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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Dubious Forms: The Homestuck Epilogues As Fanfiction

The Homestuck Epilogues position themselves as fanfiction, exploding the typical author/fan binary. But can fandom navigate this new exploded world?

Imagine you're dreaming in anime. A howling hole in reality, in meaning itself, opens, and everything sucks into nothingness, into noncanonicity. As you watch the horrible cosmic sucking, disorganized words flow into your vision. It's like the opening of the first Kingdom Hearts game. You've played that right? It's just like that. The words come:

One phrase stands out: "Tales of dubious authenticity." What could it mean?

Well, probably it means that Homestuck continues to sprawl outward nebulously in the same way it always has. The idea of things like the "text", "author", "canon", and so on always applied perplexingly to MS Paint Adventures. We've already talked at length about how "hypercomic" is a decent shorthand word for what these stories are, but "Assemblage" is probably a more accurate one: a big collection of disparate, heterogeneous parts working together in a way that doesn't have a clear beginning and end. It might also be moving towards something like a "rhizome"... but hold onto that thought for now.

The last years of Homestuck's production saw Andrew Hussie moving away from singular authorship, embracing more and more collaboration as additional artists and musicians were brought onto the project, and away from a centralized website, with the introduction of external platforms like Snapchat and Youtube. In parallel to that technical and production change, the story saw the protagonists fleeing canon itself, a prison presided over by the tyranny of Lord English. This was all a daring move away from the auteur model we've put so much credence in culturally, where a singular genius with an artistic vision bestows art upon us poor clods known as "fans".

And yet, there was the looming promise or threat of the Epilogue, a continuation or sequel which, some fans hoped, might tie up all the loose ends, close all the loops, and bring all the character arcs to a close. I wasn't actually one of those fans, I gotta confess. Turns out when you write two whole books on the premise that the ending of Homestuck is a work of metatextual gnosticism and the abrupt ending represents the characters achieving freedom from narrators, news of an epilogue/sequel that seems to be a canonical continuation feels a bit like the sword of Damocles, something that will inherently give the lie to the "escape from canon" thematic reading.

In a practical sense, then, what the phrase "tales of dubious authenticity" means for me is that I get to keep selling books.

The Epilogues, in practice, act as fanfiction, and the reason I'm putting this essay in the "Form" category in the form/theme divide of my Homestuck writing is because they formally emphasize their relationship to canonicity. To put it another way, they formally leave open space for other fanfictional responses. On the "Stories" page, for example, is that "Tales of dubious authenticity" label, a logo that shows a bifurcated black and white version of the SBURB logo, and that intriguing title: "The Homestuck Epilogues": not one, but two. Clicking the link brings you to a page displaying a start link, a "PROLOGUE" link, and then the text ">Choose: MEAT   CANDY". Another nod to the multiple options here, and an introduction of Homestuck's tradition of dubious choices. The narratives, after all, intersect with each other repeatedly, so the only real choice is which one you read first... and in fairness, that IS a real choice, which might affect your reception of the story. (I started with Candy, read until the corpse fell from one reality to the other, then switched, and periodically flipflopped between the two as it seemed prudent or just as the mood took me.)

Where things really get interesting is when you click the ">Start" link, though. At that point, you can see the biggest way that the Epilogues use structure to explain what they're doing thematically. See, the front page of the story looks like an Archive Of Our Own index page for a fanfiction.

The Epilogues are, to keep hammering this home, a fanfiction.

Not only that, they're collaborative fanfiction, partly written by the Original Author, Andrew Hussie, but also developed significantly by Cephied_Variable, ctset, Lalo Hunt, and Aysha U. Farah. These are all people who have worked on What Pumpkin products of one sort or another before, most prominently the Hiveswap Friendsims.

But from the outset the author list raises some tricky questions. It's tempting to say that while this is presented as fanfiction, fanfic usually isn't written partly by the author of the original text (and some might argue it's a contradiction in terms). But if we're to take it as "canon" because of Hussie's presence, what do we make of Cephied_Variable's presence, given they've written their own Homestuck fanfiction under that name on AO3? If this is part of the true text of Homestuck, isn't Cephied_Variable also true author of Homestuck, and, by the logic of authorship determining whether something is "fanfiction", are all their other fics canon now? What about fanfic Cephied_Variable might write later? We hit similar problems when we consider the formal framing. Does it matter that this is posted on homestuck dot com rather than AO3 if it's deliberately made to look like AO3 and is presented repeatedly as outside of canon?

