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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, August 31, 2015

The Paradox of Paradox Space's Artistic Weakness

This awesome illustration was provided by Arin aka fullmetaldorkamist. His art can be viewed here.
For about a year, Paradox Space filled in the void left in our lives by the absence of infamous 2.5 million dollar hypercomic Homosuck I mean Homestuck. Yes, the Story that can End All Stories one
if only because if printed out it could form a weight capable of crushing all the authors in the world into a red paste
went on hiatus, and Paradox Space emerged to fill the gap by updating each weekday with a new page of story content.

Expectations for Paradox Space were initially quite high--there were a number of talented people working on the project, and it seemed to offer the potential to explore areas of the Homestuck canon that haven’t been explored in the main comic. What more could we want?

Quite a bit more, it turns out, than what we got. Or at least that’s how some of us have ended up feeling. I know I’m not alone in thinking that PS didn’t quite live up to the hype. Some of that can be blamed on excessively high expectations, I’m sure. Homestuck, after all, is a very, very good story. It’s a very high bar to reach, and I think a certain level of disappointment is natural. But it’s interesting to me that a 2.5 million dollar hypercomic couldn’t manage, apparently, to turn a decent profit from a spin off comic: Paradox Space, it seems, didn’t only underperform artistically, it underperformed economically as well.

I’m not here to explain why Paradox Space didn’t make bank. Obviously, Andrew Hussie is much better at this web 2.0 money making thing than I, a mere shifty Patreon beggar, will ever be. But I do study comics, and I do study fandom cultures, and I do think I can shed some insights into why, even factoring in unreasonable expectations, Paradox Space didn’t do so well… and maybe why it could never have done well in the first place.


Now, at the outset I think it’s worth saying that while I’m going to be talking about what the fans wanted, there’s an extent to which giving the fans what they (ostensibly) want was, paradoxically, part of the problem. See, Paradox Space tries, to a large extent, to play to the crowd. It doesn’t push the envelope in a meaningful way from much of any perspective, and that’s why I think it doesn’t live up to the source material, which is constantly experimenting, both narratively and formally.

The character appearance rates bear that out, I think: Tumblr user Kronomore helpfully has laid the data out for us to pour over. Of the humans, appearances in Paradox Space are overwhelmingly weighted towards Dave, and to a lesser extent Rose and John, while overall the appearances of Terezi and Karkat outstrip any of the other characters by far. A number of people that I’ve talked to about Paradox Space came away with the overwhelming sense that the comic predominantly was Dave and Karkat yelling at each other, and by the numbers it sure looks like they’re statistically on target there.

Also, Jane got less appearances than the fucking Mayor so… yeah.

What this says to me is that the comic was weighted heavily towards characters that were already fan favorites, while less developed characters continued to get little screen time, possibly in an attempt to play to at least the perceived desires of fans.

I don’t want to say this is inherently a bad thing... but I actually think it might be, for a few reasons.

For one thing, it feels like it gives up a lot of Paradox Space’s potential. There was a possibility of working with characters that hadn’t been explored otherwise, something that would give us a lens into elements of the story we hadn’t seen before. That would’ve been pretty cool. Instead, we got a lot of the same characters that we were already familiar with--though I will say that we got some expansion on a handful of trolls that hadn’t gotten a day in the spotlight previously.

Many of the stories were also, well, fluffy. Not necessarily a bad thing, but we really didn’t get stories that did a lot of heavy lifting as far as characterization is concerned. We got a glimpse into the Sufferer, that was cool, and we got some nice interactions between Dave and John, but beyond that? Not a whole lot.

This is doubly problematic because it focuses the comic on characters wrapped up in canon events. Why is this a problem? Well, I think looking at the structure of the fanfiction collective I’m a part of, the Magic Expanded Multiverse, can shed some light on the issue.

Now, we have a particular way of grappling with canon in the Expanded Multiverse. We… don’t. To a large extent, with some exceptions, we avoid touching on canon materials. Canon characters, since they’re caught up in canon events, are automatically subject to decisions outside of our control as fanfiction writers. For this reason to a large extent we don’t deal with canon characters at all--in the face of the possibility that our carefully constructed shared universe might be overwritten and rendered canon-incompatible by something that someone else does two
that someone else being the people who do, technically, have the intellectual monopoly on this setting, much to my ETERNAL frustration
. That’s something we’ve always sought to avoid.

The situation isn’t exactly the same with PS--at least in theory. In theory, PS can do whatever it wants because anything is possible within Paradox Space, the infinite set of possible timestreams that Homestuck’s setting encompasses.

