Warning: This post will make no sense if you haven’t been reading Homestuck. Hell, it probably won’t make sense if you HAVE been reading Homestuck.

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized BROOM.)

I think part of the reason I don’t quite feel about Homestuck as strongly as some of its fans is because a lot of the time I’m not quite sure what’s going on. There’s a lot of context to keep in mind at any time, and a lot of the time that context is necessary to really know what you’re looking at, as is reading the (often lengthy) chatlogs.

And then sometimes Hussie will spring something on you where none of that context will help you.

So, is this the real Aradia, or just someone who happens to look like her? What is she doing being held up by Scratch? Why is Scratch keeping her there? What are those cuesticks she produced from her hair? And what the hell is even going on over the course of this fight, anyway?

My personal theory, which has been that we’re seeing how Aradia died originally, seems to be buttressed by the most recent update, with Scratch’s asphyxation threat and Aradia’s “ACTUAL SUICIDE THREAT”. But that assumes I’m not forgetting that we’ve been told how Aradia died already, which isn’t entirely out of the question. It also requires explaining how we fit all this in with what else we know about what’s going on in Scratch’s apartment (to this point, the most likely time for when all this has been taking place has been pretty close to the end of the trolls’ universe, if not in fact in the Medium, requiring Aradia to have travelled through time and possibly space), though given how fast and loose Hussie tends to play with timeframes that may be a relatively minor consideration.

This sequence has been walking the fine line between wanting to know more about what’s going on and not knowing enough to care. We know who Scratch and Aradia are, so we can put names to faces, but that only raises more questions, and while most people are probably just waiting with baited breath to figure out exactly what’s going on, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some who are just scratching their heads (no pun intended) and wondering exactly who “Aradia” is and what she’s doing there. The distinction is important: one is watching the fight with baited breath, while the other is mentally skipping it. Hussie has walked this line before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned substantial numbers of people off Homestuck.

Yeah, I hate the vent outside my local Subway too, but I don’t think it’s the Subway’s fault, I haven’t smelled it, and I’d be shocked at anyone getting high off it.

(From Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Click for full-sized worst date ever. Warning, comic contains vulgar language.)

Way back, in my previous webcomic-reviewing existence, I reviewed a parody webcomic called Powerup Comics, to this point the only webcomic I’ve reviewed from a webcomic host (thanks in part to my “good or popular” rule). It’s not one of my prouder reviews; I mostly reviewed it because John Solomon’s short-lived webcomic hateblog had done an April Fool’s review of it that voiced its outrage that people actually liked the comic, only I had trouble finding any positive comments that weren’t in on the joke, or praised it as a parody. (Though Solomon’s review itself appeared to attract comments defending the comic.)

But there was something else that struck me about Powerup Comics, namely that it wasn’t necessarily all that bad, even factoring in its parodic nature.

Don’t get me wrong; it was anything but good. The art was a deliberately horrible MS Paint job blatantly copy-pasted across strips and the writing had all the drawbacks Ctrl+Alt+Del was accused for but actually as bad as CAD‘s reputation. Yet there was the occasional strip that was genuinely funny, the characters weren’t entirely interchangable, the comic actually knew its video games and took stands on them (even if they weren’t more sophisticated than “Wii sux lol”), and at the time I reviewed it it was even starting to catch Cerebus Syndrome.

I was reminded of that while reading Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff, Andrew Hussie’s parody webcomic and spinoff of current MS Paint Adventures installment (and subject of last week’s review)¬†Homestuck (in which it’s Dave Strider’s parody webcomic). If anything, SBaHJ tries to be even worse than Powerup Comics. Every character is drawn with these bizarre irregular shapes, there are maybe two or three different images of each character that get reused over and over and over, all the text is in Comic Sans, there are compression artifacts and typos everywhere, what humor exists is vulgar at best and jokes get stretched out way too long, and the comic tries way, way, way, way, way too hard to be a meme factory.

And yet, the way “panels” (I use that term very loosely) and other random imagery are strewn all over the place and juxtaposed with each other, combined with the extremes the copy-pasting can go to and extend the comic to incredible lengths, give the comic a certain air of surreality that allows it to transcend its origins. It doesn’t hurt that, while I hate the vast majority of dumb Internet memes with a passion, some of SBaHJ‘s are actually pretty funny, in a Beavis and Butt-head sort of way. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way: there are no fewer than THREE SBaHJ shirts available for purchase in the real world.

