the statement is also true in a sense: we the readers haven’t heard these words before, and as a character in the alleged “videogame” the reader is “playing” John hasn’t either – he did not exist prior to our booting up the game and naming him.
1910 – John tries, and fails, to use his prop arms, due to gameplay mechanics neither he nor the reader quite understands…
1915 – …and here he sends the damn things flying out uncontrollably. I hope you find idea amusing, because we’ll be seeing a lot of it for the next five-hundred-odd pages. I’ll try to indicate where you can safely skip past this stuff without missing anything important.
1916 – “Squawk like an imbecile and shit on your desk.” Perversity, again, as the reader instructs John to do the most horrible and inappropriate thing possible at the moment. And yet John refuses; he has some integrity of character, it seems, and though the reader (or more accurately, the prewritten commands attributed to the reader) can instruct him we can’t force him to do anything he wouldn’t otherwise.
It’s also worth noting, as someone who suffers from intrusive thoughts OCD, that John’s horror at this inexplicable image and his inability to get it out of his mind both suggest the symptoms of the disorder. That said, I doubt this was intentional, and in any case all characters struggle with these sorts of horrible fleeting figments over the course of the narrative (as most people do, OCD or not), so we aren’t learning anything special about John’s psychology.
(It’s also worth noting that at this point of the story the author was still incorporating reader commands and suggestions into the narrative. There’s no indication as to which commands were suggested versus which were invented by the author, however, so I’ll be approaching Homestuck as a late-arriving reader with no to no knowledge of this aspect of the storytelling. It seems fair to take the archived narrative at face value, and in any case many of the commands presumably sent in by frustrated or impatient readers are incorporated to further the work’s subversion of reader expectations and it’s theme of predestination vs. free will – so it all fits together fine.)
1921 – John loves mediocre movies. That said: in terms of quality of the media he enjoys and the unhealthiness and intensity of his fascination, he is in this respect hardly the worst character in the comic.
1924 – John’s browser is “Typheus” and his IM program is “Pesterchum.” The latter, along with the replacing of the “Start” command on his menu bar with “Actuate”, demonstrate the author’s fondness for unnecessarily verbose synonyms. This is a well we’ll be returning to.
1926 – First appearance of turntechGodhead, aka Dave Strider. Note the character’s unique typing styles and colors – given comic’s expansive cast, this is a smart way to help the reader instantly identify who is speaking to whom.
1930 – John’s discomfort interacting with his father, his begrudging attitude towards his friends, his sense of being “stuck” in his room – these all suggest to me social anxiety, that John is not a kid that gets out much. While John seems pretty normal, it can hardly be a mistake that our hero seems to have no offline friends in a comic so concerned with internet culture.
1931 – The author integrates some of his previous works into the comic as fictional videogames. This self-referentiality Is A Thing – Homestuck will eventually introduce a library of fictional stories, games and films, many of which will intersect with multiple levels of reality in the narrative.
1935 – Dave knows how the Sylladex works. This is both indicative of the slightly murky nature of the “game mechanics” at this point in the story, and John’s role as “player character” – he doesn’t know this stuff even though it’s apparently common knowledge, because we, the “players” of the game, don’t. Dave’s adopting the role of a helpful NPC here, like the forest elves in Zelda who teach the player to press B to swing the sword, even though as characters inside a videogame they have no context for understanding what a “B Button” is and anyway Link should already know how do to it his damn self.
1941 – Here’s one of our first examples of (terrible) media and culture within Homestuck – the “Game Bro” magazine.
1947 – …developed further with Dad’s love of “harlequins.”
1948 – Repeating flash animation is used frequently in Homestuck. I find pages like this, where a simple loop of a flame in the fireplace, to be effective at enhancing the atmosphere of the story without being too showy; pages that show complicated animations of characters inevitably loose a little of their impact when they loop and start again.
1950 – “‘The moon’s an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun.’ -Mark Twain. You are almost certain Mark Twain said that.”
