A Story That Could Only Be Told Online

Homestuck is one elaborate, self-referencing inside joke collapsed in a truly digital narrative.

Almost six years ago, Andrew Hussie began another one of a series of webcomics on his website, MS Paint Adventures. These early comics were experiments in fan-sourced storytelling: He’d create and monitor forums for character and story suggestions, then fold them into the story.

Crafted with deliberately crude drawings and simple text commands, the webcomics—named Jailbreak, Bardquest, and Problem Sleuth—show a slow and steady evolution toward something more complicated, more author-controlled. His total output of panels for those three titles topped out just under 2,000, a commendable figure for any comic artist.

But then he created Homestuck, and with it, a new kind of storytelling on the web. Homestuck tells the story of a group of online friends who start playing a video game that both dooms their world and creates a new one. From a narrative standpoint, Homestuck has roots in participatory stories like Choose Your Own Adventure and early role-playing games. But as Hussie’s legions of fans would see—the site regularly sees upwards of 1 million unique visitors a dayHomestuck was and is something different.

The story is, as of this writing, over 7,000 pages long. Hussie finished updating the latest installment on January 19 for yet another hiatus (more on that later). The style of the series is a combination of Hussie’s earlier formula of panels and text, flash animations, in-character chats (known as “pesterlogs”), thematic music, rudimentary RPGs, and revisionary text inputs, all buffered by fan suggestions and a motley creative ensemble of volunteers and paid contributors. In a 2012 video for PBS’s “Idea Channel,” host Mike Rugnetta dubbed Homestuck “the Ulysses of the Internet.”

The story (the brief version) is a tale of Internet best friends growing up. It’s also (the longer version) a multigenerational universe origin/apocalypse epic about two sets of four kids, four sets of 12 Zodiac-based aliens (one set being a warped Jesus parallel), titanic wars between chess pieces and card suits, and two diametrically opposed twins living inside the same body. Sensual puppets, Insane Clown Posse, and a stuffed rabbit all play crucial roles. Gender equality and fluidity is the unstated but constantly reiterated rule. Throughout the narrative, a startling percentage of characters die, which doesn’t stop them from remaining active in the plot. Time and space are vectors that shift with alarming frequency, to the point where uncertainty of both is a hallmark of the story. A neat, albeit cryptic, summary of the story’s plot mechanisms is the title of Act 5 Act 2: “He is already here.”

The easiest way to understand Homestuck is to read it. Once upon a time, that might’ve been a reasonable suggestion, but now, to catch up from the beginning (April 13, 2009) is no simple task. The length and depth of its run is not the webcomic’s most impressive feature though: Rather, it is defined by relentless, aggressive destruction of the notions of time-telling and time-keeping, both inside and outside of the story.

A gathering of Homestuck fans at Anime Los Angeles in 2013 (Mooshuu/Flickr)

Any fan of comics, or, really, any serialized media, is familiar with the anticipation and anxiety that comes with waiting for a story to update. With traditional comics, the wait time is extended by the inclusion of a comic book vendor middleman, whose function as both a curator and a vendor makes them gatekeepers of long-running stories. Pre-Internet, if you’d missed a few updates and wanted to catch up, you’d better pray that your local store had a backlog. Post-Internet, it’s much easier to fill in narrative gaps—online vendors, both professional and amateur, can connect directly with interested parties, while applications like Simple Comic can read less legally-obtained issues. But regardless of changing distribution paradigms, the single most daunting task facing anyone wanting to start any serialized story is just that: starting.

Digital space has made this aspect of consuming comics both much easier and even more difficult. It’s possible to find the very beginning of almost anything, but the easy availability of an entire catalogue makes it clear exactly how much you have to consume to catch up. That knowledge can serve as a challenge, or deter someone from beginning something entirely. In the case of Homestuck, it's both. For while most comics have designated entry points into the story in the form of arcs, Homestuck is one elaborate, self-referencing inside joke collapsed inside its own funhouse mirror reflection.

Amidst all this chaos, what drives story forward? The answer is time, and the fact that a digital story has the unique ability to explicitly point directly back at itself (both figuratively and literally via hyperlinks), no matter how many loops and altered iterations appear throughout the story.

Elsewhere in fiction, the construct of a time loop—or the idea of stacking functioning narratives within narratives—is often treated as an elaborate enterprise. Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Rian Johnson’s Looper, and Shane Carruth’s Primer treat time travel as a cerebral, painstaking endeavor. Indeed, many pop-culture depictions of time travel are hand-wringing morality tales meant to convey the loss and devastation that can be brought about by needlessly tinkering with the linear march toward some event horizon. (Even a relatively light-hearted film, Back to the Future, taps into Marty McFly’s despair, as he realizes he might prevent himself from being born.) In Homestuck, time travel, or rather “time shenanigans,” is not just another plot device; it is the way to make anything happen.

