WaPo Interview Uncut
Oct 30th, 2018
- 1. Did you have a plan of duration when you began HOMESTUCK — similar to how, say, some TV creators (for Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc.) have the longer arc planned out — or were you more just improvising as you went along, with short-term mile markers of narrative? And did you expect HOMESTUCK to reach the length it did?
- The story I did before it took one year to finish. So figuring the next one might also take a year was sort of a starting point assumption. But kind of a loose guideline, not an actual goal, or even a piece of information that meant anything at all, really. Homestuck had some features that were much more laborious to execute, like lengthy animated pages. There was a certain intensity it had the previous story didn't, which caused its run to go on a few years rather than just one. And once a thing sprawls beyond some initial boundary, which never meant much in the first place, all bets are off. A few years can turn into seven.
- But calling it a one year endeavor which turned into seven is still probably misleading. Once a project goes on a few years, it starts to consume an appreciable percentage of your actual lifespan. And life is a chaotic thing. If you let a project take up a significant part of your life, then life has a way of returning the favor by intruding on the project. And the intrusion stretches the project out even further, thus perpetuating the grim cycle. I doubt there's anyone who's working on an ambitious creative project who doesn't relate to this somewhat. Those of you with that unfinished thing sitting on your computer, nagging at you. What's taking so long to finish it? Sounds like life's been messing with you.
- And related: Did you find the four original “beta kids” we meet in the first volume, developing in any surprising ways over time?
- The way the story worked was, I set up some basics and a few initial conditions, readers gave feedback (i.e. "commands"), I updated the story very rapidly in response, and it just goes where it goes. There were measures of planning and design, but it was largely improvisational and fluid. A sort of "creative conversation" with the story's readership. The narrative was shaped in response to these factors, and so were the characters. So characters, just like the story, are really just initial profiles that are meant to be pliable, shaped over time in surprising ways. I'm not sure it makes sense for me to say any character went in surprising directions, since that was the point. There were no character arcs mapped out fully before page one, which could serve as the basis for surprising departures. Only initial personalities and traits. As a coming of age story, the kids grow and evolve as everything else develops along the way. Kids can turn out to be anything. The prolonged, chaotic narrative gives them sort of an extended environment in which to discover who they are, which I think leads to some relatable experiences for a lot of people.
- In these books we're adapting the story to, I write commentary on every page, which has resulted in a lot of reflection on all this stuff. Figuring out what to say about it all in order to make the books worth reading has brought back a lot of the original ideas that went into it. This is one topic that seems to keep surfacing as I retrace the steps. This game the kids play together, and later, even the narrative itself they exist in, is a hostile confining medium which can be viewed as analogous to life. I guess apropos of the first question, life messes with you. It can feel like an antagonistic, nihilistic continuum, broken in ways, actively sabotaging you in others, yet appears to have demands of you, hoops to jump through, comparable to the rules of a sadistic game, or the structure of a stunted narrative. I think life can feel this way especially to young people figuring things out. So in that way the game/narrative doesn't feel structured conventionally, so much as it comes across as a dysfunctional, actively hostile encompassing reality that a bunch of fictional kids are stuck in for a long time while they confront the truth about themselves. It shifts most of the focus on character, less on the usual beats of story. They respond to these pressures similarly to how young people growing up respond to the pressures of life, which for the most part is a disastrously messy process. This feels to me why it resonated with a lot of younger readers.
- 2. Speaking of building toward endings: Did you anticipate that your ending would be viewed as somewhat controversial?
- There's a lot to say about it. I should probably wait for the final books to come out before diving too much into that material. I will at least say that almost everything in the story was controversial. And the bigger the fandom got, the more controversial everything was. Some fans tend to forget, the more all these crazy plot points along the way recede into the past, that practically everything that happened was a serious point of contention. A reason to argue, discuss, to generate pages and pages of heated dissertation on what everything means, and why certain things are good or bad. All of this was supposed to be part of the experience. It was part of the cat and mouse game between the author and reader. When I answer questions or make notes in books, you come away with the sense that there's a lot of serious stuff going on - themes, complex ideas, characters with emotional depth. Stuff about growing up, life, the nature of reality. But in the end, the best way to view it is still probably as a huge farce. A metafictional farce, that never fully escapes its own ridiculous nature, its whimsical tendency to warp the boundaries of its medium or subvert the expectations surrounding it.