I'm not asking these questions because I plan to wave my wand and manifest a complete and satisfying answer. The canonicity of the Epilogues isn't definitely true or definitely false, it's just... dubious. It makes sense that its authorship would similarly raise more questions than it answers. Though, I will say, I think at this point we can say confidently that if Hussie WANTED to put out a "true" ending, he would've just done that. This isn't a story he's just publishing for kicks before revealing the "real" epilogue which JUST he authored, uncontaminated by these other people who led him astray. Not only is that attitude gross, condescending, and offensive, it also flies in the face of literally everything that's happened since the beginning of Act 6. One of the privileges that comes with being right about the thematic arc of Homestuck since 2012, being right for seven whole years about this "escape from authors and canon" thing, is I get to say:

It's time to let this expectation of a "true ending" go.

Letting go might not be such a bad thing, either. The Epilogues go to some dark places, as presaged by the lengthy list of content warnings on the fics' description page, and it's reasonable to want an alternative. If you can't get that alternative from "canon," well, we have the tradition of the fix-it fic to fall back on. The remarkable thing about the epilogues is that they signal to the reader that any fix-it fic might be on the same plane as the author's own continuation. After all, the Epilogues are fanfiction!

This extends beyond the structural into core parts of the narrative. In many ways the epilogues are parable about getting too caught up in questions of canonicity. Rose and Dirk are both deeply obsessed with canonicity, with Rose laying out a somewhat shaky system in the prologue for defining the relative validity of a story:

ROSE: In other words, there is an important distinction between events which can be considered to occur inside canon, outside canon, and those which are not canon at all.
ROSE: The day we went through that door and claimed our reward, we passed a threshold between continua marked by differing degrees of relevance, truth, and essentiality.
ROSE: Those are the three pillars of canon.

For both of them, upholding a tie to canon, and thus to Truth, is essential. For Rose, that means sending her friend back into the tyranny of the Alpha Timeline to die horribly. For Dirk, that means becoming a villain capable of sustaining an audience's fixated ire. That the most canon-fixated characters end up in at best morally questionable places shouldn't surprise. After all, the ending suggested that outside the glare of the Green Sun and the tyranny of Demiurge Lord English's Alpha Timeline, the kids might secure peace for all duration. Dragging the narrative back towards Canon means re-entering the false and fallen world, with Rose, Dirk, and Calliope all taking on aspects of the Demiurge from English.

It's not that they're completely wrong to do so, though. In a way they're simply acting out the same role of protecting existence that Karkat does when he instructs Jade to turn off the Fourth Wall:


As Wolfgang Iser pointed out a long time ago, there's only so far the story can break down its attachment to an idea, in the reader's mind, of a coherent canonical world, before it's just impossible to care.

This is the struggle John faces in the Candy timeline. Aware of the narrative's severance from Canon, John just sort of floats along in this basically useless way as things gradually spiral out of control. It's not all his fault, of course: as Pip points out, both timelines represent a communal failure where everyone kind of drops the ball. But in John's struggle in particular I think we see the inverse of Rose and Dirk's struggle. John might turn into Epic Divorce Man rather than an anime supervillain, but he struggles with a sense of malaise and pointlessness. Rose and Dirk justify their actions by convincing themselves that they need to make things matter; John justifies his passivity by convincing himself that he can't make things matter at all.

And yet, neither timeline is really great. Again, take a look at the content warnings. They are, remarkably, all legitimate content warnings, and their use here is a great adaptation. It's drawn, of course, from AO3's own systems, which allow users to tag their content with ships, characters, and just these sorts of warnings. 

It's a good technology, though sometimes misunderstood by fandom. Some take the content warnings as a metonym for the story as a whole, as though you can look at a word like "detransition" and know exactly how the subject matter appears and is grappled with. Others look at the presence of things like "Clown Dynamics" and assume this "joke" content warning undermines the rest of the list or displays a lack of sensitivity. But triggers don't work like that. They're often a lot more symbolic and esoteric: a song, a sound, a smell, some other stimuli that brings the trauma back. It's possible some of the content warnings are a little tongue in cheek ("Gerrymandering") but it's just as possible that it is content someone would want to avoid ("gerrymandering" is a lot more upsetting when it's being used in the real world to steal elections for the sake of an increasingly fascist right wing party).

So, the content warnings serve both the practical purpose of establishing the kind of content you're likely to see--something I, having triggers, appreciated--and the literary purpose of signalling that the timelines we're seeing here aren't by any means light and fluffy, even if one path is called "Candy". That's not to say they aren't funny as hell and sometimes deeply cathartic, they're just also sometimes punishing and deal with often heavy topics like abuse, rape, and the Economy. The content warnings in their bizarre, uncomfortable, alarming and amusing multiplicity suggest the weird emotional and thematic range of the Epilogues.

