'Homestuck': A world without word balloons

You've seen them, I've seen them.

The last time was at Pacific Place during Emerald City Comicon, where I spotted someone with a handmade plushie of a puppet. In Portland, I saw them at a place that sold  fried elephant ears. For the most part, they wear what look to be orange-striped carrots on their heads, and they're responsible for the upswing in sales of light-gray makeup.

If you ever wondered who they were, they're the Homestuck fans, followers of a webcomic of such sheer immensity that it has, without irony, been compared to Ulysses ... by none other than PBS. There's a difference, however: I have actually read all of Homestuck. With Ulysses, I pretty much stalled 63 pages in to Chapter 1. It's hard to relate to bored white dudes lamenting about Ireland and whatnot. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to relate to video-game gags.

Homestuck, or officially MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck, is the brainchild of Andrew Hussie. His webcomics are a snarky mishmash of several nerdy and hipster pursuits; pop-culture trash is embraced without reservation. The bizarre and the archaic, such as resurrecting the word "pulchritude," are similarly revered. Homestuck characters love clowns, pranks, puppets, Nic Cage movies. They're Juggalos and furries and power-lifters and Tumblr activists. They are the new and the old colliding.

But there's the nagging question: Is this technically even a comic? After all, one of the strangest aesthetic departures is the lack of word balloons.

It's a little surprising how ingrained word balloons are these days. When you see a picture with a caption underneath, there's sort of a nagging feeling that it's not really a comic. Why is that? If you go back far enough, the publication that many consider to be the very first comic book (The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck) is rendered mainly in images with captions beneath.

In the grand Homestuck tradition of looking both backward and forward, Hussie, like the author of Oldbuck, banishes all his dialogue into expandable chatlogs (called "Pesterlogs," "Dialoglogs" and some other things I'm probably forgetting). The reader has to press a button to access them, giving the illusion that they're optional when in reality reading them is absolutely essential to understanding the story. When word balloons do appear, their usually symbols or emoticons that clue in the reader as to who is talking. (In Homestuck, the characters oftentimes communicate over long distances; face-to-face communication is a rarity in the early going.)

The dialogue unfolds in a florid facsimile of what it's like to communicate online ... complete with online handles, two letter acronyms of those handles, symbols and color-coding.  By the time the trolls show up (i.e. those fellas with the carrots on their heads), the chatlogs evolve into an all new sort of artform. The characters begin inserting clues to the speaker's identity into their chat patterns. If the text inserts "8"'s instead of "B"'s and the "::::)" emoticon shows up from time to time, they're clever clues that the speaker is Vriska (a.k.a. arachnidsGrip), a Troll with spider-like attributes.

It's an almost necessary evolution for a dialogue format that eliminates tails to speech bubbles. The speech pattern itself becomes unique, to the point where you can probably discern the speaker without the identifying monogram preceding it. That's no easy feat, as by Act 5, there are 16 different speakers to keep track of.

The chatlogs are like a hybrid of comic and play, and they're perhaps a more adequate format for long strings of alternating speech than the typical method of images and word balloons. It's also a format familiar to anyone who follows Tumblr, Twitter or Instagram. Grafting the same cadence to webcomics feels natural, modern and classic at the same time.

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