Is it possible that a good writer – even just a bunch of random CAD-haters on an internet forum, as Powerup Comics‘ creators were – can’t help but be good even when they’re trying to be bad? That eventually, the inclinations of the higher faculties seep through and you get frustrated with dumbing yourself down all the time? It’s worth noting that I generally don’t like webcomics that try to be surreal, as Dresden Codak, Scary Go Round, and the term “PVP/Goats Syndrome” can attest. That I praise SBaHJ for its surreality can probably be chalked up to setting itself up to be so awful, thus making it more of a surprise when its hidden depths – such as they are – shine through. In other words, it’s the webcomic equivalent of the Sarah Palin effect: lower expectations so you don’t have to do as much to beat them.

(Hmm. I may have just explained why I like Ctrl+Alt+Del, only it was its haters that lowered my expectations rather than the comic itself…)

It’s possible that the only humor a parody webcomic can use that preserves its parodic nature and doesn’t leave me thinking it’s actually a decent comic on its own is strictly humor related to being a parody. At this, Powerup Comics probably has SBaHJ beat, as much of its humor derives from the utter lack of punchlines or use of tired cliches (like shooting the annoying Wii supporter more often than Kenny from South Park); I’m not entirely sure what it is SBaHJ is parodying (other than a comic someone posted to the Penny Arcade forums), as while the main characters are ostensibly gamers in the early strips, this is very, very quickly forgotten, and the comic never touches any of the standard cliches of the genre.

I’m not at all sure whether SBaHJ is worth reading, either as a parody or as its own surreal webcomic (though if you decided to start reading Homestuck it’s probably worth reading just to get the references). But the more I think about it, the more I realize how much it says about my thinking about webcomics – not just about Ctrl+Alt+Del, but my position on art in comics, why I don’t think it matters as much as some people seem to think it does, and what makes comics like xkcd and Order of the Stick work despite their minimalist art. Who would have thought a bunch of crappily drawn scribbles that looks like something I might have drawn could say so much about the world of webcomics?

There’s something very odd about Vaarsuvius praising someone for their silence.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized job interview.)

I ordinarily wouldn’t comment on this strip. Ever since #600, it’s become increasingly obvious that Rich doesn’t particularly care about multiples of 100 anymore, to the extent he ever did. #700 was basically just another comic, and the same goes for this one. Not that a case couldn’t be made that both strips are more plot-important than they first appear; #700 drops important clues about both the Monster in the Darkness and Xykon’s plans, and besides being a turning point in the fight, this comic drops hints not only about Yukyuk joining the Order of the Stick (something I seriously doubt), but about Vaarsuvius being the one to kill Belkar.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t overly impressed by this strip; the main reason I’m posting on it is because of the forumites praising it, apparently mostly for V’s continued character development. While I do recognize it, I hardly see this as a huge milestone in OOTS history. Maybe I’m more used to it by now, or maybe I’m just tired of the Empire of Blood digression going on far longer than it had any right to.

I will admit, though, I did get a chuckle out of “I may be in error, but I believe the appropriate proclamation is ‘Sneak Attack, bitch.'”

The latest in baseball, and ESPN’s potential coming sports graphics revolution

If Turner intends to standardize their graphics packages, I haven’t seen evidence of it in TBS’ baseball coverage or TNT’s NASCAR coverage. However, baseball’s other two TV partners have introduced new graphics that could portend big things, to the point that I really want to get this post out of the way before the NFL preseason starts.

Let’s start by arguably burying the lead a little, and taking a look at how ESPN rolled out its graphics package for NASCAR and tennis. Although they didn’t immediately apply their new package to Nationwide Series races, the new graphics were in full effect for the Indy 500, but didn’t appear on any NASCAR broadcast until last week’s Brickyard 400. At this point I think I’m starting to get resigned to the fact of these jarringly variable sizes of the “pods” for each driver on these motorsports tickers.