- If you never heard of Homestuck before reading this interview, this fact about it probably doesn't come across unless I just outright tell it to you. Ya GOTTA believe me: it's a funny story. It's nonstop jokes. An almost impossibly vast run-on shitpost. Perhaps the biggest of its kind. There's a lot of interesting stuff lurking in it, I think at least, but its humorous qualities predominate. That's what I'm getting at when I talk about its farcical nature. Certain things shouldn't be taken at face value, or as seriously as you might otherwise be inclined to. But the ending isn't "funny" per se, it's quite a deadpan, lavishly animated, but fairly minimilistic presentation of what I'd describe as the story's metatheological thesis. A farce can make you laugh in obvious ways, but a farce can hit very deadpan notes as well, which can be more effective in serving its purpose sometimes. Some of the best jokes you'll ever hear are told not only in a deadpan way, but with a stone-faced sense of severity. Almost like you're being given a profound sermon. And you may be left legitimately wondering if what you just heard was a joke at all. Was your mind just blown a hundred different ways you'll spend the rest of your life unpacking, or were you just taken for a ride? Is there some deeper hidden wisdom lying in the exact nexus between these two possibilities? It's all part of the riddle. A farce is just a kind of riddle. One that you aren't sure is even being asked, until you start encountering phrases like "metatheological thesis" being used with a straight face, at which point you start becoming understandably suspicious.
- 3. What was your opinion of the fandom as it was forming — and how HOMESTUCK became a staple of Internet fandom? Was it ever daunting while writing for such a devout following — and did you find that fact inspiring, or challenging, or intimidating, or perhaps even all of the above?
- Not all of the above. There are a few words there. The answers range from "never" to "always". So maybe some granularity is useful in this answer.
- Intimidating: never. I mainly fed off the energy of crowd while making it. The bigger it got, the more that was true. Even the negative kinds of energy seemed to feed the creative engine. Actually the type of energy that fed into it tended to get reflected back in kind. There was plenty of positive feedback, but huge fandoms unavoidably tend to be very negative entities in many ways. The negative energy fed the beast lurking at the heart of the story. Most of the plot revolves around the creation and summoning of a horrible, unbeatable monster. This is all allegorical of course. Most things are.
- Inspiring: sometimes. If you really strain to ignore the negative parts of fandom, there are a lot of good things to see out there. People getting inspired by what you do to make their own stuff, which has a way of feeding back into your own sense of inspiration. Homestuck seems to have spawned countless creative endeavors by its fans, and it's all been around long enough that those endeavors have inspired other people as well. We're at like 4th or 5th generational degrees of new content removed from the original source of inspiration by now.
- Challenging: always. I don't mean it was always challenging dealing with a large fandom. (Although I guess that was true too.) I'm mainly talking about the rigors of production. The schedule I established for myself was oppressive, and the longer animations were kind of excruciating to make when compressed into a span of a few days of Flash work. Nobody forced me to do that, it was all self imposed brutality for reasons I'm not even sure I can explain anymore. Just a creative challenge I guess. But the fans did get used to that pace, and came to demand it. Which was sort of aggravating? But maybe it was unfair of me to think that, since I was the one who set the pace in the first place. Regardless, all aggravation was simply channeled into the sort of negative aura of Demon Energy surrounding the story, per the point above. It's very testy media, which I consider one of its better qualities. Sometimes I have funny meltdowns about my creative suffering. All such meltdowns take place in the story, either through character surrogates, or through my literal self-insert avatar.
- Daunting: somewhat. You asked if it was "daunting while writing". I say somewhat, because I'm not even sure what qualifies as writing here. On a day to day basis, the only writing I needed to do was the series of pages being posted for that day, which usually consisted of a long, rambling, funny conversation between two emotionally unstable teenagers. That was never daunting at all. That was always very easy, and one of the more enjoyable aspects of doing it. Which is why there are so many such conversations in Homestuck. I tended to gravitate to content like that as an overall energy-saving mechanism in the greater marathon of the work. But then there are other facets of writing, like piecing together a narrative, sequencing, pacing, world building, myth and symbological consideration... as a process, all of this is murky, and it's hard to pinpoint when it's actually taking place, and when musing to yourself about such things formally counts as "writing". When a guy sits down and writes a comedy routine, that probably counts as writing. When an improv comic wings an entire routine on stage, is he still actually writing? If a guy sits alone in a room typing a novel on a typewriter, I think we all agree that's writing. What if he's sitting at the same typewriter, but placed directly in the middle of a wild and noisy circus? Every now and then a clown reads out loud over his shoulder while honking a horn maniacally. Members of the audience may say, this guy certainly seems to be ass-deep in SOMETHING here. But I'm just not sure "writing" accurately describes what it is. I think often that's how I felt about making Homestuck. Like the words didn't quite exist for whatever the hell it was I was doing.