John is wrong, as the author presumably knows – the quotation is from William Shakespeare. (Although since Mark Twain is the model for John’s favorite old-timey jokesmith, Col. Sassacre, the misattribution is significant.)
The line also provided the title for Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, another innovative work that employs multiple media (a poem and its annotations) and engages in multiple levels of fiction and reality (it is suggested that the supposed annotator is in fact an invention of the fictional poet).
1961 – “Examine 3rd and 4th walls of room.” A winking reference to the metafictional elements of the story, and a reminder of John’s highly suspect taste in cinema.
1963 – First appearance of Rose Lalonde, our tentacle therapist. John’s absolute earnestness is probably the distinguishing aspect of his character (observe in this installment his extremely lame prank, which Rose gamely tolerates). His personality is largely transparent at this point, and more complicated and interesting characters will eventually eclipse him – but his sincerity and emotional transparency will make him, if nothing else, a reliable foil for more devious personalities. Already, we see a little tension as he talks with sarcastic Dave and sophisticated Rose.
1969 – First excerpt of Colonel Sassacre’s. The old-timey pastiche language seems to owe something to Chris Onstad’s Achewood (as does Dave Strider’s hip-hop vernacular, for that matter).
1970-81 – A bunch of sylladex nonsense, not important.
1982 – Consider this excerpt:
“The streets are empty. Wind skims the voids keeping neighbors apart, as if grazing the hollow of a cut reed, or say, a plundered mailbox. A familiar note is produced. It’s the one Desolation plays to keep its instrument in tune.
It is your thirteenth birthday, and as with all twelve preceding it, something feels missing from your life.”
A bit overwritten, but I consider this passage to be as good a summation of the melancholy at the core of Homestuck as the text has provided: it evokes the loneliness of growing up in American suburbia and building friendships mediated by information technology. That’s what the title of the series evokes, I think: to be at Home, to be somewhere that is supposed to be same and nurturing and comfortable, but to be Stuck there.
Google informs me this quote is taken from the Maxims of François de La Rochefoucauld – the obvious misquotation serves to undermine the poignancy of the preceding paragraph, a technique we’ll see used extensively over the course of the narrative. Hussie is fond of subverting serious moments in the story – whether this is an attempt to jerk around his audience, or to cover his own ass after rare moments of sincerity with a “jk, lol”, is left for the reader to decide.
1984 – …and any trace of poignancy or subtlety remaining is thoroughly extinguished by John’s sudden impulse to poop in the mailbox. Because the fake Walt Whitman quote wasn’t enough, I suppose.
1990 – But here’s one of Homestuck’s most impressive devices – the fake RPG battle.
I love Homestuck’s fake RPG battles. They are impressive bits of programming that take advantage of the story’s multimedia format and express, interactively, several of the story’s key themes:
1. They make a complete mockery of the mechanics of the RPG genre. In most role-playing games, the player participates in codified turn-based combat, selecting attacks and techniques from a menu to strategically beat down his foes. Of course, in many examples of the genre, the tactical element is forgotten, and combat is reduced to mindless repetition, as the player character grows stronger while enemies become weaker and weaker, and merely selecting a couple of arbitrary attacks is enough to trigger the end of combat with fanfare and spoils aplenty. It’s all a bit hollow and pointless. Homestuck’s RPG combat sticks a knife in this, though. Your attacks don’t do anything, and you can’t win – only select the same techniques over and over again until you give up and artificially end the “battle” by moving to the next page. You haven’t accomplished anything, and you receive no reward or commendation for it.
2. They suggest the infantile psychology of the player characters – John can’t conceive of this interaction with his father as anything but a conflict, and a conflict based on a videogame at that, even though a clear-minded appraisal of the situation shows that Dad just wants to wish his son a happy birthday. John looks pretty bad at the end of this – it’s the clearest criticism we’ve seen yet of the character and his worldview.