Beyond that, I find it suitably spiffy, especially the way the number of laps are displayed before it goes to “to go” mode (“Lap 100|250”), but I don’t think it’s going to remain unchanged for more than a year.

The odd display of player info for golf may be proving to be more standard than I expected, making appearances for every rich guy’s individual sport, meaning tennis and horse racing – though boxing is using a more standard look.

2011 Wimbledon 1st Round – Interview ESPN by jarimi1

2011 Wimbledon 4th Round – Highlight ESPN by jarimi1
As for the actual score graphic, I admit I was expecting something closer to ESPN’s baseball graphic, at least in terms of fonts and popping in and out. But I do think I understand why this graphic is this way, and why it didn’t debut until the French Open.

And it has to do with why ESPN changed its baseball graphic. I was mystified by this move when I first saw it. It ditched the disastrous use of dots to indicate balls, strikes, and outs, but it also made the box bulkier, gave pitch count (along with pitch speed) a permanent place in a tiny strip underneath the bases, darkened the colors, and perhaps most oddly, actually changed the other graphics for player info and announcers to a third style. (And give a big round of applause to MLB Advanced Media for finally making MLB.com highlights embeddable!)

But as the season progressed and we hit the College World Series, something happened. ESPN moved the box to the far right side of the screen in HD (with most SD viewers at this point getting ESPN letterboxed)… and (at least for MLB) didn’t get rid of the box when displaying player info, attaching that info to the box in a manner reminiscent of TNT’s past and present NBA graphics.

And that’s when it hit me. ESPN had planned this move out from the start to steal Turner’s ideas. I had felt the way the old box had to keep popping in and out to allow for player info jarring, and evidently ESPN felt the same way. In fact, I got the feeling that this was only the beginning. Far from being an outlier, I suspect these new MLB graphics will soon become the standard across most of ESPN’s sports. (Yes, this means another year of a different graphic for the NBA Finals, whenever the NBA finally has a season!) ESPN was a pretty firm believer in boxes before adopting the parallelogram when its NFL package moved to Monday; this MLB graphic may herald a return to boxes across sports, especially with Fox also retreating to the box. In fact, I’ve drawn up some mock-ups of what we might expect these boxes to look like:

I would expect the rollout to start at the beginning of the new Monday Night Football season – the introduction of the new MNF logo would seem to be an appropriate occasion to overhaul the other graphics, and in fact the actual “MNF” part of the logo looks to be roughly the same size and shape as the box. It would also minimize the number of games afflicted by the odd variable size of the strip in place late last year. That’s just one of several things to hint at this being the future of all sports on ESPN, from the change in ESPN’s overall NBA scheme (to something with more than a few similarities to this new box) to the bars above and below the score in the box itself that would be an opportune place to put timeout indicators. (ESPN could finally get those things to stop looking tacked-on!) Even the new tennis box has a detached “ESPN” box that isn’t much different from what it would look like in the above mock-ups. ESPN’s MLS and NASCAR coverage has enlarged the size of the player info to look more legible in letterboxed SD (which looks jarring even in letterboxed SD, and especially so on ABC’s Indy 500 coverage where SD isn’t letterboxed yet). Don’t expect that to expand beyond that. (What I do expect to see expand is the style of introducing starting lineups I’ve seen on MLS and baseball coverage.)

(ESPN’s Women’s World Cup coverage, surprisingly, adopted these larger in-game graphics where it used the new studio graphics for the men’s World Cup last year, despite not having any real opportunity to use them on the world feed, and despite not accompanying any real change. And their score graphic was basically the same one they finished the men’s World Cup with, awkward jersey-color indicator and all, just color-corrected to keep trying to match the world feed.)

