WCO #231: MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck (Act 5)
(This is Part 2 of the massive Homestuck review. Click here for Part 1, covering Acts 1-4.)
I get it.
I totally get it. The appeal of the trolls, I mean.
When Andrew Hussie’s MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck started out, the characters could be best described as perhaps being tied to one personality trait. John is nerdy, Rose is gothy, Dave is cool, and Jade is sunny. They’re pleasant enough protagonists, but they’re pretty much video game heroes. Whether you’re Master Chief, the marine from Doom, Mario, Sonic, or the guy from BioShock, the main character is typically a stand-in for the player (or in this case, the reader). There has to be enough wiggle room for you to, in a way, become that character.
The trolls are different. I have a weird feeling that when Hussie started off Chapter 5, he was intentionally trying to tax the reader’s patience. We’ve been following the same four characters for four whole acts, when all of the sudden they disappear and are replaced by twelve all new characters that we hadn’t been invested in at all. Now, as an avid reader of fantasy novels, I’m pretty used to chapters where we abandon our main characters for long stretches to flesh out and establish new characters and communities. I have a feeling, though, that when this act came out, long time readers were throwing their hands up in disgust but about, say, the fifth troll introduction.
Yet, at the same time, the trolls ended up becoming the most visible symbol of Homestuck. I remember distinctly when the initial supporters (usually posting some variation of “Wake up, boy”) gave way to the cavalcade of troll fan art and cosplayers. I’d read some Homestuck before, though I’d stopped before even the end of Act 1. And I remember scratching my head, thinking, “Wait. This is the same webcomic?”
All the same, I totally get it.
(NOTE: The following review will compare Homestuck to friggin’ James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. For readers with low tolerance for pompous malarkey, discretion is advised. Then again, PBS and Tor Books’ Mordecai Knode made the same comparison, so nyeh!)
That’s because the trolls have what John, Rose, Dave, and Jade (whom I’m told are to be referred to as “Beta kids”) lack: personality. And they’re full of surprises. Initially, we’re on the Beta kids’ side with finding the trolls to be a bothersome nuisance. Why wouldn’t we? They’re called trolls, and their Pesterchats — already somewhat annoying — tend to be order of magnitudes longer than when the Beta kids are messaging among themselves. They’re hard to keep track of, what with their being twelve of them, each with an online handle and an abbreviation of that handle, and a few looking visually similar. (Initially, distinguishing Terezi from Vriska from Kanaya from Aradia was hella confusing.) Their messages have weird spelling quirks. (One replaces all “B”‘s with “8″‘s and another replaces “H”‘s with “)-(“, for example.) And they start off looking like antagonists to our heroes.
In the end, though… they’re still kind of annoying. But, thanks to the strengths of their personalities, I ended up liking them. A lot. Even more than the Beta kids. And I know I’m not the only one. This was a hell of trick for Hussie to pull off. Find a way to make the readers hate the trolls, but them turn them in the comic’s legit breakout stars? Seriously an amazing trick. Give the man a pina colada.
How does Hussie do it? Well, I’m going to focus on one troll as an example: Equius. He’s not one of the main ones. Karkat, the leader, gets the most air time and pretty much is the one most in contact with the Beta kids (many times with Jade). The murderous Vriska, who may be the most complex of the trolls, also shows up a lot thanks to her association/flirtations with John. The blind justice-minded Terezi is also pretty major, guiding Dave and providing him inspiration for his comics. (The fourth Beta kid, Rose, has a troll following her around as well. Rose tends to split from the other three to do her own thing, and frequently Kanaya finds that she’s fairly ineffective. Kanaya isn’t exactly minor, but she’s nowhere near as prominent as the first three.)
The rest of the trolls sorta fade into the background, including Equius. In fact, Equius may be the most minor of the trolls, getting the least exposure outside of the one guy who’s, like, an Aquaman pastiche. However, Equius may be my favorite, as he’s the best example of how Hussie sets up expectations only to knock them down flat. When we first run into Equius, he’s a troll that’s looming in the shadows. All we see are his cracked glasses and menacing silhouette. Hussie even expresses distaste, trying to put off the introduction of Equius as long as possible. This guy… he’s got to be a big deal, right?