3. Again, they taunt the player with the promise of agency and interactivity, but the choices offered are all meaningless– frustrating the player and suggesting the work’s theme of predestination. If you can’t deal with being mocked as a reader (or even worse, if you don’t recognize the criticism of the audience here), you probably won’t enjoy Homestuck.
1992 – The mechanic of the “Prankster’s Gambit” is another example of John’s need to quantify abstract experiences – conflict can only be understood in numerical, videogame-derived terms.
1993-2008 – More sylladex nonsense of dubious relevance. Skip if you like.
2010 – First appearance of Jade, the garden Gnostic. Hussie plays this character close to his chest, so we won’t get much from her except for cryptic remarks and enthusiasm for a long time. GG, as you may know, is an internet acronym for “good game” – perhaps a nod to the character’s polite and enthusiastic demeanor.
2012 – First appearance of the Midnight Crew, who are a feature on the in-comic version of the MS Paint Adventures website, and also actual characters capable of interacting with the protagonists. The key to this is the in-comic presence of Hussie himself, but that’s a whole other headache so we won’t bother with him for a while.
2016 – Parody/pastiche of the “For Dummies” books.
2017-31 – SO much sylladex nonsense, although John’s reaction to his accidental desecration of his McConaughey poster is amusing.
2035 – John isn’t the brightest, is he?
2037 – This is an extended reference to the opening sequence of the original Will Wright “Sim” games, which featured similarly nonsensical “loading…” comments.
These games, and “The Sims” in particular, were apparently a major inspiration for the SBURB (i.e. Sim-Suburb) game system within the story.
2038 – “TT: Select magic chest.” For the first time, we’ve adopted the perspective of tentacleTherapist, aka Rose Lalonde.
INTERLUDE: I think there could be some value, for new readers, in reviewing the arcane mechanics of this bit of the SBURB game. John and his pals figure this out as they go along anyway, but if you’re having trouble following here’s the progression:
1. The Cruxtruder produces a “Kernel Sprite.” This Sprite can be combined with an object to produce a helpful spirit guide. Doing so increases the complexity of the in-game Battlefield (a good thing, and necessary to win the game) and imbues in-game enemies with attributes from the object (often a bad thing).
2. It also begins a countdown, summoning deadly meteors to destroy the player’s homeworld (a very bad thing.)
3. Finally, it produces a cylinder of cruxite.
4. The cruxite can be used with the totem lathe and a pre-punched information card to create a totem.
5. The totem can be used with the alchemeter to produce an artifact that, when destroyed, teleports the player and his or her home into the Medium (the game world).
2041 – EB:
Poor John! The emoticon is, incidentally, one of the neat advantages of the IM format Hussie uses for most of the dialogue – emoticons have the power of hieroglyphics, as visual representations of a character’s emotional state interspersed amid textual information. It’s something I wish more comics creators would try – comics are made of words and pictures and it’s neat to see them interact in an unexpected way.
2060 – John’s denial of his “pent-up frustration with [his] father” gives us a sense of how this kid deals with unpleasant emotions – by burying them under layers of optimism and enthusiasm. It’s not a particularly healthy coping mechanism, and it’s one we’ll see him struggle to overcome over the course of the story.
2064 – TT acts haughty and superior, but for the first time we see her get a little flustered as she messes something up.
2074 – Like John, TT seems anxious to avoid interacting with her parent.
2114 – And our formal introduction to Rose Lalonde, aka TT. Note the poster on her wall, Sigmund Freud with a Cthulhu head – a literal tentacled therapist.
2129 – Irony rears its ugly head, as it relates to the Lalonde family intergenerational dynamics, and wizards.
2146 – John receives his cruxite artifact, an apple. He bites into it, leaving his childhood neighborhood and entering the game world. The Edenic symbolism here is pretty obvious.
2147 – END OF ACT 1
That concludes my annotations for the first act. For a document containing the complete annotations for the first and second acts, click here. Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have any suggestions or corrections in the comments below.