- And related: Can you talk a bit about your process developing trolls and their own unique culture?
- It was very similar to the processes I've already described. I start with some basics. Some known quantities, like gray skin, orange horns, terrible typing quirks, without really knowing much else about them at all. Then I whimsically slide in a few more elements as I go, conceived during the gaps of the narrative while other things are happening, like blood castes, violent customs, ancestral lore and such. And just keep riffing like that until it seems well rounded out. Always keep certain things vague, right up until they're not, if the time for elaboration feels right. It's a very fast and loose approach to building a fictional race and culture. Which results in a lot of silly stuff, like alien versions of human celebrities on their planet. But it also starts accumulating some legitimately interesting features that easily would work in a more serious scifi enterprise. So it's really not a bad approach to world building in general.
- 4. As HOMESTUCK continued to unfold, the LGBTQ character representation seemed to increase exponentially. Did you always plan that — or did something specific along the way spur you to create numerous gay and non-binary characters?
- I didn't plan it, but was generally open to any type of development for the characters. Again, that was the point, to let them grow with the story and discover who they really were, just like real kids do. But I think this feature of the story was definitely influenced by the fandom. The story has ways of reflecting the fandom back at itself in many respects. As things went along, I noticed there was an ever-growing LGBTQ portion of the fandom, which I wasn't really expecting to happen, but it seemed like a welcome development. If these were going to feel like real kids whose experiences of growing up resonated with real people reading this, it felt like a big portion of the readership should have their own experiences reflected in the thing they're reading. I guess this is a more elaborate way of saying they should receive "representation in media". I wasn't thinking about it in such terms back then though. I think it was more about just being true about people, and the diverse range of experiences they have.
- 5. Across your many, many thousands of fan interactions, do any specific ones really stand out to you — be it for impact, insight or other?
- All in-person interactions with fans are overwhelmingly positive. Easily over 99% of everyone I meet with in person seems great, and have nothing but good things to say. It doesn't seem sufficient to just say they're nice people. They all genuinely seem to be overflowing with emotion and enthusiasm for this thing I did. It's very odd how all the argumentative chaos, invective and incrimination of the internet seems to completely vanish when you directly confront great numbers of people in their physical forms. The two realms are so different, it's hard to reconcile, but it does lend a sense of optimism that the complete hell we perceive on the internet every day is just some sort of horrific illusion conspiring to agitate and demoralize us, without much truth or substance behind it. I answer the question this way to help point out why it's hard to isolate certain interactions. It mostly all merges together as a positive experience. The extreme outliers are the rare exhibitions of strange behavior, but those aren't worth singling out. To highlight those would give the wrong idea about the typical nature of my encounters with fans.
- 6. Many people and outlets, such as “PBS’s Idea Channel”, have compared HOMESTUCK to “Ulysses” — do you find that to be an apt comparison? Is there any classic literature you think it is better/best likened to?
- The last interview I did, I brought this topic up unprompted, because it's something that comes up a lot in interviews. Then I started talking about Pewdie Pie for some insane reason. I vowed that day that I would never mention Pewdie in an interview again, and you'll find my record has since been spotless. I guess I could link to that interview question here? Would that be cool? While I'm at it, I might as well link to my Soundcloud too. I don't have a Soundcloud yet, but when I do, wow, watch out. It's going to slap.
- I'm not actually going to paste a link to an interview inside another interview. I'm pretty sure I would get roasted for that by journalists everywhere. It may also risk contributing to the very darkness in which our democracy is likely to die. But I will say that I thought that comparison and the video that went with it was pretty interesting. When you're reading something for the first time that's a bit different, and trying to make sense of it, it's natural to want to look for other literary or cultural touchstones to use as a frame of reference. That one's not bad. The world was very different back when that story was written. The remark I had about this was something to the effect of, in the end creators of any era are all just a bunch of lunatics and goofballs trying things out, using whatever tools and ideas the world gives us to play with.
- 7. You’ve stated that your personal favorite character is Vriska Serket — does that still hold true? If so, why?