And then… well, like all the trolls, Equius has a pretty embarrassing hobby. Terezi spends her off hours hanging stuffed animals from nooses. Karkat is into romantic comedies. But Equius? He’s based on that one piece of “art” that Hussie found which I was first introduced to in that one fantastic TNG Edit. It’s the one where a horse-man flexes his muscles while sitting on someone while saying, “I LOVE BEING STRONG.” And… he pretty much sweats profusely and demands towels when he witnesses feats of strength.
So Equius is introduced as being a monster to be feared. When the curtain is pulled back, though… he’s just gross. He’s also pretty capable of some heinous things. At one point, he gives a dead girl a robot body, but programs the robot to fall in love with him. But, toward the end of Act 5, he’s sorta swung over to being … adorable? Especially since we see him treat cat aficionado Nepeta with a sense of tenderness. It ties into a theme that’s reiterated often in Homestuck. Although everyone’s faced with death, destruction, and the end of the world, characters from alternate dimensions and other timelines are always popping in to tell you that things are going to be OK. Equius is pretty much that in character form. Hey, he might look terrible at first, and maybe his is terrible, but get to know him a little and he turns out to be alright.
So how to explain what happens to Homestuck in Act 5? Those of you who’ve read Homestuck know that it’s not that easy to condense. The comic goes from being more of a game parody in Acts 1-4 to creation myths, the apocalypse, and Christ allegories. Emotions get ramped up. There’s romance, drama, epic adventure, and a big mess of gory murder. At some points, it demands you to take things seriously, while at other points, you feel rather foolish for not having a sense of humor about things. The storytelling becomes frustratingly unlinear, as if Hussie had just finished chain-viewing Lost and said to himself, “I wonder how I can make things even more confusing.” Whole character journeys are represented in barely seen vignettes, and pesterlogs become a test of patience. It’s almost as if Hussie is daring the readers to jump ship, but instead picking up more readers (and accolades) in the process. In a way, it’s a little like what Pete Abrams tried to do in Sluggy Freelance with “Oceans Unmoving”… only without the annoying space moose and with characters that you actually care about.
But let’s talk about the art! Hussie’s works have always used classic video game imagery. I mean, it’s a webcomic, and what’s a webcomic without video game references, right? But Hussie is the kind of guy who’s always searching for novel avenues of humor and nostalgia, and I think he knows that Final Fantasy references are getting played out. He does something I’ve never seen before: he replicates the effects of a scratched CD-ROM. (It’s actually a major plot point, but it’s something I’ll probably hold on to until my “Act 6″ review.) This was a revelation… that you could somehow feel nostalgia for the beats and patterns for a video game glitch.
I know in my previous review, I mentioned that Hussie’s playing a big prank on the reader. (And, frankly, there are parts of Act 5 that do support this idea.) I meant that you were meant to take parts of the comic seriously, and that in itself was part of the comedy. A cosmic joke, if you will, about how inherently silly life is, yet how that silliness builds up to great global ramifications. I didn’t mean to imply that it was disposable, trivial, or otherwise inessential. it was more along the line of how Joyce fans defend Ulysses as a great piece of comedic prose, and not a giant, humorless gobstopper of paper better served to balance out a particularly finnicky table. (Having never read Ulysses, I can’t weigh my opinion either way. At least, not until the webcomic finishes. Seriously, reading something without pictures? BAH!)
This sequence is a visual representation of that. While the video was going on, I was was amazed that a long, buried part of my psyche, one embedded in the collective consciousness of gamers everywhere, was being dredged up and that I was pleased as punch to see it. Seriously, in a world where 7 in 10 webcomics used be be about video games and video game nostalgia, how come no one’s come across this very same gag before? This must’ve been how our parents (or grandparents) felt the first time someone put the now familiar “record scratch” sound effect on a TV track. But, taken on its own… it’s just a pretty silly Flash video depicting what would happen when a CD-ROM skips. In other words, it is both profound and profoundly silly.
Seriously, guys, the entire point of Act 5 is *SPOILERS!* that the universe was created by twelve 13-year-olds playing a game. You can dissect that for its religious symbolism (Oh, look! All these teens correspond to a sign of the Zodiac!), but the reality is that the entire concept is really very silly. Especially when you factor in that one of them’s a juggalo.
