A young man stands in his bedroom. It just so happens that today, the 13th of April, is this young man’s birthday. Though it was thirteen years ago he was given life, it is only today he will be given a name!
What will the name of this young man be?
With these words, three years ago today, Andrew Hussie launched Homestuck. Fans of his previous comic, Problem Sleuth, expected its wacky humour and adventure-game parody style to continue. But the story of four kids and a game that changes the world quickly ballooned into something much more; it widened its scope to incorporate epic fantasy, romance, horror and other genres. Today, Homestuck is one of the biggest webcomics of all time, with nearly 5000 pages uploaded in just three years. It has a readership of over 1 million, and a vocal fandom that’s almost cult-like in its devotion.
As we readers like to say, nothing is a coincidence. And although Homestuck’s rise to internet fame is incredible (and a little scary), it’s no coincidence either. The comic is tailor-made to attract people of a geeky mindset, who love to immerse themselves in fictional worlds and pick them apart with other fans. It’s structured to encourage and reward the type of passionate fan behaviours geeks tend to engage in already.
If you’re like me, when you read fiction you don’t just read the story that’s presented to you. You speculate, you start to think about the little details that were left unsaid. This is especially true for SF and fantasy works, which often allude to entire alien worlds that the reader is left to imagine. Homestuck takes place in a massive world based on a video game called Sburb, which is host to multiple timelines, planets and species. As befits a game-like world, there are several recurring patterns that invite speculation. Each character playing Sburb will have an associated class, element, planet, etc. within the game, so when new characters are introduced, the reader is encouraged to imagine how they will fit into the game’s cosmology. For example, before the trolls were introduced, we already knew that there would be twelve of them, each associated with a zodiac sign. This was enough to get fans discussing what they would look and act like and what role they would play.
The troll example also illustrates a principle that Homestuck uses to reward its fans: the author will listen to what fans want and incorporate it into the story. Hussie has stated that he did not originally intend for us to meet all twelve trolls, but then he saw how much discussion was going on about them. So he gave them an entire sub-act to themselves and greatly expanded their role in the story. This is far from the only case of reader interaction – in fact, in its first year, the commands at the top of each page were largely sent in by readers, just like in Problem Sleuth. But as the fandom kept growing, it became impossible to sift through the thousands of suggestions, so the suggestion box was closed. Today, Hussie is far more likely to respond to fans by reading fan theories and turning them into canon. It can be difficult to tell which plot points were planned beforehand and which are a response to fans, but he has said that “ninety percent of ‘calling it’ is really influencing it in disguise”. This encourages readers to post their theories on the forum in the hopes that they can influence the plot.
Which brings us to the plot itself. If there’s one thing Homestuck is known for, it’s for being confusing. I’m finding it difficult in this article to talk about any plot points specifically, simply because there are so many dozens of plot threads that I’d have to give paragraphs of explanation. The first few acts are spent setting up the complex language of concepts, motifs and images that are then used to tell the rest of the story, and you must learn that language to understand the story. Callbacks are used liberally to illustrate similarities between scenes, and you’re expected to remember plot points that were introduced a thousand pages ago and never mentioned since.
This structure is another way in which the comic styles itself for geeks. Homestuck doesn’t merely encourage fans to talk to each other about the plot; it practically requires it. I know there were several updates I didn’t quite understand until I read what other people were saying about it, and I’ve been reading live since Act 2; I can only imagine how someone who read most of it archivally managed to process the plot. Add to this the fact that Hussie sometimes clarifies plot points outside the comic on his Tumblr, and it becomes obvious that Homestuck really isn’t trying to be accessible or easy to get into. Instead, it tells its story to fans that are already hooked and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the canon.
Yet paradoxically, it’s only gotten more popular the more complex and weird it gets. I think part of this may be a feedback effect; as fans talk about Homestuck, more people outside the community start seeing snippets of it out of context and wonder what they mean. I post on Something Awful’s Homestuck thread, and I’ve seen dozens of people say they started reading because they saw the many troll avatars elsewhere on the forums and got curious. It probably helps that Homestuck discussion can seem like an alien language to an outsider. What’s a moirail? Why do you need to be warned about stairs? What does Nicolas Cage have to do with any of this? In a lot of cases, having someone explain it to you just leads to more questions, to the point where it’d just be easier to read it yourself. That is, of course, if you find the weirdness compelling instead of alienating, and if you’re willing to put in some effort.
But perhaps the most important reason geeks love Homestuck isn’t because it’s for us, but because it’s about us. Most of the characters are based on stereotypical “internet personalities”: the Striders are ultra-ironic hipsters, Nepeta’s a shipper, Vriska’s a hardcore roleplayer and there are several characters that could be considered furries. Virtually every character seems to live their whole life on the internet, staying in their homes (hence the title), talking with their friends over IM far more frequently than in person. Yet the text does not condemn or mock such lifestyles. It’s just a part of who they are and how they express themselves. If there’s one lesson to be taken from Homestuck, it’s that relationships forged over the internet are just as real and valid as any other. John is socially awkward and had never met any of his best friends in person before they started the game together (he still hasn’t officially met Dave!) but they mean everything to him, and he to them. Homestuck shows us shy, introverted types with odd hobbies that it’s okay to be who we are, that people just like us can be heroes.
There’s even more I could say, but this article is getting as verbose as a pesterlog. These are my observations from over two years of watching Homestuck grow from a niche comic to a subculture all its own. I never thought the comic would last for three years, but I’ve learned that nothing about Homestuck is ever what you thought it would be. There really is no other experience quite like it. Happy 4/13.