How did the four main protagonists come into being? By creating themselves and their alternate-universe parents using prehistoric technology and sending them back through time via meteor portals born of an apocalypse triggered by a clown hat. What caused the main alien protagonists’ universe to collapse? A murderous mutant winged dog, running from his own future creation, transports himself across dimensions via a magical lotus portal. How did the world’s Big Bad villain come into being? He was already there. The individual elements of the story barely make any sense (what part of that paragraph did make sense?), but amid the dense and almost unbelievable minutiae of the plot and setting, the reader can loosely puzzle together the narrative by tracing character and item timelines. When was the last time you saw this weapon, or at least an iteration of it? When did this character lose her life? When did this character come back to life, or at least re-enter the story? Re-read the last 1,000 pages and take notes as you go along, or simply look your query up on the MSPA Wiki. Homestuck’s all-digital existence ensures that you can ask and seek answers for whatever questions you have about storylines and characters instantly—the Tumblr tag “upd8” explodes with digestions of new information and fan theories after an update, while the Wiki has pages for every character, every item, and even Hussie himself.

Compiling this information is a demanding feat, but with the entirety of your source material always available for reference, it’s possible to track every movement of every object along the story’s many timelines—and oh, are they tracked. Homestuck’s fans are always discussing, analyzing, and then creating homages to it, whether by working with Hussie on actual updates and merchandise, voice-acting the text panels and in-story games, roleplaying online as any of the hundreds of Homestuck characters in their distinct typing styles/“quirks,” or dressing up/cosplaying at fan conventions. Despite the story’s complexities, it’s not a coincidence that a story based on and about creating deep digital connections, via an all-digital platform, has found such a devoted online audience, which has been steadily spilling into the real world.

If this sounds exhausting, it is. But Homestuck is never boring. Even narrative lulls still fold into the story’s internal mythology and end up pored over all the same. The rare moments when something clicks into place, another hundred questions rupture into existence. It both helps and hurts that Hussie, whose available personal information is surprisingly sparse for someone who is so relentlessly prolific in the digital world, is an active character in the story. And while “he” offers up detailed recaps (here, here, and here) and bizarre in-world encounters, Hussie the person has his own sort of control over the flow of time.

Hussie used to update Homestuck in small, steady increments—about three times a week. The price of such regular updates came as an infuriatingly slow storytelling pace, but one which allowed Hussie to lay out the details of the story’s world in baffling, then slowly recognizable detail. The first act of Homestuck is 247 pages long, and spends an inordinate time just naming its protagonists, yet still manages to end with a literal bang.

On October 17, 2013, Hussie broke that update schedule. It wasn’t the first time he’d done so, but the immensity of that particular announcement was unprecedented: According to him, he’d be wrapping up Act 6 and an all-new Act 7 all at once at a later, undetermined date. The absence was dubbed the “gigapause,” and fans whiled away their time speculating as to when Hussie would come back.

Homestuck itself wasn’t updated for a year, but Hussie was far from inactive. Much like A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, Hussie had plenty of side projects: Namco High, a since-discontinued dating sim game partnership with Namco Bandai; Paradox Space, which takes place in a segment of the Homestuck universe; the Homestuck “companion” webcomic Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. The biggest non-Homestuck-the-comic project to date is Hiveswap, the Kickstarter-funded Homestuck adventure game which, while part of the Homestuck universe as well, won’t follow the webcomic’s characters. (To note: The Kickstarter campaign goal was $700,000. Hussie raised over $2.4 million.)

The gigapause finally ended on October 15, 2014, and Hussie made his grand return with... a one-page update. Yet that was enough to crash the site (for some perspective, the monumental October 25, 2011 update “Cascade” had crashed the digital creator’s platform Newgrounds, a wholly separate, well-established site from MS Paint Adventures, in under two minutes), and soon Hussie revealed that he’d never intended to finish the series in one go at all.

The story was still unfinished; the updates would still be on their way. The gigapause was, in some ways, a red herring, but the response to its ending showed that, five years into the series’s surreal, madcap run, there was an audience still hanging on every word.

On January 19, 2015, Hussie began yet another hiatus, only there is an end already in sight: April 13.

It’s tempting to view his actions as deliberate attempts to toy with the expectations of his fans—first he giveth, then he taketh away, and he also backtracks on his statements. But the relationship he has with his fans is much more complicated than that: He interacts with them in such informal spaces and ways (imagine Kevin Feige tweeting a one-year hiatus on all Marvel productions) because fan ideas and creative collaborations have literally created Homestuck itself—many of the main characters were named by via fan suggestion, while fan work with Hussie to create graphics and music for the comic’s elaborate Flash animations. And then there are the characters of Homestuck. For all the razzle-dazzle of its plot machinations, Homestuck’s greatest strength is its creator’s gift for character-building within a weird and terrifying world. Hussie is able to get away with complex story-weaving and frustrating his fans' expectations because Homestuck’s readers are invested enough in its many unique and strangely relatable characters to follow them through time and space. In an interview with The Daily Dot in 2012, Hussie had this to say about Homestuck and its fans: “The comic itself is still under my control. I still make decisions about the story the same way I always did. But Homestuck as a ‘movement’ is not under my control, and never really was.”

Certainly, Homestuck’s particular digital reception has been remarkable, and its fan community has become ubiquitous both on online hubs like Tumblr and at comic conventions. But while plenty of webcomics and comics have devoted fan followings, Homestuck’s confusing nature might’ve relegated it to niche interest. Instead, it has become a phenomenon that could not exist anywhere but the endless expanse of digital spacetime, suspended by and within its audience’s wonder.