Peculiar Terms: Reading and Re-reading Homestuck
As you might have gathered if you read my review of All About Love, I moved to LA recently. I’ve never actually wanted to live in LA, since the city is basically a giant strip-mall and there’s toxic gas in the sky that warps the sunlight, but work called. Incidentally, at the same time as I was moving to LA, I undertook another giant project that would consume an almost equal amount of time: rereading Homestuck.
For those of you who don't know the weight of that undertaking, let me explain: During my last weeks in New York City, I decided I needed something comforting to help me deal with both the move/grieving New York, and my indefinitely long process of settling into/accepting my new life in LA. I needed something thousands of pages long, that would last me months, and that could give me some continuity while I walked across the bridge from my old life to my new one. Homestuck was that bridge.
Homestuck was a pretty apt choice as something to read during a major life transition, since the webcomic that took the internet by storm during the Obama presidency. It's kind of all about leaving one phase of life behind and entering another—that is, it’s about growing up.
The characters, who start out living in their parents’ houses on Earth, have their childhoods literally destroyed when a storm of asteroids lays waste to the planet as part of a video game they’ve started playing together. To survive, they enter the video game and get drawn into its epic battle between good and evil, which, if they gain enough levels and defeat the final boss, will give them a new universe to live in and repopulate the human species. The kids are forced to test their strengths and overcome their weaknesses in order to to survive, growing up in the process.
The author of Homestuck has tried and failed to summarize Homestuck succintly, so I will leave my efforts there. Suffice to say that Homestuck contains a vast and complex world, which I’ve been glad to slip into when I can’t bring myself to enjoy the City of Angels.
I’ve met people who don’t reread things, and I can’t fathom it, because I reread at least as often as I read—after all, if you like a story, wouldn’t you want to experience it again? If you admire the way the plot unfolds, wouldn’t you want to take the time to understand how its structure works? Wouldn’t you want to spend more time with characters you love by reliving their stories again? And if you love the part in Homestuck where a literally entirely different story takes over the comic as an “intermission” and you have to read about characters that will only reappear in the story a couple times, and then with little significance, wouldn’t you want to reread every. single. page?! In one sitting?!
“The novels we know best have an architecture,” Zadie Smith wrote once. “When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping their way through the kitchen, or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard…even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.”
As a webcomic where architecture actually plays a big part in the plot, Homestuck fits this view of rereading in a literal sense. Figuratively speaking, Homestuck is my home away from home, and I share it with many others. Homestuck takes a while to warm up to, but once it hooks you it’s fiendishly addictive—it has an internal logic which surreptitiously draws you in, just like a well-built house’s entryway invites you to move further inside. Though once you get drawn into Homestuck, you’ll find the house is a labyrinth that is almost impossible to leave…
How do you get addicted to a comic that almost seems to defy you to fully comprehend it? As I may have mentioned, Homestuck is extremely long, and has (probably) over a hundred characters with complex relationships between each other, set inside a vast clockwork of plotlines which are equally complex. Homestuck’s author once remarked, “Maybe what I’m discovering is people actually like complexity, and will even gravitate toward it, as long as it isn’t a total train wreck.” If, instead of turning away from Homestuck’s complexity, you allow it to fascinate you, you’ll find the same beauty in it that mathematicians see in some equations.
The secret to keeping Homestuck from being a total train wreck is a deft use of many different systems of symbols, which allow the reader to keep everything straight. “Recognition is a powerful experience for a reader…controlling a reader’s recognition faculty is one way to manipulate the reader’s reactions,” says the author. By flagging important elements of the story, Homestuck ensures the reader can recognize all the different strands of plot and character at work in each scene.
The most basic of these systems is each character’s speech being written in a different color—this allows the reader to know who is speaking in Homestuck’s script-format conversations. In the mid-complexity range, some symbols, like the zodiac icons of Western astrology, mark different characters (e.g. each character has a different symbol on their shirt). Some are even used to describe relationships, like the suits of playing cards (hearts is love, of course, and spades is set up as the opposite, hate). All are ways to give the reader a lot of information about a scene at a single glance.
