The Webcomic Overlook #231: MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck (Acts 1-4)
It’s time once again to delve into the world of comics in the digital medium, where your eyes are bombarded not by inks and tree fibers but rather by the warm, embracing glow of an LCD monitor. There’s been a pretty big gap in my reviewing back catalogue, which for some reason includes something called Loviathan and something called Glam but for some reason doesn’t include the webcomic whose cosplayers overtook Emerald City Comic Con this year.
That’s right, readers: it’s time for yet another review of Andrew Hussie’s MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck!
Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Homestuck, or maybe you’ve heard about it in bits and pieces but really don’t know much about it, there’s one thing you should know right off the bat: it’s a very long webcomic. A VERY long webcomic. And deceptively so. As a result, I’m splitting this review into two segments. The first will reivew Acts 1-4, which focused mainly on the players of John, Rose, Dave, and Jade. (I will call these four “Pesterchums.” I don’t know if that’s the official term for them, but that’s how they appear categorized in their chatlogs.) The second will deal with Acts 5 and beyond, which seems to focus on the trolls.
Is this a fair dividing point? I think so. Back in the day (holy crap, this comic started back in 2009?) fans on the webcomic seemed to be split on how to take Act 5. The focus one trolls cause some to quit. On the other hand, trolls seems to be what maneuvered Homestuck to the big leagues. How much fan art is devoted to trolls vs. that which is devoted to the original crew? I’m guessing a million to one. As a result, my scholarlycomparison of trollspeak to Li’l Abner‘s cornpone dialects is going to have to wait until Part 2. Doesn’t that sound exciting?
… yeah, I didn’t think so either.
Up front, let me just say that I’m a pretty big fan of Hussie’s work. I love watching his ridiculous TNG Edits, which have a sense of humor that fluctuates between low key and flat out absurdity. I had fun reading Problem Sleuth (reviewed here), even during the end game when it kept going and it seemed like it would never end.
And yet… that’s probably the same reason I really haven’t manned up to read Homestuck until now. I’ve tried, mind you. I’ve picked it up from time to time, retracing my steps because I thought I may have missed something, then dropped it again. “Maybe when I have the time,” said the disaffected voice nagging in my head. For some reason, I was ambivalent toward Homestuck… and a large part of it was probably because I really liked Problem Sleuth.
Reader “MrGraves” made a very astute observation in a previous comments section that Problem Sleuth is to Homestuck as The Hobbit is to the The Lord of the Rings. This is so elegant that I could probably end this review right here.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
(Yeah, yeah… I know. I did this exact same joke three years ago when I did the Problem Sleuth review. But is it a repetitious joke… or is it a clue to some part of a larger tapestry that will unlock the deeper mysteries of The Webcomic Overlook?)
Back to why the analogy is so brilliant. There are fans of The Lord of the Rings who deride the childish nature of the earlier work. And then there are fans of The Hobbit who think that LotR just takes things way too seriously. While MrGraves only introduced me to that analogy days ago, the truth of the statement hit me with its power. The big reason I was apprehensive about Homestuck was … mainly because I’m a bigger fan of The Hobbit that I was of LotR. Whimsy and wonder, to me, trumps sometimes stuffy scholasticism. (Though don’t get me wrong, I do like both.)
There’s another way The Hobbit/LotR analogy works. Back during the launch of The Hobbit movie, I came across a review that pointed out that The Hobbit and LotR were the same story. Not that LotR was a continuation of The Hobbit (which is true). But that it’s the same story. Both stories have parties traveling long distances, fighting orcs/goblins in the depths of the mountains, meeting up at Elrond’s house, spend some time in a hidden elven city, and culminate in a gigantic battle between multiple armies. The difference is the way it was told. Children’s story vs. epic history. The plot of Homestuck is the same plot as Problem Sleuth, only in Tolkien overdrive.
This time, the story (at least until the end of Act 4) centers around four 13-year-olds. John is a cheerful dude who loves crappy movies and lives in a house decorated with harlequins. Rose is more morose, loves knitting, and lives in a house decorated with wizards. Dave is the cool guy, taking things in with a detached sense of irony (like his house filled with puppets and swords). Jade is sweet and seems to know a lot more than she lets on. The four of them communicate primarily through Pesterlog, which is basically instant messaging. Pesterlog will be replacing word balloons in Homestuck.
This is a big advantage that Homestuck crew has over the silent protagonists of Problem Sleuth, by the way. Pesterlog can be tediously long at times. The dialogue patterns, however, feel authentic — unlike, say, how online conversations are portrayed in pretty much every other aspect of pop culture media. Hussie has apparently spent a lot of his life in chatrooms and messageboards, because the personalities reflected in the logs should be familiar to anyone whose spent anytime online.
The Pesterlogs do a great job fleshing out each characters’ the personalities and “speech” patterns. It would be one thing if John were just a silent protagonist like the heroes from Problem Sleuth, for example. Since the comic is structured like a video game and told in second person, it would be easy to graft our own personality onto John. But, because of the Pesterlogs, John becomes his own character. He’s awkward yet likable, pleasantly goofy and loyal to friends that he can’t really see. John isn’t a stand-in for the reader. John is John.
The story starts when John and Rose decide to play a game. Not just any game: players themselves can manipulate reality. Rose, for example, can use her pointer to expand John’s house like it’s The Sims or something. The game itself seems to be a mishmash of several gaming tropes. Hussie gets a lot of comic mileage out of the vagaries of the inventory system (which remind me of the sometimes complex spell systems in the Final Fantasy games) and the goofiness of combining items (I’m not sure what he’s parodying specifically, but Dead Rising 2 does let you combine a drill with a water bucket). Battles are pretty much what you’d expect from a JRPG parody, only with that Andrew Hussie fondness for archaic (and funny-sounding) words.
Eventually it turns out that the game is bigger than it seems. Meteors fall out the sky. The earth is burned up. Swordfights are fought with puppets. Epic battle rages between living chess pieces. Portals open to different planets. And the pesterchums are contacted by trolls who are traveling backwards in time. As it goes.
I won’t talk about the trolls much yet. However, it’s pretty easy to see why fans would latch onto the concept. Well, beyond the fact that plenty of the trolls are themselves nerds with weird obsessions. (There’s a juggalo troll, for example.) The concept, though, is high-concept and heartwarming. When the kids first encounter the trolls, they can’t understand why they’re being so antagonistic and immediately dislike them. However, as the story goes on, the trolls explain their side of the story. They’ve played the game, and they know that the kids are in large part responsible for why things go south (i.e., cause the end of the world). As the kids learn more, the trolls learn less… because from their point of view, the conversations they had with the kids haven’t happened yet. So there’s a cool idea that the initial party is gaining more knowledge because the latter party is unwittingly informing them at some point in their future.
Here’s the somewhat heart-warming part. Both are aware that there’s only a short period where one group moves forward in time while the other backward where they know enough about each other to sorta be friends. So both the pesterchums and the trolls know that at some point in their respective timelines, their friendships are going to end. It’s a little bittersweet, but also carries the subtext that the two group have to make to most of things with the little time they have left.
(Incidentally, I haven’t gotten that far into Act 5 yet, so there’s still a very good chance that the next review will consist of nothing but “F*** THESE TROLLS” over and over again.)
Despite the name of the comic, MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck is not actually done in MS Paint. I’d like to think that this is in some way a homage to the earlier heritage of hastily scrawled webcomics. Hussie’s earlier works, like Bard Quest, probably were done in MS Paint, maybe even ironically (more on that later). However, as his expertise in the medium increased, the crude Microsoft drawing platform had to be abandoned. The only thing that stuck around with the style.
Online comic pundits are always clucking their tongues about the brave new world awaiting digital comics. More animation! More interactivity! Lately, there’s been a lot of hype around Batman ’66. Wow, look at how the background totally changes when you swipe to the next page! So… are we supposed to go gaga over what looks like standard Powerpoint slide transitions? Please.
Hasn’t Hussie pretty much been practicing the theoretical digital comic ideal for at least the last five years now? I wonder if there aren’t a few reason why this isn’t acknowledged by mainstream sources as much. Maybe it’s because Homestuck is kinda dense, making it a little inaccessible to all but the hardcore devotees. Or maybe it is that art style, which looks deceptively crude.
This style, though, is simple and necessary. Would a glimpse into the Land of Light and Rain look nicer if it were more photorealistic? I don’t know. Maybe. But I suspect that the animation wouldn’t look quite as nice. This also goes for the comic’s many scored animation sequences, which are all mind-boggling from a plot standpoint and very nice to look at from a visual standpoint. I’ve had discussions online over whether or not MS Paint Adventures actually qualifies as a comic as all, as it disposes a lot of the traditional elements. (In fact, if you go by the Scott McCloud definition, MS Paint Adventures is not technically a comic.)
it definitely a lot of hard work, though. I’ve only gone through a year and a half worth of content as of this reading, and it boggles the mind how much material I covered. I think that I may have read through 2,000 pages of stuff. In the sometimes glacial pacing of webcomics, that sort of feat is unheard of. Again, credit to Hussie’s simple style. It’s the South Park principle: simple drawings lead to a unique style and a faster way to deliver content. In South Park’s case, it’s swift commentary on current events. In the case of MS Paint Adventures, it lets Hussie ramp up the storytelling complexity while freeing up his time to execute the comic’s trickier artworks. If comic pundits are serious about introducing a more interactive experience for the reader, these are the sort of techniques current and future creators have to adopt.
A recurring theme in Homestuck seems to be that while no one is completely responsible for their actions, everyone is responsible for what’s to come. Who’s in control? First it seems that Rose is in control of John’s world. Then it seems like Jade, who eerily has a spook knowledge of things to come, seems to be the one pulling the strings. But then the cameras are pulled back. Those text-adventure commands that you’ve been seeing since the beginning of the comic? It turns out that they weren’t just a clever gaming parody. Those were commands typed in by Wayward Vagrant, a mysterious man in bandages who is watching events unfold from the future.
But who is the Wayward Vagrant? Some sort of god? No, he’s just a hungry goofball who himself is thrust into circumstances by events beyond his control… which, in a roundabout way, may have been caused by the Pesterchums. Cause and effect is cyclical. We saw something like this in Problem Sleuth, but the result there was mainly the creation of new characters. Here, as everyone begins inadvertently meddling in everyone else’s business, the final result is the end of the world.
(And sometimes they end up creating a new cast of characters through time travel shenanigans. See what I mean about this being Problem Sleuth in Tolkien overdrive?)
I imagine that the four pesterchums reflect different aspects of Andrew Hussie’s personality… just like Captain Planet! The one that I think comes closest to the heart (or the Ma-Ti, as I like to call it) of what Homestuck is about, though, is Dave. John may have the pranksterism, Rose may have the cynicism, Jade may have the enthusiasm, but Dave. He has a webcomic. Dave creates Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff, an ironically bad webcomic that looks at first to be a one-off joke but ends up cropping up all over the place. Dave lives a life in constant irony. He lives in a house filled with swords and puppets, but he thinks it’s cool (or maybe, deep down, he doesn’t) because it’s supposed to be ironic and stuff. The thing is, the line between ironic and stupid and genuinely creepy is so thin that often Dave has no idea what he’s supposed to think.
You know this is ironic and all, and your BRO reaches echelons of irony you could only dream of daring to fathom. But on rare occasions, when your guard is down, it all seems just a tad unsettling to you.
Could this be what this comic is about? After all, it IS really, really silly. We readers may not have a house filled with puppets like Dave or plush Manthro Chaps like Jade … but we ARE reading Homestuck. This is a comic where there’s a Cosbytop, which is a laptop in the shape of Bill Cosby. It’s one where the creator has decided to devote time to an extended tribute to the Nicolas Cage movie, Con Air. How can anyone take anything this silly so seriously?
