by Kevin Czap
If you’re the kind of person who feels strongly about not having Homestuck spoiled for you, you might think twice about reading further. I’ll be addressing the most recent events of the comic, although probably not in any more detail than you’re sure to find surfing around on Tumblr. Either way, consider this a Spoiler Warning
Folks who’ve been following my opinions on comics are familiar with my feeling that Andrew Hussie is making some really clever, intelligent, daring and important work. His Problem Sleuth is one of my all time favorite comics for many reasons. Hussie’s current work in progress is the far more complex epic Homestuck. Aside from the top-notch comedy, engaging characters (maybe an understatement?) and labyrinthine plot, Homestuck has also given Hussie an excuse to pull off some really fascinating experiments in pushing the boundaries of what comics on the web are capable of. My intention is to take a look at one of the most recent.
In the image above, we see the typical layout of the Homestuck website. It’s a pretty common setup for a webcomic – the comic panel front and center, surrounded by archive links, news items and space for advertisers, one of the few ways webcomics can make money. Over the past few months, this layout has taken something of a summer vacation, as events in the story led up to a slight interruption. Beginning in May, when the comic became “unplayable,” visitors to the site have found themselves under the hospitality of Doc Scratch, seen below. To mark the change, the entire surrounding site received the very green makeover you see here.
At this point, skinning the site layout is a nice touch from Hussie that signals his attention to detail and his deeper understanding of his craft. It’s nice for the invested reader to be rewarded with this application of immersive storytelling. While the narrative is on pause, the reader becomes subject to Scratch’s smarmy omniscience, as he explains some of the more obscure plot points and dangling threads in his very polite manner. Things continue on in this manner comfortably enough, and we become used to the new site digs.
It’s at the point when Hussie’s repeated this setup enough so that we become unsuspecting that he reveals his more interesting plans for it. Our narrator Scratch mentions at one point that he’ll be playing host to more guests (besides yourself, of course), and so we shouldn’t be too surprised when he goes off to prepare. But when he shows up again in the banner image above, it strikes you – of course.
Hussie splits the action between two different locations on the same webpage, similar to the branching paths in Rebecca Dart’s Rabbithead. What’s so amazing here, though, is how he’s really getting so much mileage out of the context of the webpage. As people who have totally gotten the hang of this whole internet thing, we’ve developed a whole set of expectations of how we interact with the web and how it in turn interacts with us. Especially with webcomics, which, after a decade or two of life have finally begun to settle on a basic format that works more often than not. So when Hussie pulls something like this, it’s not so much revolutionary as it is just something that we’ve been trained to ignore the possibility of.
In fact, this is something that has been explored with web advertising before, where the top banner ad is related in someway to the righthand skyscraper ad. Some of the more creative ad agencies have done some intriguing, if not annoying, experiments with this relationship. Anyone see those fake car ads that explode and reveal themselves to really be selling you cheeseburgers or something? Anyway, aside from these commercial examples, we haven’t really seen that kind of page-wide leverage being used for creative purposes.
Above we see the first instance where there’s a direct relationship between the banner and the main panel. Pay attention to these candy gags, there’ll be a pretty funny pay off down the line.
While Scratch decides to show us his scrapbook (which contains the entirety of the Homestuck narrative in the form of snapshots *cough*comics*cough*), his other guest, arch villain Spades Slick decides to torch the place. Not only does this fit with Slick’s character of senseless violence, but it also leads us very smoothly into Hussie’s next formal experiment.
Some stuff happens, people die, fires are lit and put out, and we wind up ultimately with Scratch’s scrapbook photos flung all across the room. Over the next several weeks of updates, the reader was invited to poke through the mess of panels and pick whichever (predetermined) out-of-order moment they wanted to explore further. Not only is this a neat little formal trick on its own, but it also gave Hussie the opportunity to reveal various tangents into the story. Some of these crannies are more pertinent to the main narrative thread than others, but they provide an extra dimension to the story. Having such an enormous cast of important characters, obviously not all of them have been granted the same level of attention, so this scattered menu allows some of them to be fleshed out a bit more.
Look, another candy dish. This time, rather than the black licorice Scotty dogs that the longtime Homestuck readers have learned are Spades Slicks’ favorite, it’s filled with blue arrows, which match the ==> that have been established as meaning “Move onto the next page.” Interesting, who could these be for?
We follow Scratch as he goes to answer the incessant banging that has been dominating the top banner. For the first time in the story, we start to see that Scratch is probably a lot worse than a self-content asshole (besides the established fact that he works for the most evil thing in all the universes). We also see the return of another one of Hussie’s clever meta-jokes, that of the fenestrated wall (windows play a very critical role in Problem Sleuth before this). Earlier, revelation of the “4th wall” led the way for Andrew Hussie’s appearance as a character in the story, and here we have the “5th wall” spying on the author.
By this point, the reader has gotten used to checking out the top banner and reading it as an extension of the story. So naturally, while Scratch takes over use of the main panel window to launch into a long winded history of something or other, our peripheral attention is drawn back to the top panel, where Andrew Hussie becomes aware of the cracks in the 5th wall…
… and breaks through, entering the story proper. Again, Hussie turns the knob up another level, introducing alt text into the equation. Something that’s become somewhat ubiquitous among webcomics, the HTML alt text on an image is a staple in delivering the second punch of a strip gag. Here, Hussie twists the implementation to become integral to the comic, making this hidden HTML code his way of communicating with the reader, literally.
As Hussie walks through the altered landscape of the MS Paint Adventures website, searching out Doc Scratch, the alt text serves almost as the author muttering to himself over how much the comic has gotten away from him. Of course, this is just the character of Andrew Hussie – the real guy has been unfailingly in control of things from day one, constantly outmaneuvering the most studied speculations. But even as every turn is unpredictable, it always makes perfect sense, and rereads only reveal how we all should have seen it coming.
One last thing. As you can see in the panels, Hussie eventually gets the drop on Doc Scratch, and is eventually able to regain control over the narration of the comic. This diversion gives Scratch’s prisoner (it’s a long story) the perfect opportunity to escape, and the little girl takes off to freedom without looking back. But in a moment that most likely sent chills down every Homestuck fan’s spine, she really was just leading us to the last trick up Hussie’s sleeve in this summer intermission. The familiar alt text trick… changes.
The trusty little cursor hand is replaced by a longer, sharper, somewhat sinister green version. The standard alt text messages give way to huge pixelated text that spills out all over the page. Throughout this whole months-long sequence, Hussie has been setting up clear rules of the game and then sidestepping them in unexpected ways. Unexpected, but never really breaking them, not totally. Here, however, is where Hussie really pulls out all the stops, going far beyond simple sleight of hand and really delivering something that’s shocking and mystifying (As someone who does websites for a living, I haven’t figured out completely just how he did it). It’s like going to see a magician do parlor tricks all night before ending the show with some actual, real live magic. This of course is perfectly fitting, since the final act is signaling the first appearance of Lord English, the “final boss” whose existence has been hovering over the story like the blackest storm clouds.
Andrew Hussie is an extremely talented storyteller who’s really doing some of the most exciting work in comics today. What’s so impressive is not so much all the new ground that he’s making with Homestuck, but more that how successfully he’s using it for the purposes of the comic. There have been plenty of radically experimental webcomics in the past, but the results have usually been mixed – sometimes the most ambitious projects are the most impossible to get into. With MS Paint Adventures, though, Hussie’s ambition is only matched by his mastery of the form. He’s shooting really high with this work, and for the most part, he’s hitting bull’s eyes each time. There’s every reason to believe that Homestuck is not even near being finished, so we have a lot of great work ahead of us. These are exciting times.