This all may seem dizzying, but anyone who has read Harry Potter knows that humans love to categorize themselves. How many Sorting Hat quizzes have you taken in your lifetime? Can you count them? Who among us can? Imagine having not one symbology matrix in which to position yourself, but half a dozen? Imagine having not just four houses to choose from, but 288? If Harry Potter is symbolic cocaine, Homestuck is crack. Which, I suppose, makes its author a crack dealer.
When Zadie Smith, in her above metaphor, speaks of the novel-house’s architect, she means the author—who as you may know, is dead. Roland Barthes announced the author’s death back when critical theory was something flashy and new, instead of something everyone did on Tumblr in their spare time.
What Barthes meant by “dead,” was that for him, an author, instead of being the creator of a text, is actually more of tool by which the text is created—for Barthes, the reader is the true author of the text, because it is only through the reader’s interpretation of what they find in a book that meaning is actually created in their mind. The author is dead, because rather than having authority over how people perceive their book, or having an authoritative viewpoint over what it means, they are but a conduit for the text to reach the reader, who decides those things for themselves.
Smith’s essay goes on to examine Vladimir Nabokov, a notoriously exacting writer who resists being murdered by Barthes. If some authors build open-plan houses you can flow through in any way you please, Nabokov uses the structure of his books to railroad you into a specific tour of the house, like an authoritarian. The rooms of a Nabokov book are structured so you can only eat breakfast in the designated breakfast nook; there is only one door to the house, and you have to duck your head to enter it, and don’t you dare try to turn that spare bedroom into a home office—that was not Vladimir’s intent, so it doesn’t matter if it was yours. No one wins a battle of wills with Vladimir Nabokov.
So with that in mind, what would Barthes have to say about Andrew Hussie, the author of Homestuck? Well, he surely would be as passionate as everyone else who has expressed an opinion on Hussie—Hussie is both the idol and the sworn enemy of the Homestuck fandom. He is Homestuck’s God and its Devil, its Cain and its Abel, its Lilith and its Eve. If Nabokov refuses to die, then what about Hussie, who is a character in his own narrative, and who not only dies in the story, but is sent to the story’s designated afterlife, where he interacts with the characters he has killed off and continues to manipulate the story from beyond the grave? And what about when one of his characters hijacks the story for a brief period and begins to draw a mocking parody of Homestuck called “Homosuck?”
Like Zadie Smith, I love Nabokov, and she and I share a love for David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon as well. We love the difficult authors, she and I, the ones who do not go gently into that good night. We like footnotes to footnotes to endnotes, and we like a full explanation of the college level calculus employed in the statistics of a game we only see in one scene. We like many different plotlines, that don’t need to intersect or have any relevance to each other at all.
We like to fight with books like Ahab with Moby Dick; we like our authors to make us read a full chapter on different species of whales, and learn specific names for whale anatomy, before we get to the action. In short, we like the Frankfurt School dropouts; the ones Barthes would have hated. “The house rules of a novel, the laying down of the author’s peculiar terms—all of this is what interests me.” writes Smith. “This is where my pleasure is.”
Maybe it’s because books like Infinite Jest are something like Mount Everest. The climb is a life-changing experience (in Everest’s case, I can only assume), but when you get to the top, there’s the added reward of knowing you are one of the few who have looked upon the world from the peak. Or maybe it can be explained by the common logical fallacy that makes people who have worked to get something attribute more value to it than people who have gotten it for free.
Both these explanations hold for Homestuck, and for Andrew Hussie. An author who defies being murdered, instead of passively accepting their role as scriptor, ends up telling a more authentic story. Instead of a milquetoast E.M. Forster or E.B. White, with their universal fiction built like solid prairie farms or English townhouses, these authors create architecture like in an Escher painting.
Infinite Jest is perhaps a sprawling compound; one large main house connected to many smaller complexes all around it (the end notes). Moby Dick can be a creaky old houseboat, with many old artifacts to pick up and learn the history of. Homestuck, of course, is a regular-looking house which has been expanded by what looks like an inept Sims player, stretching up to skyscraper height toward a neon colored gate.
Thinking back, I realize that it’s pointless to speculate whether Hussie is dead, because in Homestuck death means essentially nothing—a character being dead doesn’t mean that they won’t appear in the comic in the future, or that they won’t be able to contact any of the living characters any more, or that they won’t be able to affect the plot. The real question is, what is Hussie’s relationship to his comic, to his characters, and to his fans? To reference Homestuck, is it red romance, aka love, or black romance, a kind of eroticized hatred involved in the mating ritual of a certain species of aliens?