- Vriska Serket is my wife.
- 8. So: Any favorite running gag in all of HOMESTUCK?
- Some would say that the author avatar's infatuation with Vriska Serket inside the story is a running gag. But those people are making a huge mistake thinking that, because that's not funny at all. It's extremely serious business. There are a lot of mentions of horses too. But again, nothing to see there either, because horses are also serious, and I would never joke about a horse even if my life depended on it. Maybe the only true running gag in Homestuck is how everyone keeps thinking it's full of gags, when in fact all of this material is extremely important to me, and carries a sort of somber, deeply spiritual gravity to it all. Homestuck is essentially my religion, and I do not take derisive or frivolous remarks about it lightly at all. The good news is, if you have ever read a substantial portion of Homestuck, that means it is your religion as well, and you likely feel the exact same way.
- 9. Numerous elaborate fanworks have gone seriously viral, of course, particularly fan animations — do you have any personal favorites? And more widely: Any thoughts on the tremendous overall impact HOMESTUCK made on Internet culture?
- A lot of good viral fan content just ended up bringing those fans into the fold of Homestuck itself, and they began contributing in various ways. The person who did most of the animation work on the final animation also did a nice viral animation years before that. Same with a bunch of musicians and illustrators. That tends to be the type of fan work that stands out most in my memory. The ones which led to later collaborations with those people.
- 10. Can you talk a bit about your creative process when drawing and animating the comic? How did your approach and techniques evolve over time? (And how much was actually done on MSpaint as the the previous hosting website URL suggests?)
- Only the first panel of the first story was done in MS Paint. But it's just a really bad tool to use, so I switched to Photoshop forever after that. Everything about the visual creative process revolved around speed. Obsessively so. The only thing that ever really mattered was bringing all of my skills to bear on creating the most effective visuals I could in as little time as possible. So in earlier stories that took the form of mostly uncolored, stick figure-like characters. But later the process evolved to include more sophisticated art and animation methods which I also figured out how to do quickly. Stuff involving flat color silhouettes and shapes. Strategic reuse of assets with certain mods. It was never about making "good" art, it was always about "decent, passable, engaging, energetic", etc, crossed with the quickest execution methods possible. When Homestuck hits its stride, I think it's a good visual demonstration of the peak optimization of all these factors. It's a good way for covering ground in a story fast.
- 11. Now that the comic has ended, any sequels or prequels in mind besides the video game “Hiveswap”?
- Around the time of the story's end, I envisioned an "epilogue" of a substantial nature, and made some mention of it. It may or may not be in the works, and its existence is something which I can neither confirm nor deny, because a critical part of the experience surrounding it is to cause you to wonder whether it was something I really mentioned, or whether that was just some insane fever dream you had. So you definitely didn't hear it from me that I just said the word epilogue again. But even if I did, word epilogue could be a bit misleading. There are many "intermissions" in Homestuck, but they really aren't conventional intermissions, and in many cases don't qualify as intermissions at all, so much as the opposite of one. It's just a word used to label a stretch of content, and the looseness of these partitioning terms goes along with the media's farcical quality. The epilogue may or may not be the same way. But even if it is, it would still cover material which follows after the end of the story. You say "sequel", I say "post-canon content". These ideas are moving targets. Most of the answer to such a question must be spent calibrating the fuzzy meaning of these words as they apply to this media. I'm sure my fans appreciate this very much. Q: "Hey man, got anything else in the works?" A: "Ah! But who can say for sure what truly the meaning of various words are in actuality??"
- 12. What challenges did you face transferring and adapting the original multimedia format of HOMESTUCK into flat still images for a book?
- My usual snappy answer to this question is I'm basically doing jack shit. A very skilled and dedicated layout artist has been transcribing it all to print format, and I appreciate his effort. Most of my involvement comes into play when I write commentary on all the pages. Which to be brutally honest, feels a lot like the "work" I'm doing in answering these questions. My answers here sound exactly the same as my commentary. At the end of the day, it's really all part of the same huge pile of piping hot baloney. If you enjoy whatever it is I'm doing here, first of all, thanks I guess? Second of all, please get some help. Third of all, go to your local book store, wrestle the final copy of "Homestuck" they have in stock out of the hands of the teen who was just about to buy it, and then buy it yourself. I promise you won't regret it. Unless the teen tries to kick your ass. In which case, sorry, you're on your own.
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