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The ironic awfulness off 'Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff'

Not too long ago, I became aware of something called "seapunk." After steampunk and deiselpunk, I had initially thought this was another strange technology-based trend based on the legitimate "cyberpunk" where geeks were far more interested in the aesthetic qualities rather than anything making sense. As it turns out, "seapunk" is far less serious.

Unlike the other variations, seapunk leans far more heavily on the "punk" part. There's a ton of bright colors -- teals, purples and greens -- plus mermaids, dolphins and other aquatic life.

There's also the inherent silliness, which includes '90s nostalgia. Search "seapunk" on Tumblr (the alleged breeding ground for this microculture) and you run into the sorts of jerky animated GIFs and visual callbacks to Windows 95. While it may not necessarily be aesthetically pleasing, its off-putting, incongruous visuals are part of the charm.

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How much of this influenced Homestuck? I have no proof, as a quick search indicates Homestuck fans are more likely to get into steampunk than into goofy retro-'90 GIF sets. There's an eerie synchronicity going on, however: Seapunk surfaced around 2011, roughly the time that Andrew Hussie began giving aquatic-themed troll Meenah Peixes (and her villainous alter ego The Condesce) substantial presence in his webcomic. Tridents and sea creatures were suddenly in vogue. Hussie loves to infuse his characters with traits found in various Internet subcultures; there's a bad-movie aficionado, a juggalo, a furry and an otaku, among others. However, Meenah was based on her predecessor Feferi, who's sort of a troll mermaid. That got me thinking: Did Homestuck actually have a hand in creating seapunk?

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Another thing that Homestuck and seapunk have in common: the love for trashy digital art. One of the most enduring aspects is the comic-within-a-comic called Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Storywise, the comic was created by Dave Strider, a character so cool that he only appreciates things ironically (likely he learned this from his big brother Dirk, who, he assumes, has been collecting puppets and ninja swords on an ironic level). It's a greatest hits of the worst aspects of Microsoft's infamously bundled software: unsteady lines, liberal use of the spray-paint tool, and, best of all, Comic Sans. The site's background is an eye-melting mess that recalls the monstrosities one would discover on GeoCities.

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The irony is that Dave is creating a webcomic intentionally terrible that ends up taking just as much time and effort as if he were creating something "good." Like, say, a certain webcomic that advertises itself as an MS Paint project where everyone looks like stick figures? There's a very good chance that Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff is Hussie's secret autobiography.

Yet much like how Quentin Tarantino appropriated the trappings of trashy exploitation cinema to create something daring and enjoyable, Hussie replicates the look of amateur webcomics to make something that's genuinely funny. It becomes a tribute, too, saluting the early entrepreneurs who may not have had resources or artistic training but possessed a lot of spirit and optimism. Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff, however, is never as bad as the real sloppy webcomic attempts. We know, after all, that Hussie is capable of better artistry ... hence, the comedy in how accurately he portrays the awfulness. And then there's Hussie's unique, off-kilter sense of humor. He's got a knack for stringing together goofy phrases like "I told you about the stairs," "pupes" and "I did it while you were not looking."

This gets even more bizarre when Hussie elevates this trashy webcomic into pop iconography in his Homestuck world. Is there some sort of statement here about how the mere act of joking around can be parlayed into legitimate art? We do live in a world, after all, where jokey animated GIFs are getting museum exhibits -- a scenario that even the most forward thinking cyberpunk writer could not possibly have foreseen. Or is this just the typical zaniness from the guy who made the YouTube TNG edit where Commander Data creates a painting of a guy being sat on by a horse with gigantic biceps? Probably a little of column A, a little of column B.

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