Some critics see real potential in that. For Michael Lutz, "the epilogues also demonstrate the opportunities for real change and satisfaction." Connecting the narrative to Homestuck's own formal interest in the Internet as a medium, Lutz considers the Epilogues an exploration of the messy possibilities we face in creating our own communities: "Untrammeled by former teleologies of plot, characters who once faced death for diverging from “canon” are now allowed to experiment with their sexual and gender identities, pursuing new family structures and literally searching out narrators who will respect their pronouns."

This is why the fanfictional status of the Epilogues is so important. They feel to me like the next step in a long lesson in seizing our own critical and creative power, a model we can work from as we explore our own narratives. But the darkness in them is also cautionary, an exploration of how we might get too caught up in the need for flashy plot-related action, leading to horrible violence, or too bogged down in interpersonal drama, leading to... well, actually a lot of the same violence.

Some of that stems from the world the kids--and we--originate from, whose dead hand hovers over so many characters. Think of Roxy and Calliope trying to make sense of their gender identities. Think of Jade, completely isolated for three years as a teenager, clinging codependently to her friends. Think of Dave, realizing he's queer then just sort of ignoring it for seven or seventeen years because it's just too complicated to look at directly. Think of Dirk, angrily blustering that he's perfectly secure in his masculinity, how dare you think otherwise? Think of Jane, trained to be a ruthless capitalist and exposed to the very worst parts of two alien societies, becoming an autocratic and xenophobic ruler. Think Gamzee, who... well, ok, Gamzee's not so much suffering under the ghost of a former culture as he is a part of that culture inflicted on everyone else, and on us readers. "Clown Dynamics" indeed.

You can escape the narrative in one sense, the Epilogues seem to be saying, but there's all kinds of other narratives you'll carry with you. I remember hearing a colleague of Jim Henson's describe his aims with The Labyrinth as wanting to tell a story about how sometimes defeating evil is more complicated than it might seem. The key to the triumph over Hot Goblin David Bowie in that movie, of course, is the realization that he ultimately has no real power but what is granted to him by his victims. That's also true, to an extent, of the systems of power that overshadow the Homestuck kids, but being aware on some level that these systems are "only" narratives, and being able to transcend those narratives, are two different things.

The Canon isn't easy for us to shake as readers, either. Rose makes this pretty clear in the prologue. John needs to go back and fix a plot hole in Canon, represented by the empty space in the House Juju. The final loop of Caliborn's masterpiece needs to be closed. Why? Well, because the readers demand it:

ROSE: If you miss the chance to authenticate canon events, something will take place that’s a bit difficult to describe, but I’ve encountered a term for it.
ROSE: It’s called “dissipation.”
ROSE: Like, a notional fading. As if something, somewhere, is undergoing a process of “forgetting,” and we are what is being forgotten.
ROSE: All ideas, people and their full potentialities, possible outcomes and their specific unfolding, all these things live inside conscious frameworks.
ROSE: The further removed we get from authentication of canon events, the less relevant they become, and they slowly fade from the conscious frameworks which kept them stable.

This is Dirk's motivation as well: to establish reality with himself as its satanic anchor, all for us, the readers.

And you know what, they're right. One of the constant refrains I've heard, as I've argued over the last few years that Act 7 was a perfectly acceptable ending to Homestuck, was: "but we didn't see the Masterpiece!" There was a hole in canon that still needed to be filled, and readers demanded that closure. Not a closure of their own making as readers, but one given to them by the Author.

And I have to ask:

Are you satisfied now?

It's a harsh question, but not an unfair one... but it's not unfair to apply the question to me, too. I've had to do some soul searching myself in the wake of the Epilogues. After all, wasn't it me who wrote, years ago, that Paradox Space was inherently shackled, deprived of its truth, relevancy, and essentiality due to its distance from canon and canon's author, Andrew Hussie?

Except, looking that article over, I don't think I was wrong, exactly, about Paradox Space's weaknesses. It definitely feels very different from the Epilogues, or from the Friendsims or Hiveswap for that matter, which all feel like they provide intriguing insights into these worlds and characters. The Epilogues, notably, do so despite having two mutually exclusive timelines in which some radically different stuff happens, and characters grow in some very different directions (most notably Roxy and Rose). It still feels to me that Paradox Space, despite its equally dubious status, just didn't take very many risks.