Fox’s MLB graphic doesn’t solve many of the issues with the NFL graphic, other than the return of abbreviations, and in fact looks generally awkward – the arrows above and below the inning number make it look asymmetric when it’s not applied the way ESPN did, pitch count hasn’t been added unless you consider the constantly-on-screen strike zone on some broadcasts (in a context I’ll get to in a sec), and not only does the count and number of outs look awkward, Fox still hasn’t learned from the times using dots to represent anything has tried and failed before. (And why are there three out dots? The third will NEVER be used…)

However, what is notable about this is that this is not only the new baseball graphic for Fox, but for FSN as well. (One odd side effect is that “Root Sports”, the new name for the regional sports networks Fox sold to DirecTV a while back, is now using graphics originally developed by Fox, and for the most part appears to be the only ones using them.) Until recently, FSN has been rather distant from the rest of the Fox family, but since rebranding them to remove the “Net” from their name and adopting their graphics for baseball on Fox, it’s apparent there is an effort to drag them back into the fold, and Fox’s efforts to improve the Fox Sports brand across all their networks has become more and more apparent, with the new graphics appearing all over the place, whether it’s in races on SPEED or even MLS games on Fox Soccer. I expect FSN to adopt similar graphics for college football, as Fox had NFL-like graphics for the Cotton Bowl – and for both types of basketball, though I can’t imagine what those graphics would look like.

This is shaping up to be a surprisingly modest roundup. The only other network I know of whose graphics we need to look at are Comcast SportsNet and baseball, as they become the last baseball broadcaster to abandon the strip for the two-line box.

The realistic diamond and the placement of pitch speeds there seems a little gimmicky, but otherwise it’s very serviceable and hardly a surprise.

This may have been a relatively short roundup, but I suspect that, between FSN’s college basketball graphics and a potential new graphics package not only for ESPN, but for CBS (fixing their awkward NFL logos and making their shared-with-Turner NCAA tournament graphics less different from their other graphics) and NBC (they have the Super Bowl and are getting ready to rebrand Versus) as well, the next one will be substantially longer…

What is it with innovative webcomics and giant frogs?

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized giant cosmic frog.)

How does one even begin to describe MS Paint Adventures?

It’s hard to even call it a webcomic – most of the individual updates are of a single image, with all the text being placed below the comic (and occasionally, in the case of the current adventure, in chat logs – sometimes massive ones – hidden behind a button below the comic), with occasional Flash animations moving the story along (again, in the case of the current story). Certainly it wouldn’t fit Scott McCloud’s definition of a comic, despite making up for its single-panel updates by usually updating several times a day. (McCloud in Understanding Comics denies “comic” status to single-panel works like The Family Circus, and in Reinventing Comics argues that hypertext is utterly antithetical to the core concept of comics while pushing his infinite-canvas idea.)

MS Paint Adventures started life as a parody of old-fashioned text-based adventure games like Zork Andrew Hussie did on a forum once. He would post an image with a caption, and then follow whatever command the next person to post suggested. Couple the sometimes-bizarre suggestions with Hussie’s penchant for absurdist cruelty, and the result was a bizarre excersize in surreal humor. Hussie eventually started a web site to house both the original adventure and any further adventures, building an interface intended to allow Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching tales, but quickly abandoned that idea when it got to be too unwieldy. He finally managed to hit his groove and attract a good-sized fanbase with the wild detective-parody-turned-RPG-parody known as Problem Sleuth.

But with his current adventure, Homestuck, Hussie charged full-on into Cerebus Syndrome.

Although Homestuck continues to use the same text-based-adventure-game interface, I’m no longer sure what it’s supposed to represent (though the same could probably be said of Problem Sleuth), especially with how much Hussie has bent the fourth wall and abandoned almost any notion of reader input, and especially since it is itself ostensibly about playing a video game. At one point a character happens upon a console in a vast wasteland and they start issuing commands to the characters, which appears as voices in their heads. The Homestuck “game”‘s second disc is horribly scratched, no thanks to a character within said “game”, and when said scratch renders the game unplayable (this is an actual event within the whatever-the-hell-this-is) the reader/player resorts to visiting another previously-established character to fix it and have the game’s events in the interim relayed to him – all of which is to make clear that the “game” of Homestuck is as much an element within the Homestuck universe as anything else.

All that’s before we even get into the aforementioned use of Flash, which marks Homestuck as a place where graphics are far more important than in Hussie’s previous adventures. It also helps contribute to the epic feeling of the story, especially the use of fan-created music, which has attracted a sizable following in its own right, all contributing to the notion that this is something special, a uniquely fantastic story you simply have to be experiencing for yourself the way its fans are.

I have to say… I’m not quite feeling it.