Nabokov once remarked that his characters were galley slaves to him. Hussie, on the other hand, has different relationships with each of his characters—he proposes marriage to one (she punches him in the face), he mentors another (he eventually usurps Hussie and starts drawing the comic himself), and he nurses one of the lesser villains of the series back to health after a grievous wound from the comic’s Big Bad. He is even, in a seeming concession to Barthes, murdered by one of his characters. But he is always present, always affecting the narrative, to the point that he draws the reader’s imagined reaction to his shenanigans.
The thing is, while Hussie is very much alive in terms of his role in creating the narrative, the reader’s participation in generative reading is certainly also a big part of Homestuck. The vitality of the Homestuck fandom is something no one who has ever visited Tumblr can deny.
Not only does there exist a body of Homestuck fanart, fanfiction, and cosplay rivalled only by the likes of Harry Potter and Star Wars, but Hussie is responsive to his fans’ desires about the direction of the comic, allowing them to affect Homestuck directly. He has been from the beginning: after all, Homestuck was originally written partially by the readers, who submitted direct input about what should happen next through the comments section of Hussie’s website. In the early stages of the comic, the reader was literally a co-author, and the rest of the comic continues to pay tribute to this fact.
Hussie’s willingness to follow the direction of fans is also how a comic about a straight white boy meant to amuse computer science nerds turned into one where every character is gay and all the fan-favorite characters that have died have been resurrected through metaphysical shenanigans. The author may be not be dead, but the fans aren’t dead either.
However, in a twist, Hussie actually has murdered a few of his fans, who entered into a contest to have likenesses of themselves inserted into the comic, and then immediately killed. Homestuck’s fans also have plenty of reason to resent Hussie, since the ending of Homestuck was almost universally criticized as a betrayal of the fans. Many accused Hussie of having gotten bored with the story; they see the ending as a phoned-in disaster that he made simply to be done with Homestuck. Could both Hussie and the fans dead, killed by the comic itself? Is Homestuck, as its own narrative implies, a runaway story that the characters, and we the readers, and even Hussie the author in the end, needed to escape?
Smith concludes that she doesn’t prefer a dead scriptor to a living, if difficult/ dictatorial author, because the author being dead “jettisons the very idea of communication, of any possible genuine link between the person who writes and the person who reads. Nowadays I know that the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. To this end I find myself placing a cautious faith in the difficult partnership between reader and writer.”
So perhaps no one is killing anyone here—perhaps this relationship between Hussie and the fans, and the comic itself with both of them, isn’t anything as violent as Barthes—a thinker writing under violent phallagocentric cis-heteropatriarchy—imagines? And maybe that’s why so many of the fans saw the ending of Homestuck as a betrayal on Hussie’s part—they had made a social contract with Hussie, and the rushed, unsatisfying ending broke that contract.
In every relationship, there is conflict. Friends, lovers, and family all disappoint each other at times. Maybe if authors and readers aren’t going to be killing each other right and left, we need to each accept that the other is human, rather than a godlike creator of supreme meaning (or an almost-unnecessary conduit for that meaning). In the internet age, content creators have often come under fire as Hussie has—sometimes for legitimate criticisms like sexism or racism in their stories, but sometimes simply for not being able to live up to unrealistic expectations of perfect endings to stories that have gotten too big and wild to be nicely wrapped up to absolutely everyone’s satisfaction.
Because after all, the fact that we’re still here, writing stories or writing about stories, shows that none of us are truly dead. We’re all alive, and we each get only one life and this one world, so we should use it to connect with each other and work together to make life better. Navigating human relationships and the conflicts that arise in them is another main theme of Homestuck, and this dovetails nicely with other main theme I mentioned, since learning how to have healthy relationships is so relevant to the task of growing up.
I don’t mean to say that Hussie’s fans who are disappointed with Homestuck’s ending need to “grow up,” especially since some of the most immature contributions to author/ reader conversations in the internet age have been from the author side, typically white men who can’t accept that rape jokes aren’t funny. What I really mean is well summed-up by Cecil on Welcome to Night Vale, no one is perfect. People become perfect when you accept them as they are. That doesn’t just go for people, but also for authors, and readers, and novels, and houses. And even for this guy: