Once you notice them, they’re everywhere: teens dressed in black T-shirts emblazoned with neon zodiac symbols. When they gather together, they’re an unnerving sight, with their gray full-body paint and orange horns, and a faintly evangelical gleam in their eyes.
What’s instigating all this? An obtuse, weirdly drawn little web comic called Homestuck, which follows four adolescents who begin playing a videogame called Sburb, only to discover that it has world-altering implications.
Created by a Western Massachusetts comic artist named Andrew Hussie, Homestuck is as dense as Community, as mythos-laden as Lost and as addictive as FarmVille. The “Homestucks” are so devoted that some 20,000 of them have raised over $2.1 million on Kickstarter, in order to fund a video game based on the comic. Although Mr. Hussie has left details of his plans vague, the campaign zipped past its $700,000 fund-raising goal in just two days. The meter continues to tick upward, as Mr. Hussie continues adding new rewards for stragglers who might consider donating.
Homestuck doesn’t come by this sort of devotion with brilliant writing or a straightforwardly crackerjack plot, the path trod by Star Trek, say, or Game of Thrones. The prose style is serviceable and the illustrations are quick and dirty. The home page—called “MS Paint Adventures”—looks like something a high school student threw together in 1998. The first panel is just a bare-bones animation of a floppy-haired, bespectacled kid with no arms and a pronounced overbite, blinking as he looks around his room. Beneath the picture is a prompt:
A young man stands in his bedroom. It just so happens that today, the 13th of April, is this young man’s birthday. Though it was thirteen years ago he was given life, it is only today he will be given a name!
What will the name of this young man be?
You click to enter his name, but you don’t actually get the privilege. On the next screen, you’re informed he’s called John Egbert, and he’s just received his copy of Sburb. Over the next several panels, he toggles between an attempt to figure out the video game in concert with his friend Rose over instant messenger, and dodging his clown-obsessed father’s attempts to feed him birthday cake. In rapid succession, John and Rose have destroyed his bathroom and relocated his home to a void beyond space and time.
[Still confused? See also: A Noob’s Guide to Homestuck.]
As far as multimedia experiences go, it’s pretty lo-fi. Homestuck is a riff on old-fashioned “text adventure” games, but in the beginning, at least, it resembles nothing so much as an online book. There are no badges to earn, no virtual goods to buy and no villains that you, the reader, can slay. Besides a little bit of navigating around bare-bones environments, the main thing you can do is hit next, next, next.
Tempted to click away to some cat videos? If you’re not immediately sucked into this premise, you’re not alone. False starts are common. But perhaps you give it another try, and this time you persevere.
At some point, you look up hours later and realize it’s past midnight, but you can’t quite stop clicking on and on, because you’d really like to know how the kids get themselves out of this one and who’s that mysterious figure? Soon enough, you’re blogging elaborately constructed theories about the inner workings of the plot, and you’ve got incredibly strong opinions about which characters ought to be paired up romantically, and you start wondering whether maybe, just maybe, Andrew Hussie might be reading your humble posts and taking them into account, however faintly.
It’s easy for an outsider (especially those old enough to vote) to feel flummoxed by Homestruck’s layers upon layers of insider jokes—and those crowds of horn-wearing, gray-makeup-covered adherents can surely seem intimidating. Homestuck does have its haters, some of whom get sucked in despite themselves. “When I finally decided to read Homestuck, it was my entire intention to poke fun at it via the blog,” explained a blogger named “Rune,” who maintains a Tumblr called What the Fuck is Homestuck, an exercise in screwing with enthusiasts that has morphed into a dedicated fan blog. “I wanted to hate Homestuck. I truly did,” said Rune.
“My plan backfired.”
The comic demonstrates the extent to which teenage audiences want not only to consume culture, but to help create it. Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon recently attempted to build the design for his latest tattoo on fan contributions. Former Dresden Dolls front woman Amanda Palmer tried to enlist volunteer local musicians via the internet to play at each stop on her latest tour—though she faced major blowback when it was discovered they would not be paid. Even the Dave Matthews Band recently created a music video composed of fan-submitted footage.
On TV in particular, fan feedback is shaping serial stories more than ever before. Network execs don’t have to wait for fan letters or to poke around fan forums to hear what watchers have to say; they’re bombarded instantly on Twitter and Facebook.
But while a Damon Lindelof (Lost) or a Dan Harmon (Community) might dabble in social media, they’re still separated from their audiences by layers and layers of handlers, publicists and plain old busyness. Fan feedback is nice to have, but for them it’s not part and parcel of the process, as it is for Mr. Hussie. The readers have “willed” the story to match their desires, said Mr. Hussie. “That’s what the format was designed to do.”
