The Legacy of Homestuck and the Future of “Webcomics”

In the Year of the Kickstarter, where The Order of the Stick and Penny Arcade have seen runaway success on the crowdfunding site (and you have no idea how pleased I was to find out PA didn’t end up passing OOTS and in fact barely even cracked half a million, or only double its goal), it shouldn’t be too surprising to find Homestuck jumping on the bandwagon as well, and it should surprise exactly no one to find out that it stands to blow them both out of the water. Consider that it’s a video game Kickstarter, and it’s a mortal lock. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it challenging the most-funded projects in Kickstarter history, even considering how crowded that category has gotten this year; OOTS is still in ninth place, though there’s an active drive that stands to knock it down to tenth. I really don’t think becoming the fifth project to crack $3 million is out of the question.

Really, the idea behind the project makes a ton of sense. Not only is Homestuck, like the rest of MSPA, structured like an old text-based adventure game, but Hussie’s original plan was to do it entirely in Flash, only switching back to images with only the occasional Flash when the all-Flash approach proved to be too much work. One thing I was struck by, going through this original “beta”, is that Homestuck was originally going to be much more like a video game. Icons appear signalling things that can be clicked, to the effect that upon reaching the command “Remove CAKE from MAGIC CHEST”, you are actually invited to click on the cake and move it to the bed. I was so intrigued by this that I actually started going through and trying to figure out how Homestuck might have played out if it was a video game of this sort, even with some breathing room for player choice, and got through Act 2 before burning out.

On the other hand, that is not what this project is. Rather, it’s an effort to create a sequel to Homestuck in video game form, set within the same universe but probably not using any of the same characters. As such, my interest is considerably weaker than it might have otherwise been (I finally got around to reading Problem Sleuth, and while it started out pretty funny, it just started dragging on and on and on), though I certainly see why Hussie says he couldn’t possibly go that route.

However, what I’m really here to talk about is something I was struck by in Gary “Fleen” Tyrell’s initial writeup of the Kickstarter. You can read it here, but I’ve copy-and-pasted the relevant bit because it’s so important, and pay special attention to the second paragraph:

Let me tell you a little bit about Andrew Hussie and Homestuck: I have been struggling to read it, because it’s damn voluminous, dense, stuffed silly with music and interaction and games and self- and forward- and back-references and completely, utterly not for me.

It is the opening shot of the native culture of the second generation of internet users — the ones that have always lived there, not those of us that immigrated from the Old (nondigital) Country within our living memory. And here’s a hint for everybody that still remembers the Old (nondigital) Country: there’s more of them and fewer of us every day, so maybe if your livelihood depends on putting content in front of eyeballs in some fashion, you ought to be paying all the attention you can muster to Mr Hussie and the fans whose brains he lives in.

There’s been a lot of question over what medium to call Homestuck; while it’s usually called a webcomic, it ultimately blends elements of webcomics and video games with something completely original. I mentioned in my original review that Scott McCloud would not only refuse to call it a webcomic but would question whether it even took the medium in a good direction to go in. As with “About Digital Comics” (and the very occasional imitators thereof that have appeared since, which I call “digital stage comics” for reasons that post should make clear, and which MSPA might be seen as a variant of), though, I believe it most definitely is a productive direction to go in, maybe even more so.

In Understanding Comics, McCloud mentioned the tendency for new media to be seen through the lens of the old, often borrowing tropes from their parent media before developing some tropes of their own. I had serious issues with the story of Homestuck when I initially archive-binged it (my reaction might be similar to Tyrell’s, right down to the use of the Penny Arcade Defense), but perhaps its real legacy is in its utter redefinition of what we think of as webcomics. It is quite possible that the entirety of what we have been calling “webcomics” for the last decade and a half is little more than the “seeing new media through the lens of the old” stage of a medium we might call “visual online entertainment” for lack of a better term, and in this perhaps Homestuck is its Citizen Kane. And if that’s the case, surely it represents the ultimate realization of McCloud’s infinite-canvas vision, even if McCloud himself might disdain it.

When I questioned how many members of a “greatest webcomics” list would still be on it within ten years if webcomics fully explored their potential as a medium, I had no idea where that potential might lead – which is why I called that series “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis“. And when I suggested that a potential “greatest webcomics” list “would include at least some comics we can’t even imagine today”, Homestuck was precisely what I was referring to, even if I didn’t know it.

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