Nostalgia and Reference in Homestuck: How it Contributes to Success

Editor’s Note: this article, written by Saker Alexander, took third place in the 2012 Larry L. Stewart Writing Prize for Critical Essay on Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Drinking in Homestuck can be both dangerous and predictable.

Nostalgia is a strange thing: though it’s said that variety is the spice of life, we often crave the familiar and mundane. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pop culture paradigm of today. Books like Ready Player One, television episodes like Forever Red (a Power Rangers episode featuring every Red Ranger…ever), and video games like Retro Game Master and Retro City Rampage only serve to reinforce the fact that people want to relive the good times of their youth.

Enter: Homestuck. This webcomic has become something of a household name within geek circles within the past few years, with its influence infiltrating every aspect of nerd culture, from cosplay to popular memes. If you’ve somehow been avoiding Homestuck for its entire duration: congratulations! Y2K petered out; the bomb shelter is unnecessary. Since you’re getting re-accustomed to the real world, I’ll use a phrase you’re bound to hear quite often: let me tell you about Homestuck. This webcomic shifts the milieu of traditional webcomics by uniquely including still panels, novella-like text blocks, interactive games, flash, and music. At its core, Homestuck is self-described as a “creation myth”–a story of how our world was created, as seen through the eyes of four young children (and later four other young children, and twelve aliens, and then a few more aliens…needless to say, it can get complicated).

Because the comic has been running for over three years now and has a ludicrous amount of history behind it, there exists a barrier to entry for many people. Even people who have been fans of the series since the start can easy get lost, as Andrew Hussie, author, often tries to juggle half a dozen storylines at the same time. An easy question to ask, then, is: what makes it so popular? Surely, there are many reasons it remains ubiquitous, but one is certainly a heavy dose of nostalgia, which makes the barrier to entry slightly less daunting. Homestuck’s nostalgia, however, bifurcates itself into two clear areas: “real” and “fake” nostalgia.

Karkat’s sprite is similar to Ness’. Note the
placement and shape of irises and mouths.

In referencing “real” nostalgia, we’re speaking here of references Homestuck makes to real pop culture. From Little Monsters to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hussie spares no expense in including the images of his youth in his writing. They crop up visually, referentially–sometimes even in terms of plot! Rufio (of Hook fame), Falcor from the Neverending Story, and an MMO based on Ghostbusters all appear as part of the canon plotline of the story. The story revels in the irony of such references, but its motives are clear: these topics are being homaged, revered, put on a pedestal in the museum of “Hey, I Remember That!” Hussie seems to have a deep understanding of the general geekery of his audience, too, because there are plenty of references to nerd culture. Sprites are gratuitously stolen from Earthbound, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger, and adapted to the plotline of the story. Music from the series sometimes blatantly bathes in the ashes of composers past (for reference, listen to Fourside from Earthbound and then Frog Forager from Homestuck: Volume 8).

Gamzee’s room secret room is actually the secret room from The Secret of Mana. The Earthbound characters also appear inexplicably.

The second type of nostalgia, this “fake” nostalgia, I’ll cloyingly refer to as “fauxstalgia,” because I hate myself and yearn for the sweet release of death. The reason this type of nostalgia is considered fake is because it’s manufactured internally. In a nutshell: Hussie loves to be self-referential. Many panels in the comic will directly reference another event in the comic, textually or pictorially. For example, a character may take the same actions as a past character with a similar outcome, or a character may unintentionally spout a piece of dialogue that had been said by a different character several hundred pages in the past. Additionally, Hussie cross-references his works: for example, Problem Sleuth, his project before Homestuck, is constantly given a wink and a nudge. Characters in Homestuck create Problem Sleuth-related items, wear Problem Sleuth-branded clothing, and use Problem Sleuth backgrounds on their computers. Additionally, Hussie loves to lampoon fans of his works, creating, in a sense, nostalgia for community. Much like real-life fanboys and girls, characters within the comic ship others within the story, writing fanfiction and drawing fanart (which is, in turn, commissioned from actual fans, throwing us even further down the rabbit hole). Hussie’s fourth-wall-breaking appearances within the comic itself often see him cosplaying as someone from the comic, as well, a fan activity that goes unacknowledged by many authors but serves to create a nostalgic sense of community.
So how do these affect the reader? Firstly, it creates a sense of belonging. Eagle-eyed readers who are able to catch when a panel references a different panel from two years ago capture a feeling of wonderment from the experience. In fact, the whole thing feels like something of an inside joke sometimes (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a group of friends, excited to discuss the latest update, only to figure out I’m entirely excluding one friend who doesn’t read the comic). In another sense, there’s an understood payoff to many of the gags within the comic, which creates a sense of reward for the reader. When someone has seen the work referenced in the text or recognizes the fauxstalgia of a past panel, they can guess how the gag will end, which can be exciting. (Or, conversely, if they predict the way the gag will end and find their previous conceptions subverted, that’s exciting on an entirely different level!) Finally, the work tends to self-canonize. By ranking itself with the great canon of 80′s and 90′s pop culture, it holds a sense of implied legitimacy. In a way, it’s the nerdy equivalent of namedropping someone influential and powerful. (Oh, Silver Spoons? Yeah, just another guy I know. No big deal.)
Of course, I’m not going so far as to say that following this formula guarantees success. Good writing and art are certainly critical to the success of Homestuck. But tapping into that little part of people’s brains that allows their inner child to grin like an idiot can’t ever hurt.

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  • Sara Goodwin

    You've succeeded in making me want to find the adapter-thingy for my old Super Nintendo so I can play Earthbound, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger. I haven't checked out Homestuck yet and have been meaning to look it up. I have to say, though, you had me at Rufio. Off to google the heck out of Homestuck. :-)