This is just frantic bargaining on my part, though, because the simple blunt fact is that I wrote about how open the possibilities were, how the fandom was free to write new endings for the kids, but I haven't read a single fanfic since Act 7 landed. I dabbled a bit with some post-canon comic content of my own, but got bored pretty quickly (making comics, it turns out, is difficult and tedious).

I sure did jump on these Andrew Hussie-authored continuations real fast, though.

So, when I say that the Epilogues are laying down a challenge the fandom may not be able to match, what I really mean is I'm not sure I am up to the task of engaging this fiction in a different way. I still feel the allure of Hussie as an author, and mentally privilege the versions of these characters that exist in the Epilogues. Even if previously I conceived of Roxy as a trans girl, for example, doesn't Roxy coming out as nonbinary or transmasculine in the Epilogues suggest that was always already true in Canon? Can I read or write or even imagine alternatives without that shadow?

More critically, can I imagine a better timeline, knowing what I know from the Epilogues? Even taking them as merely another reading, they are a compelling reading, an interpretation of these characters and their traumas that I can't discount. Envisioning a better future means imagining a solution to Dirk's self absorption and John's flightiness, Jane's upbringing as an authoritarian and Calliope's as the kind of person who can't see Gamzee for who he is. More than anything else, it imagining a way of threading the needle between the characters' need to rest, and the need of the world to see them continuing to lead and take on the role of gods.

These are technical problems, though, and resolving them is tied into the complex problem of our own relationship to fiction production, the culture industry, authorship and authority, rights (is there conflict between the open-endedness of the Epilogues and Viz's willingness to take down fan-created merch?), and, god help us, maybe our whole framework of knowledge. Can we manage to pull off a task of such magnitude?

We won't, at least, be alone in the attempt, should we choose to attempt it. The poststructuralist writers Deleuze and Guattari latch onto a concept from botany called the "Rhizome"--remember when I brought that up way at the beginning?--to describe a form of knowledge they propose as an alternative to binaries and hierarchies. In this growth model, nodes connect to one another freely in a horizontal system, like trees that appear to be different organisms but all are offshoots of the same decentralized mass under the soil. This is the vision that the Epilogues offer, I think, in both their structure, and in the narrative which reflects metatextually on that structure. Homestuck has always been an assemblage of a lot of disparate parts and authors and discontinuous texts. The epilogues expand that already rhizomatic structure, or at least offer the potential to expand that structure.

But it's one thing to propose an anti-hierarchical form of knowledge, and another thing entirely to put it into practice. Like the kids struggle to form a new world while still weighed down by the dead hand of the old, I think we're going to struggle to form more rhizomatic ways of engaging fiction. Particularly in an era when a studio head can react to negative press about the Sonic live action movie by declaring that he'll just have the animators redo all their work, there's plenty of incentive to think in purely consumerist terms, where we vote with our dollars to force a story in one direction or another. People can complain about "fan entitlement" all the like; the simple fact is that we've been trained by the culture industry to think in consumer terms, and when we don't like what we're given we have been taught to demand to speak to a manager.

And yet, the Epilogues offer moments where characters think of canon in a different way. There's Rose in Candy, declaring that ultimately whether or not her world is "canon" doesn't matter, because she's happy there with her loving wife--a stark contrast to the canon-fixated Rose of Meat. And there's this odd moment early on when Dave and Karkat discuss the presidency of Barack Obama:

DAVE: oh
DAVE: yeah
DAVE: i mean yeah of course i know that
DAVE: i just dont like to think much about that time line
DAVE: it doesnt really feel like its
DAVE: canon?
DAVE: i dont wanna talk about it
DAVE: the point is
DAVE: in the world that mattered more, i mean like
DAVE: the one i belonged to that i used to imagine had a real future
DAVE: that didnt involve meteors or a fish dictator or the american political landscape turning into a nightmarish daily joke
DAVE: i still wonder what could have been
DAVE: if the O man coulda saved us all

Dave is literally living on the post-apocalyptic version of Earth that he is dismissing as not feeling "canon". He knows that no timeline actually gave him the version of President Obama that he dreamed of, and yet he seems to feel on some level that in some third alternate path maybe a better world was possible.

Later he finds out Obama hooked up with his brother, and Obama's hologram ghost ascends him to a higher state of consciousness and turns him into a robot, but whatever.

The point is that Dave, and Roxy iin chewing out John for dismissing their agency and individuality, and Candy!Rose, and other characters all are able to conceive of possibilities that go beyond the "pillars of canonicity". It's difficult, and it may be impossible to reach the alternate possibilities that they, and we, imagine, but they may open up possibilities for our own future.