The issue is that this threatens to render pointless whatever happens in PS the comic, because it has, potentially, no canonical impact and exists in a state of nebulous canonicity. It’s an issue that I don’t think PS ever effectively resolved--it’s hard to get invested in stuff that, by nature, has only a tenuous association with “realness,” I find.

I think we can see this most clearly, actually, with the Dave and Karkat stuff, ironically. That material has a tension between using these major canonical characters, and actually saying something interesting with them. We now know that in the “fixed” timeline in canon, Dave and Karkat actually formed some sort of currently ambiguous relationship. But PS maintains a status quo with those characters that makes the stories told about them somewhat repetitive, reiterating the Dave And Karkat Bicker dynamics without having much impact on our understanding of the characters.

It’s easy to see why this kind of structure emerged from the structure of PS. I think the options presented to Hussie and the creators of PS are all pretty suboptimal. Either Hussie can reveal his plans for Dave and Karkat to the creators, risking leak potential and undermining the flow of information for the audience within Homestuck itself (or planning Homestuck around stuff happening in PS), or he can keep it to himself, which I suspect is what was done, which results in comics that feel somewhat irrelevant to the overarching narrative.

Of course, the focus on minor characters could solve this problem, but here we face another difficulty: minor characters can unexpectedly become major characters in Homestuck. Hell, dead alternate timeline characters can become relevant again unexpectedly. This is the comic, after all, that gave me my favorite tag, Alternate Timeline Lesbian Canon Selfcest.

This is an issue we’ve avoided, again, in M:EM by ganking characters from canon that no one is ever going to write about ever again ever, and by a relatively strictly observed authorial permissions policy--our creators can veto uses of their creations, and the community as a whole discusses the progression of characters and their story arcs pretty much continuously.

In a continuity under the control of one person, where any character can be booted to the major leagues unexpectedly, this seems pretty much impossible to sustain, to me. Tighten the reins and you get the issues with PS; loosen them three
while hiring a bunch of cishet dudes to write and direct your films
and you get the uneven characterization of Black Widow in the MCU.

This is mirrored in the lack of PS’s exploration of the lore of the setting, which largely mirrors the problems with characters. I don’t think I need to belabor that point--it’s basically the same no-win scenario, where relevancy and continuity are set in opposition.

Any of these issues might be resolved by rebooting PS after the comic is over, but then we’ve got the game to look forward to! And that’s a hell of a thing too… after all, the game features two planets that will, shortly, be destroyed. However those stories end, their REAL ending will involve flaming meteor death. I’m not sure how they’re gonna make all that work narratively, and even if they do, the presence of a true Hussie-helmed continuation of Homestuck will just bring these problems back for PS.

While the comic ended up attempting to play to the (perceived) crowd to a large extent by focusing on the big well loved characters, and while it suffered the problems inherent in that decision, I’m not sure there was really a good option here as far as content was concerned.

PS’s contradictions and difficulties run deeper than the level of content however. Some of its issues stem from the very construction of the site, the comics page layout, and its update schedule--structural issues. Here, again, I think there’s an issue of expectation vs actual desire: PS as a comic (not unlike the Homestuck Anime at least notionally) is quite traditional in format, in a way that I think could have been, or at least intuitively should have been, quite popular. Comics are a medium in their own right that you have to learn to read, but it’s not like Paradox Space was doing anything challenging on that front…

But maybe that was the problem, ultimately.

One of the appeals of Homestuck is the radical nature of its formal qualtiies. I’ve talked before about Homestuck being a hypercomic or a hyperanimation or something similar. I’m not sure any of those classifications--or nay classifications in general--are quite accurate, because the comic is so experimental. It’s doing so much that to categorize it as any one thing would at this point be fundamentally inaccurate. That’s one of the things that makes it so interestingly difficult.

WIth Homestuck pushing the envelope so far with respect to form it’s somewhat bizarre that Paradox Space is so conservative in its formal qualities. Paradox Space, rather than being experimental, is clearly designed for print media--constructed, designed, and organized in order to transform into physical media in the future. It’s a vertical format, updating five days a week in Established Webcomic Fashion, really doing a whole bunch of stuff that’s, I want to say, expected at this point? It’s stuff that’s become a fixture of the webcomics medium but which doesn’t, I think, necessarily work as well as people assume it does.

