GeekOut

The most popular, epic webcomic you've never heard of

Editor's note: Lauren Orsini is a reporter for the Daily Dot, the hometown newspaper of the World Wide Web, the paper of record for what happens online. Follow her on Twitter @laureninspace. You can find more images of "Homestuck" cosplay on photographer Ed Tan's Flickr account.

In an age of computers, smartphones, and instant gratification, studies lead us to believe that our attention spans are the shortest they’ve ever been.

If that were completely true though, a 5,000 plus page webcomic shouldn’t be able to attract millions of fans, much less inspire them to raise a million dollars in under a week.

Homestuck,” cartoonist Andrew Hussie’s longest and latest project, is a video game inspired saga set in the Internet age. In the story, rife with Generation Y pop culture references, teenagers unite through an online game in order to save the world.

“I like Homestuck because it is one of the first pieces of media that genuinely appeals to me as a person who grew up in a very Internet based generation,” wrote Deanna Bennett, 20, in an email responding to my Tumblr request for "Homestuck" fanatics.

“Homestuck is meant to live online. It combines a lot of Internet humor that a lot of mainstream cartoons and comics are trying to desperately to tap but are failing and missing every damn time.”

Sounds like fun, right? But choosing to read it is a big commitment—in the form of hours and hours of free time. Fans compare its length to a that of a Greek epic. It has more than 100 main characters. And instead of comic panels, its gigantic pages are a mix of still and animated images, intimidating walls of text, Flash movies with original music, and even short video games.

“Homestuck is perhaps the first modern work to make full use of the Internet as not just a distribution tool but as a fully realized artistic medium,” wrote Clark Powell, 20. “Text, music, artwork, interactive, and animation are all combined in ways that have never been attempted before. On top of that, Homestuck is a piece of work whose very narrative is something of relevance to a new generation; it is, after all, a comic about the Internet, video games, and pop culture, if it can even be called a ‘comic.’”

Recently, the convoluted comic (and Hussie’s tendency to coin his own vocabulary for the script) prompted PBS’s Idea Channel to speculate that “Homestuck” just might be “the Ulysses of the Internet.” But as host Mike Rugnetta suggests, with great effort comes an incredible reward—the psychological theory of effort justification indicates that fans who stick it out will certainly grow attached.

“Homestuck's fans are a lot like the fans of the big, weird cult classics of the last half-century,” wrote Rob, 24, a graduate student who asked that we not use his last name in order to keep his internet and academic lives separate.

“That special enthusiasm, that ‘Let me tell you about Homestuck’ gleam-in-the-eye, isn't a product of Hussie's interactions with the fanbase so much as it's the universal demeanor of people who are into something wild and crazy and mindblowing, something that feels like a whole fever-dream world you can get lost in.”

Judging by the public statistics of Hussie’s advertising campaign, around 1 million unique visitors check the site for their “Homestuck” fix every day. Some more fervent fans are even involved in the comic’s creation process, since Hussie has been known to update as many as ten times in one day, making the comic a Herculean effort even with their help. A handful of volunteers, including Powell, draw art and compose original music for the comic.

“The fact that Andrew Hussie actively encourages the fans to be involved in contributing art and music truly blends the line between creator and reader,” wrote Sangdi Chen, 21.

Fans have also created a plethora of unofficial works, including fanfiction, fanart, and cosplay ensembles based on the characters. Colorful red and orange horns, found atop the heads of Homestuck’s alien race, the Trolls, dot the crowds at anime conventions and help fans recognize one another as kindred.

Cassandra Baden, 19, said the camaraderie of fans, both online and off, helped her get through a bout of depression during her first semester of college. Being away from home made her feel overly shy, but the Homestuck community gave her confidence to come out of her shell.

“Homestuck served as a gateway of sorts to other people,” she wrote. “I could go online, log into any of the many websites and be able to find a group of people I could talk to. I was scared to bring up my problems but like I had said before, they were family and immediately lent a hand when I needed it. The more I talked to them, the more confident I was talking to strangers on campus.”

“Homestuck”’s emphasis on friendships, especially long-distance ones, is especially important to fans like 19-year-old Sierra, from Texas, who asked that we refer to her using a pseudonym, for privacy's sake.

“In Homestuck, before the game starts, none of them have met in person. But they're still as close as friends can be, and their relationships are treated with the same seriousness that other friendships get,” Sierra wrote. “Homestuck has been a mutual bonding point for me and many of my Internet friends. When I met my best friend for the first time in July, I wore a Homestuck shirt to the airport so she could pick me out of the crowd instantly.”

After three years, Homestuck is beginning to receive attention outside of its close knit community—because money talks. When Hussie told fans he aspired to create a video game based on the comic and asked them to fund it, they eagerly complied, raising $1.9 million dollars in less than a month. Fans, once sequestered, are now aware of their power as a group.

“The enthusiasm is infectious,” wrote Avi Roberts, 22. “In the past three and a half years, I’ve watched a tiny community of people swapping inside jokes and suggesting names for the characters grow into a massive fandom capable of raising a million dollars in less than a week.”

Hussie himself, however, is not surprised. His fans have a will of their own. Even if he wanted to wield more power over Homestuck, he doesn’t think he could.

“The comic itself is still under my control,” he wrote. “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.”