That chance seems worth trying for, as dubious as it seems.

This Has Been

Dubious Forms

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What Kind Of Media Is Problem Sleuth?

Problem Sleuth, Bard Quest, and Jailbreak may not be as renowned as Andrew Hussie's magnum opus Homestuck, but they helped put him on the cultural map. But is Problem Sleuth really a comic? Or is it a game? Or a hypertext? Or is it something else entirely?


  1. Do you think that we will, or even *can*, get a sequel in some way which continues off from the Epilogues? There's a number of fans who think they're a great opening act but an entirely shitty conclusion.

    1. I think they're fascinating in their own right but they're definitely unfinished. I don't think they're a conclusion, though. The conclusion was Act 7 as I've been telling people for years to no avail :/

    2. By "conclusion" I mean in the literal sense of "the last official piece we get in this continuity" and not the Homestuck metafictional sense of "the last thing the story decides matters".

  2. Fascinating read!

    Regarding that bit on PxS, looking back it seems like its problem wasn't really the distance from canon so much as its sort of weird position in the Canon Hierarchy?

    It has the distinction of both being directly about the central characters and lore of Homestuck (unlike Hiveswap, which mostly concerned itself with either entirely new characters/locales or ones that canon had largely moved on from and were thus unlikely to be contradicted on) and being created while Homestuck was still ongoing (unlike the epilogues, which were made well after Homestuck proper had concluded and needed not worry about being jossed by a later update). So it ended up in this weird space of technically being Official Homestuck Content above the ranks of "mere" fanwork, but not quite having the unquestioned canonical Authority of the main comic. And being in that space just didn't leave a lot of room for complex exploration, because there's no room to really make new, declarative statements about the world and characters, or cover new ground.

    It seems like PxS comics generally fell into 2 categories: the "plausibly canon" ones that slipped neatly into the cracks and gaps between canon events (most of them, really), and the plainly noncanonical (Con Faire is the main one that comes to mind for me though I remember there being a lot of small "joke" strips like that). But neither of those really ended up doing a lot of deep character or world exploration due to that Catch-22 you mentioned in the older article; they don't want to do it in the framework of plausible canonicity because there was always the possibility that these gaps they're exploiting might be filled by the superior authority of the main comic, undermining its relevance (and, more cynically, its elevated and marketable status as Official Homestuck Content). But they also didn't want to do it in these wildly noncanonical scenarios either because, well, who gives a shit? It's not CANON, so what do these hypothetical character dynamics even matter?

    And so it's sort of stuck, mostly either exploring the bare peripheries and simply repeating the dynamics already explored in canon while maintaining the status quo in the plausibly canonical strips, or doing mostly fluffy/superficial-ish gag strips in the noncanon scenarios, because what else is noncanon good for? It's barred at both ends from exploring the really interesting stuff due to its need to cooperate with "canon". There are some exceptions, but, notably, from what I recall they were mostly the ones penned by Hussie himself, lending that all-important stamp of Official sanction. And there are certain frameworks for exploring alternate possibilities within the realm of the Plausibly Canon, but those are fairly limited in their own ways (especially since some of them are themselves sort of a commentary on how alternate possibilities are ruthlessly trimmed in order to maintain the True Timeline). Like it seems like it would be...not impossible, but difficult to square a meaningful exploration of, say, trans John within the cold logic of Doomed Timelines.

  3. (Continued because oops character limit I am so sorry)

    I'm not really sure what the solution to this would have been, or if there was a way to do this "right". Like, I suppose it could have fully embraced its canonical dubiousness and really gone much more wild with its explored possibilities, not really caring what of it ended up contradicted later? But like if they really went buckwild and did a whole bunch of like bloodswap AUs or whatever it runs headlong into the fundamental issues of Official vs. Fanwork you've raised here (why is THIS in particular being placed behind that sacred glass wall separating fanon from canon, how is this fundamentally different from any other assemblage of fanwork, etc.), which is at odds with what seemed to be an intended goal of being marketed and sold as Officially Licensed Homestuck Content. Or it could have been placed on the same level as the comic from the beginning, with PxS strips being essentially held as valid as the main comic? But that basically makes it "required reading" in a sense, which runs counter to the idea of it being "bonus" content. As always the true villain is capitalism etc.

    Idk I'm rambling at this point. Sorry this is so long and somewhat meandery, been thinking about this all day and needed to get it out somewhere.


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