Mr. Hussie doesn’t seem like the likeliest of people to inspire such devotion. In his early 30s, he’s a bit older than his most vocal fans, but he’s still got the angular body of a teenager, all shoulders and elbows. He maintains active Twitter and Tumblr accounts, but isn’t terribly forthcoming about his personal life. His preference was for an email interview, and when The Observer sent over a few follow-up questions about his biography, Mr. Hussie went quiet.
Nor does it seem, from his goofy oeuvre, that he set out to cash in on the great late-2000s YA goldrush that spawned Twilight, The Hunger Games and hordes of imitators. The jokes and even his medium—text adventures, for Atari’s sake!—suggest he initially aimed for an older audience. But it’s the young’uns who have made it their own, and their allowance money is speaking loud and clear. (Hollywood, can you hear it?) “I think the result of the Kickstarter speaks pretty clearly to its potential to take in revenue,” Mr. Hussie said. It’s already garnered effusive praise from comics luminary Bryan Lee O’Malley, the author of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Mr. Hussie majored in computer science at Temple University then spent several years working on graphic novels. His experiments in the text-adventure format began on an internet message board with a roughly drawn comic called Jailbreak—he’d take suggestions from fellow posters and draw a response. Sometime afterward, he started MS Paint Adventures, as he called his content hub, where he attempted (and quickly abandoned) a choose-your-own-adventure story, before moving on to a detective story structured more similarly to Homestuck.
That ran for a year, enabling Mr. Hussie to build up a small fan base before launching Homestuck in 2009.
For his new comic, Mr. Hussie opened a suggestion box in the MS Paint Adventures forum, where he began taking fan contributions to drive the plot. All four main characters got their names in this way. In 2010, as the audience expanded—gradually going viral in the mysterious word-of-mouth manner of everything from Fifty Shades of Grey to “Gangnam Style”—the process of taking and incorporating suggestions grew too unwieldy and made it difficult for Mr. Hussie to tell a coherent story.
Rather than building feedback into the narrative, Mr. Hussie now visits fan blogs and forums—when he’s interested. Reader feedback, he said, doesn’t “drive the creation of every page” any longer.
Where he does involve fans directly is on the commercial side of things. Mr. Hussie supported himself off his webcomic work even before Homestuck, though that meant “barely subsisting.” Nowadays, he makes a decent living off merchandise—T-shirts, hoodies, pins, books—sold through his official store, What Pumpkin. Among the items available for purchased are fan art prints, though only the crème de la crème, of course. He has also recruited musicians to make and sell approved music under the What Pumpkin name.
Through Homestuck, Jeremy Iamurri, who works under the name Solatrus, has seen his music morph from a hobby into practically a second job. A programmer by day, he called it “absolutely amazing, that just being a part of Homestuck has caused me to gain this much exposure to be able to do professional work like that.” Musicians get a cut of the proceeds, and everyone who works on the various Homestuck albums—of which there are nine volumes—retains his or her own copyright.
Of course, that overfunded Kickstarter campaign offers the tantalizing promise of catapulting Mr. Hussie into another bracket of fame. Nothing increases an artist’s profile quite like such a rapidly, rabidly funded project. And with publishers, movie studios and video game companies all in the business of trawling constantly for ideas, it’s hard to imagine that Mr. Hussie won’t be getting serious offers any day now—though whether he’ll accept them is anyone’s guess.
Benevolent though he may be, Mr. Hussie is still a dictator when it comes to the story line. He routinely kills off beloved characters, recently leaving a couple of popular ones’ bodies stuffed into a refrigerator, as if to mess with the “wildly enthusiastic youngsters” who comprise the Homestuck fandom. In fact, he went so far as to admit to The Observerthat the appearance of real collaboration is “kind of an illusion.”
Some of his characters even poke fun at readers, notes Amanda, an artist, devotee and costume aficionado in her early 20s who runs the blog Fuck Yeah Homestuck Cosplay, a catalog of impressive fan getups. “His relationship with the fandom can be seen as ‘amused’ I think,” she said. “He can make jokes at our expense, because while Homestuck can be a very dark and depressing comic, it is still a comedy.”
And yet, he does occasionally wax warm and fuzzy toward followers. In response to the Kickstarter upswell, his thank-yous and proclamations of being “utterly amazed” read as wholly sincere.
Two million dollars can have that effect on a person.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of the New York Observer.