A lot of the strategies used here seem vestigial to me. I’m not convinced it makes a whole lot of sense to publish a comic on the web in a vertical format, for one thing. At the end of the day, the structure of this is not optimized for web viewing. If one of the core elements of comics reading involves viewing the page as a whole and responding to elements of the comics page within that context four
and increasingly scholars like Thierry Groensteen, Neil Cohn, and Barbara Postema are analyzing comics from this perspective!
, then having a vertical format that slices off portions of panels is pretty suboptimal. I suppose it makes sense if you’re trying to print things out but then why are you, the publisher of a comic that already has a rabid fanbase, publishing your comic digitally in the first place? I’ve been trying to figure out what the advantage is there and… yeah, I got nothing.

By necessity the construction of the comics page is often a little more limited in its complexity in this format, because of the panel slicing problem. That’s not the end of the world necessarily but it does mean that artists are a little more constrained to explore different ways of telling their stories. Certainly, large panels require a mental suturing as viewers scroll furiously up and down the page. That doesn’t seem like a great viewing experience to me.

Now, this can be done quite well. Zach Morrison’s comic Paranatural for example has some great layouts, where each strip in his vertical layout functions strongly as a unified whole--almost like three complete strips arranged vertically. I suspect if you analyzed his works you’d find that many strips contain a complete narrative arc or drop a narrative arc’s peak or conclusion to the next strip down for impact. Morrison’s designs are excellent, making use of color cues and repetition in order to guide readers through sometimes oddly subdivided panels, always within the context of these three strips.

It’s odd, then, that nothing he’s done for Paradox Space is as strong as the material for Paranatural.

Part of that might simply be because of the devotion an artist will necessarily have to their original work, but it feels to me like the work in PS is more formally constrained--there’s far fewer instances of interesting layout experimentation from Morrison’s work here. It seems more limited.

What’s up with that?

I think the core problem is the inevitable result of cramming something highly experimental into an inherently rigid structure of comics creation. I don’t want to delve too much into it here but I can’t help but see parallels to some of the stuff I covered in my thesis. EC comics, for example, back in the day did not permit its artists to do their own page breakdowns. Instead, writers wrote the stories, the editors placed the words into six page breakdowns, and the artists acted as illustrators for those words and panel breakdowns.

This was, I found, not a recipe for a lot of formal experimentation, but it did make a certain amount of economic sense--this was a process of standardization that allowed EC to churn out a LOT of comics during their golden age.

Coordinating a whole bunch of people to update a comic five times a week on a daily basis demands, I think, a similar kind of standardization.

PS of course has more variable page lengths but there’s no variation in how many pages we get at once, meaning one of the critical freedoms of the comic reader, the ability to move back and forth through a narrative at a variable rate, is curtailed here. five
And so is the ability of any individual writer to alter the pacing of a particular comic.
I found on returning to the comic for this article that some stories, like the Inaugural Death of Mr Seven, which I found absolutely excruciatingly slow initially, worked great on re-read. Releasing the story slowly actively damaged the reading experience. It simply wasn’t built so that a page a day would be satisfying or even coherent. It was written like Homestuck… not like a normal webcomic.

I don’t want to elevate innovation as the be-all, end-all of artistic production, I’m not doing this whole modernist avant-garde-worshipping… thing, we can leave that in 1940 where it belongs. But for a comic known as a major innovator to have a spin off very rigidly constrained in form… well, I just don’t think it’s a recipe for a satisfying experience. I think we’re used to Homestuck challenging us to relearn how to read its materials and navigate its narrative, and Paradox Space, in using a formal structure that’s already well understood, isn’t agile enough to live up to the source material.

I’m not sure what exactly the solution to this is. After all, these thing stem from PS’s need to, well, turn a profit. Now, I have some ideas that I might talk about at a later date if people are interested about how you’d do PS in an equitable economic way, but for now I’ll just say that I think a top-down business model fundamentally doesn’t work for shared world fiction. If you’re going to do something like the Magic Expanded Multiverse while turning a profit, in my opinion you can’t just collectivize and distribute the canon… you have to collectivize and distribute the profits and management as well, and you have to abandon standardized formats, set release schedules, and even, gasp!, print media as a whole.

But that’s just me, and that’s a conversation for another day. six
Well, and for the audio version of this article, which $3 Patreon subscribers can listen to here. I talk about this at CONSIDERABLE length in the podcast this week.


