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Techsploits

He Was a Dragon

By Annalee Newitz

IT STARTED with Trogdor the Burninator. Actually, no--it started when Chris kept bugging me about looking at this website with the unlikely name HomestarRunner.com. All I needed to know was that it was Flash animation, and I was dead set against it. Flash fills me with an inexplicable feeling of repulsion, probably because it reminds me of the dotcom era when every site seemed to require a zillion new plug-ins--none of which worked with Netscape. Back in the early third millennium, I'd visit a site, and a dialog box would pop up asking, "Do you want to get the Jiggy plug-in for the Zowie Player?" Somehow, I've managed to file Flash on the same mental list as the long-dead Zowie Player and its unmourned .zow file format.

But then one day, Cheryl sent me this email at work with a tempting URL in it (www.homestarrunner.com/sbemail58.html). I was in one of those dangerously bored moods where you'll click whatever fricking button pops up in front of you just to stay awake. And that was how I found myself watching a Flash animation (blarg!) featuring a Mexican wrestler named Strong Bad answering his email.

This particular email contained a request that Strong Bad "draw a dragon" because his correspondent wanted to "see your skills of [sic] an artist." With a throaty cackle, Strong Bad writes back that he "makes drawing fun!!!" and proceeds to pencil a sketch of the inimitable Trogdor, who, he notes, "was a man, well, no he was a dragon-man, erm, he was a dragon." Eventually, Strong Bad breaks into a song that sounds a lot like that Swedish kid Anton Maiden who used to do the Iron Maiden covers and release them as MP3s. Then, as the electronic bleeps and cackles reach a crescendo, we see an impromptu pencil-drawn music video of Trogdor "burninating the countryside" and "burninating the peasants."

How could I not love Trogdor? How could I not send out countless emails to my Flash-hating friends and family urging them to watch it? I even got the Flash plug-in for Mozilla on my new laptop (but that's the subject of another column) just so I could watch everything HomestarRunner had to offer.

After watching huge amounts of bad Flash craziness, I've become obsessed with the site. There are literally hundreds of animations on HomestarRunner that Mike and Matt Chapman, along with Missy Palmer--a.k.a. the Brothers Chaps--have been producing for the past four years. Strong Bad answers email every week. Plus he draws an alarmingly random stick figure series called "Teen Girl Squad," featuring the boy-loving, fashion-adoring, often-eaten-by-wild-beasts characters Cheerleader, So-and-So, Whatsherface and the Ugly One.

There are countless other toons on the site starring the weirdly limbless Homestar himself, a polygon-shaped cheetah named the Cheat, the nerdy half elephant Strong Sad and a hulkish grumbler called Strong Mad. Influenced by everything from 1930s cartoons and 1980s video games to MTV and psychotoon Ren and Stimpy, the main preoccupations of the typical HomestarRunner toon seem to be Groucho Marxist non sequiturs, marshmallows and the kind of adolescent "You have a dumb butt" humor that I personally consider the stuff of life.

According to their FAQ, the Brothers Chaps support themselves entirely on T-shirt sales, which sounds insane. But given that there are almost 1,000 members of the Trogdor community on social network Orkut, I'd be willing to believe it. In an interview with Wired.com last year, Matt, Mike and Missy said that they sell about 300 T-shirts a day. They've done no advertising and refuse to put any ads on their site; they also say they will never do TV. Nevertheless, the site has reached what Matt called "a mainstream Internet audience" via links and word of mouth.

I think HomestarRunner may in fact be helping to create a mainstream Internet audience, an epithet that one rarely hears in a world where the RIAA and MPAA are working their lawyers' aerobicized asses off to maintain hegemony over the entertainment-industrial complex. The site is a glimpse of what the media landscape might look like in a world where people make art because they enjoy it and want simply to support themselves. If we could take large corporations like News Corp. out of the equation, how many more HomestarRunners might there be, chugging along on T-shirt money?

I mean, fuck, I want a Trogdor T-shirt! And when I buy one, I don't need to worry that Matt, Mike and Missy will never see the money I spend. In the pitched battle between entertainment corporations and so-called pirates, I think an operation like HomestarRunner offers a middle ground. The Brothers Chaps are small-time media entrepreneurs who own their own intellectual property just so they can make a living. They give us amusement, and we pay for it. There's no corporate middleman selling licenses and sucking up rights. It's just Strong Bad lighting things on fire. And that's the way it should be.


Annalee Newitz (dragonman@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who thinks that wacky Macromedia Flash thing might just catch on one day.


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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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