Because Hussie makes the mythos so goddamn dense that it’s impossible to simply approach Homestuck with a sense of ironic detachment. Like Dave, you get a sense that there might be something in there a tad unsettling. Homestuck chips away at your guard until you’re immersed in the complicated world-building. There’s a whole cosmology of different planets (some existing on a dream plane), the cause and effects of time travel to keep track of, and characters going on grim, epic quests. Lose the train of thought at any spot and things get completely and utterly confusing. Throwaway gags all of the sudden become significant. When John gets wigged out by Betty Crocker, it is both silliness AND a clue as to where the plot is going.
Man, if you can’t even ignore the throwaway gags, you can’t ignore anything. And keeping track of it all can be tiring.
Now, factoring in that this is a Tolkien-overdrive Problem Sleuth, I have a feeling that, in the end — when we factor in the world-building and the time travel and the trolls and the religious chess symbolism — I will come to the conclusion that over a span of four-plus years, Andrew Hussie has been playing a huge, drawn out prank. Just like the Joker would play when he kills an auditorium full of people and decides it’s part of some huge gag! It’s just that, you know, we haven’t reached those “echelons of irony you could only dream of daring to fathom.”
Spoiler Alert for Problem Sleuth! By the time Problem Sleuth ended, a silly parody of a Sierra adventure game set in a film noir had gone off the rails and become downright apocalyptic. It culminated in ridiculous (yet epic) Final Fantasy spells and an extremely long, drawn out boss battle. And I smiled. This was the most ridiculously convoluted joke ever executed, and the economic complexity made it even more hilarous. So you can obsess over the minutae of the Homestuck universe… but it’s also one populated by salamander people who blow bubbles and crudely drawn imps in jester outfits.
Here’s on of the biggest incongruities: Homestuck is filled with long Pesterlog chats that, initially, are hidden. First of all, why are they even being hidden? You sort of need read it in order to understand where the story’s even going. But even when you do unhide them, the text itself unfolds in the least clear way possible. There’s the l33tsp33k, the parts that might or might be pointless BS, keepingetc. But then there’s also the part where the trolls are traveling backwards in time. There are long stretches dialogue where the and our main characters are trying to figure out who knows what.
But then when we get to the major plot elements, the ones that actually depict what’s going on, they’re more often than not buried in those animated videos. Short seconds-long snippets lumped with other snippets that only let you get a glimpse of meteors hitting Earth and time travel and regicide. The only other way to get the plot is alternately Hussie periodically chimes in to try to get the reader caught on with what just happened. (It is really, really telling how dense the plot has gotten by how long these things are.) So what does that tell me? All this hard work trying to understand the plot… might be a collosal waste of time.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like it. In a recent poll I pitted Problem Sleuth against Homestuck. Now that I’ve read Acts 1-4, who would I vote for?
I’m not sure.
Despite following similar plot elements as Problem Sleuth, it’s an entirely different creature. The world-building may be silly as hell, but it’s still well done. The universe of Homestuck really is a place that feels lively and vibrant, a universe that you’d want to get lost in. It’s like those old sci-fi shows where the crew journeys from planet to planet, finding something new around the corner. Each world is different and unique, and half the fun is seeing what’s next. What are our Pesterchums going to see when they disappear through the next flower shaped portal? What kind of world will we see when we explore the worlds around the characters? Will it be a futuristic building perched near a frog-themed temple? Maybe it’s on a golden city covering a moon chained to a planet. Amidst all these intentionally crude illustrations, Snoopy snowcone swords, and Pesterlogs where “3”‘s replace “E”‘s, there are the moments of beauty and genuine wonder.
Like Hussie likes to invoke pop culture elements, so will I — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. At one point in the movie, Khan’s crewman says that they have the ship and the Genesis Device. Why are they wasting their time going after Kirk? With a twinkle in his eye, Khan responds, “He tasks me. HE TASKS ME….”
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Posted on August 30, 2013, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, motion comic, sci-fi webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Homestuck, MS Paint Adventures. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.