Homestuck was already no slouch in turning the webcomic format into a crazy mixed media experiment using videos and simple point-and-click interactivity. With Act 5, Hussie more or less redefines what it means to be a webcomic. It’s almost a fulfillment of the future promised us when we first laid our eyes on Argon Zark! Entire story arcs are unveiled by clicking on links embedded in the images themselves. Mini-stories unfold in the margins of the banners. The flashiest effects happen when Homestuck turns into an RPG.
There are whole sequences where you take control of a troll character, and you walk around the room making small talk with other trolls. Now, this could be one of the most gimmicky gimmicks imaginable. However Hussie makes it work because 1.) we get to see the characters in their animated JRPG designs that are a refreshing break from their short, stocky “symbolic representations,” and 2.) the character and plot developments that unfold during these mini-games are pretty essential.
Incidentally, this also means that this comic is definitely not for everyone. I know a lot of people who have zero patience when it comes to the tedious RPG dialogue boxes.
Also somewhat experimental? Those damn pesterlogs, which have stretched to the length of a goddamn book. They’re probably the number one complaint I’ve heard from lapsed Homestuck fans. After all, they signed up for a visual experience, not long stretches of prose that you periodically have to highlight to read. Personally… I kinda like them. In fact, it’s both a throwback to an earlier era and also a glimpse into the future. (Which, weirdly, kinda ties in with the Beta kids’ hipsterish obsessions toward archaic entertainments.) What do I mean as a throwback to an earlier era? Think George Bernard Shaw. While you can watch a performance, most of us have come across Shaw’s works in written form. Perhaps in English Lit. Now, when you read the play, the dialogue is the main driver for plot and character development. Arms and the Man reads a lot like a Pesterlog, and vice versa.
As for what I mean by a glimpse into the future? As I mentioned in my first review, Homestuck is the sort of work that defies categorization. It’s not quite a comic, not quite a blog, and not quite a book. It is something new. Something that can only exist on the internet, where videos, images, and prose exist side by side. We’re in a time in history where we’re still trying to figure out the best way of presenting information on the internet. Webcomics are in the same conundrum. Old formats meant to work on the newspaper page or in 22-page issues may not be the best way to view things online. Can Homestuck be pointing the way to what comics will be?
(My answer: “It’s getting there.” Seriously, I’m still kinda smarting that the most Flash-heavy panels wont work on my cellphone or my iPad. Plus, the cookie-enabled bookmark is kinda neat, but it doesn’t work when you’re viewing the comic on your laptop one day and on your desktop the next.)
There’s another nifty trick that Hussie pulls off with the pesterlogs. I mentioned the little quirks that Hussie tosses into the troll dialogue to show that they are, in fact, quite annoying. Yet, these serve an incredible double duty. For example, say you come across a line that includes “D –>”. This is an emoticon for a bow an arrow, which is a sign that our old friend, Equius, is the one whose speaking. It’s also a subtle reminder of his personality trait: the bow and arrow is associated with centaurs, whom Equius admires for their strength. Or, say, you come across dialogue where the troll talks (or types?) with alternating lower caps and upper caps. And from time to time, there’s a “hOnk”. That’s an indicator that you’re reading dialogue from Gamzee, the aforementioned juggalo.
It feels surprisingly authentic, like something you’d potentially come across on online message boards. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, but man… have you seen how online interactions are depicted on TV and in movies? A-puh-puh-palling. I think Hussie should be contracted out as a consultant for those shows. There’s a lot to be mined from just the way letters are capitalized and sentences are structured. Karkat, being the hothead leader, types in ALL CAPS. Of course. Easy. Tavros, who is meek and peace-loving, is a little more subtle. His dialogue is halting, starting and stopping in short fits, and while mostly in CAPS the first letter is lowercase. This implies someone who’s a little uncertain when it comes to public speaking.
It reminds me of something from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. (I’ve already referenced Joyce and Shaw, making this the most pretentious review I’ve ever written.) In the book, there’s a scale between “reality” and “meaning,” where photorealistic images are close to “reality” and text is close to “meaning.” Somewhere in the middle is the “picture plane”. By using emoticons, caps, and other characteristics formed in the crucible of online discussions, it seems to me that Hussie’s straddling that fine line that separates simple images from test. After all, you can’t sound out “::::)”, but you know that, when you see it, you’re seeing words from the spider-like Vriska.