Don’t get me wrong. I found the story rather addicting during my archive binge, to the extent it chewed up about a week of my time a while back despite my own best intentions (so if this seems vague it’s a result of hazy memories), so it’s certainly addictive. And some parts of it are even funny in their own way. I just don’t feel the story is Lord of the Rings or even Order of the Stick caliber, is all. Part of my problem may be that, while it spent a lot of time giving the feeling of something happening, I felt that it was sound and fury signifying nothing, that the story was going around in circles without actually going anywhere. The plot does pick up considerably at the end of Act 4… so naturally the story takes a lengthy break at that point to tell the story of the trolls for half an act. Which is admittedly fascinating in its own way, but not enough to make me feel like it’s an absolute must-read. The story also is so long and convoluted it becomes rather difficult to follow, but that’s not what really bothers me either. I just feel that…

Actually, you know what the first recap made me realize (and the exposition from John’s Nanna should have)? Is just how derivative the plot actually is. It tries too hard to go for a mythological bent. There’s a kingdom of light and a kingdom of dark, and one is based on a moon orbiting a place called Skaia, and the other is based in a place beyond an asteroid belt, and there are four planets to correspond with the four players, who have “dream selves” who sleep in spires on the respective bases, and the forces of light are destined to lose to the forces of dark and start the asteroids plummeting towards Skaia unless the players can stop the dark queen and king because everyone involved takes a chess motif and there’s a bunch of other symbolism crammed in there as well and I almost want to barf at all this crap. If I had to pick a way to describe the story, it might be: Narnia with a dash of Alice in Wonderland and made ten times more awesome. And if that sounds like a good thing, then I haven’t educated you on the difference between being awesome and being good.

The players themselves are almost more like archetypes than actual fleshed-out characters, cyphers through which the story happens, who go through their own versions of the standard Hero’s Journey; the trolls, and in fact most of the other characters, are substantially more fleshed out. (Though I must admit that Dave is now one of my favorite characters in all of webcomicdom, for his obsession with “irony”, being “cool”, and his inferiority complex regarding his brother.)

I don’t mean to sound like I’m bashing Homestuck. It’s certainly good, and it’s incredible how far MSPA has come since those early adventures, it’s just not OMG the most amazing thing in the history of history. Right now Act 5 is building to its climax, and I intend to stick with it until it reaches that point, but I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with it for much longer than it’ll take to figure out where the story is going from there. Perhaps, as has been suggested, this whatever-the-hell-this-is holds up better when it’s read as it comes out; at that point, you’ve already gone through the archive binge, so each individual update doesn’t weigh down so much. It’s certainly a good experience, but I feel ambivalent about recommending it, and I certainly feel that it’s not quite¬†for me.

So let’s end on a positive note by mentioning an interesting aspect of MS Paint Adventures‘ adventure-game format. You’ll notice that the link on the top of this post links to the first page of Homestuck, not the “current” one, however that’s defined. MSPA doesn’t have a single link to the current comic – which would be impractical for the readership given the comic’s multiple-page-a-day pace, and illogical that an adventure game would simply dump people halfway through the adventure. But Hussie takes the metaphor further: below the command to move to the next comic are links to “Save Game”, “Auto-Save”, or “Load Game”. The “Save Game” button effectively “bookmarks” your place, which you can return to easily by clicking “Load Game”; by turning on “Auto-Save”, the “bookmark” will be automatically updated as you move through the story. (“Delete Game Data” clears the cookie. There are also “Start Over” and “Go Back” links serving the purpose of ordinary webcomics’ “First” and “Previous” links.)

I’m going to be blunt about this: Every story-based webcomic should have something like this. (Komix! does something similar to “Auto-Save”, but a lot of webcomics seem to have expressly removed themselves from it and in any case it hasn’t added new comics in ages.) Many story-based webcomics have many years’ worth of story built up, which can seem impenetrable to archive binge through. Something like this would make it far easier for new readers to enjoy the story at their own pace, even if they don’t necessarily start following the current storylines right away, and thus make it easier to join in and eventually start following the comic. And if such a feature were to become more common, perhaps then MS Paint Adventures would go down as a legitimate milestone in webcomic innovation.