I don’t know what the “right” way to do things is, maybe Paradox Space, when it returns, will be better than ever and will have found a way of resolving these issues. I’m not even really looking to offer a roadmap for how PS can get better or whatever, I’m more interested in the light this shines on the wider problem, in webcomics, of whether or not it’s worthwhile anymore to stick with this sort of old mode of doing things, and the wider problem in fandom circles of how expanded universes and fanfiction actually can operate. And I’m certainly interested in the way the attempts by Paradox Space’s creators to turn out something that should have been a guaranteed hit actually failed dramatically to give people what they really wanted: something more challenging. Some weeks from now I want to take up that theme once more and discuss how Homestuck addresses the idea of difficulty… but again, that’s a conversation for another day.

I think there’s probably solutions to these problems out there.

After all, anything is possible in Paradox Space.

Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Monday, September 7th! Our topic: Is facial hair gendered? Probably, but behaving as though it isn't might just be a way of exploring alternatives to our current gender binary: a way of living out a kind of science fiction. If you're a Patreon backer, you can view the whole list of upcoming articles here.

These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, my notes for upcoming articles, or even to commission an article from me.

ALSO KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR MY FIRST ARTICLE OMNIBUS: MY SUPERPOWER IS MANPAIN!

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14 comments:

  1. did you really just say the company that worked with bernard fucking krigstein didn't let their artists do their own layouts?? that is the most idiotic statement I have ever read and now i think everything you said is completely uniformed garbage too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Uh, I mean, unless you have a source that trumps Krigstein's biography um sorry but I'm gonna go with... I'm right about this?

      Delete
  2. Good stuff, I've felt the same about many aspects of it, although I can say I am glad to have a copy of the Paradox Space book.

    One little beef: please abbreviate it as PxS or PXS, not PS. PS is Problem Sleuth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I'm not really up on the terminology... I sort of float a little outside the fandom.

      Delete
  3. I tried to read your post, but I can't take seriously anyone who genuinely thinks Homestuck is good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Honestly you probably wouldn't have been able to understand it anyway.

      Delete
    2. It's not like I regret being unable to understand a blog post praising an incredibly bad webcomic with horrible plot and characterization drawn by an awful person (=

      Delete
    3. I mean... again... I want to emphasize... I'm glad you feel that way because really a lot of even the basic comic theory here would've gone over your head probably. So really it's best for everyone that you didn't even try. I would hate to accidentally crush your spirit.

      Delete
  4. 'You don't like this thing I like - that means I'm smarter than you'
    excellent reasoning, classic Keeper

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, it is pretty excellent isn't it?

      Anyway say hello to Eliezer Yudkowsky for me probably

      Delete
    2. Don't worry Sam, I'll do it for you!

      Delete
  5. So reading Homestuck circa 2012 or so felt to me like playing an ARG - just one that wasn't anchored in 'reality'. An Augmented Fiction Game, if you will. You got to collect pieces here and there, go back and rewatch videos when things made more sense, catch sixteen hidden jokes on the reread of your favorite chapter, break for fandom content and come back, really play the game of Reading Homestuck.

    PxS, when I tried to get into it, felt like I was slogging through pages and pages of dreck to get to some imagined, distant Good Content. Which didn't appear before I gave up. There's no game to it, and it's not really a good linear comic, either.

    Frankly if I want a funny linear comic that's a side-story/AU, I will go reread Promstuck. If I want more text in my text, I will go reread Parastuck or that one about Gamzee and Terezi training to become Troll Leaders that ended up being like 80k. There is just much better HS content than PxS! Content which succeeds everywhere that PxS fails. Content that, if bundled together and released on a single website with more convenient access than its current scattered Tumblr/Ao3 form allows, might even turn a profit, I don't know.

    But PxS is not that good at being fan content, or a side-story, or anything relating to its actual premise of ~paradox space~. The last thing paradox space as a concept needs is a linear storyline.

    anyway very good article. and I want to read the one on Homestuck difficulty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah to me it feels like fanfiction that's been elevated despite not actually being really as good as the other stuff the fandom has produced on its own. It's very odd.

      There was a great comment on Reddit that the ideal spin off would just be an actual playthrough of SBURB with new characters. I think there would be a lot of potential in that, but again the monatization thing is a killer.

      A fan generated project using storynexus as its engine would be incredible though... that would be interesting to see.

      Delete
  6. Not related to your article here, but in response to your request on Tumblr to hear more about wizard comics. The only really prominent example that we have details of is the comic Draco draws in the third movie showing Harry being hit by lightning. This seem more suited to the role that comics inhabit in their world- rather than a document of reality, as in photography, or a personal record, as in the paintings, the drawing seems to be the only evident fictional moving image in the potterverse. It may also play as a part of children culture, given its crude styling and lack of analogue in adult media anywhere else in the series.

    ReplyDelete

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