Speaking of Vriska, I quite enjoy the awkward romantic relationship developing between her and our main character, John. I have no idea if it will last: she’s the sort of character who has multiple available options (from both sexes). However, there’s just something there that feels genuine. She and John are opposites: she’s a violent psychopath who has crippled a friend and he’s a mellow, happy-go-lucky dude. But there’s something cool to how they open up to each other online that makes you want to root for them. Like, John already knows that the other trolls find her extremely dangerous, and he knows first hand that she’s done a lot of killing, but there’s something about her dangerous nature that intrigues him. Meanwhile, she knows that he’s saddled with these human emotions of sympathy and kindness, but that makes her want to open up to him about her guilty conscience (as well as a deep-seated need for someone to love her). I’m not going to say that I’m a total shipper and I’d ragequit if these two don’t end up together in the end. However, it’s kinda sweet… and it’s weird expecting this out of a comic where the characters look like Muppet Babies most of them time.
(I know, I know… “symbolic representation”!)
That’s why I get the trolls. When the characters were journeying by themselves, the characters were hardly interacting outside of the Pesterlogs. (Shoot, when John and Rose are actually in the same room together, finally, Rose is asleep. When she wakes up, John has rocketed off.) But with the trolls, there’s sense of community. There’s fiery passions, suspicions, love, anger, and betrayal from characters who are in close proximity to each other. That behavior spills over into their interactions with the Beta kids. I suspect that’s why the Beta kids were a little leery of the trolls when they first came into contact. Their way of communicating was a product of their close-quarters interactions. (Hence why their Pesterlogs are incredibly epic.) They type not just to share information but also to share emotion. I’d go on and on but I’ll bet someone has already read a friggin’ college dissertation about this already.
However, there is a downside: Hussie makes things so complex that pretty much all the casual readers have no choice but to jump ship. Hey, remember how, when Inception came out, people were raving about how complicated the movie was? Like, there were actual charts out there, published on blogs, to help people understand the who dream-within-a-dream thing.
Those chumps were amateurs.
I was up until 2 a.m. last week reading Homestuck. No lie. I tweeted about it, and I got a response, saying, “Why would you do this?” I’ll tell you why. It wasn’t necessarily because I was enjoying myself (though I will say that it’s wasn’t totally unpleasant). It’s not unlike those fantasy books I mentioned waaaaaaaay up in the second paragraph of this 3000+ word review. I have this fear that if I put the book down, I’m going to forget all those plot thread that I’d worked so hard to try to remember. And, Good Lord, there is a lot to keep track of.
I guess it’s my own fault, as I forgot my own rules. After all, is it all that important to know how Rose has accumulated her group of reptilian and amphibian followers? I don’t think Hussie tells you. We just see her at her laptop with her crew of blanket-swaddled followers. It doesn’t matter how she got to that point but that she got there in the first place.
But then we get to long, expository segments about the the ancestors of the trolls, and that’s where I start to get impatient. I think my problem is that while previous segments were anchored by characters we were invested in, these parts are told by a boring pool-ball-faced guy who really doesn’t have much charisma. Granted, the images are pretty epic and I have no doubt that all this is going to pay off in Act 6, but I can’t deny that I merely powered through this section with growing irritation and disinterest. That may have been Hussie’s intent, as Homestuck is rife with meta-gags meant to ruffle and unhinge the unwary.
Still, that part was at the end of Act 5, and by that point I’d invested so much time and emotion into Homestuck that there was no way I was quitting now. Act 5 started off as Tenchi Muyo!, morphed into Genesis somewhere in the middle (or maybe to you anime buffs out there, RahXephon), and then stretched itself out into the damn Silmarillon. Much of the goofy pop culture gags from Acts 1-4 have been wiped away and replaced by ruminations of the cosmic. Like Scott Pilgrim‘s Bryan Lee O’Malley has said, “It has things to say.”
What things? Well… to go over that would probably require more than even the three reviews and 10,000 words total that I plan to write on the friggin’ “Ulysses of the Internet.” Your best bet is to go to a comic convention, pull aside some grey-skinned cosplayer with candy-corn horns, and hear from them first hand.
Or, you know… the Internet.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on September 10, 2013, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, fantasy webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Andrew Hussie, Homestuck, MS Paint Adventures, webcomic, WPLongform. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.