Friday, August 1, 2003

Cult is chasing wacky Web toon

This family-friendly cartoon is taking over the Web with its wacky characters and its sarcastic, random humor

By Mandy Jenkins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Somewhere between Saturday morning cartoons and Wednesday night South Park lies a Web cartoon with a growing cult audience.

Homestar Runner details the wacky goings-on of a motley crew of animated heroes. The site's screwball appeal combines Gen-X humor and childhood innocence, seasoned with a dash of pop-culture cool.

"It is one big inside joke," says Homestar fan Stan Rosenbaum, 29, of Lexington. "If you're a geek and you survived the '80s, you just get it."

For instance, in one toon, title character Homestar has a Halloween party where the characters dress as pop culture icons Kurt Cobain, Flava Flav, Rerun and Carmen Miranda.

Created by brothers Mark and Mike Chapman, Homestar Runner and friends are the Peanuts gang for a new generation. Dimwitted, but lovable "hero" Homestar is a loopier Charlie Brown and his rival, Strong Bad, almost always steals the show with his megalomaniac attitude and trademark Mexican wrestler getup (complete with mask and boxing gloves).

The Chapmans, both in their late 20s, started Homestar Runner as a self-published children's book in 1996. Although the book didn't take off, the Web site of Flash cartoons established an online universe for its characters. After its creation in 2000, the site gained a reputation for crisp writing and surprisingly clean humor by simple word of mouth.

It is rumored the site receives more than 1,000 e-mails a day, so it is no wonder the Enquirer could not reach the Chapmans personally.

Spread by word of mouth

In an interview with Wired magazine last month, Matt Chapman said the site receives "a few million" unique visitors every month - without doing any advertising.

"Word-of-mouth has done its thing," Chapman said.

"Certain bands would link us on their site and we were Shockwave's site of the year a couple of times. Things like that get it into a mainstream Internet audience."

Many fans liken the everyday style of the Homestar Runner cartoons to a Flash-animated Seinfeld.

"How many cartoons do you see where most of the time, characters are sitting around and bantering with each other?" Rosenbaum asks. "This is mundane, everyday-type stuff. The characters remind you of what it's like to just hang out with your friends."

Ben Dudley, 16, of Western Hills, warns that once you get started, it's hard to stop watching. He says he became addicted to the Web toon six months ago and has since gotten friends interested.

"A lot of my friends would tell me about some of the cartoons and told me to check it out," Dudley says. "I went to the site and I ended up spending two straight days watching all of the old cartoons."

Every Monday, fans tune in for a popular feature where the character Strong Bad answers his fan e-mail. Online message boards and fan sites begin buzzing about the new toon as soon as it gets up on the site.

"I'm there every Monday, like clockwork," says Matt Naylor, 20, a Miami University student from Liberty Township. "That humor is addictive, like heroin or something."

Dudley also visits every Monday.

"I love that it's so fresh," Dudley says. "Every week I can go and look at it and every week they think of something new. After six months of watching it, they still make me cry with laughter every week."

Endless source of quotes

And those e-mails are usually the source for a lot of quoting among fans. Carl Schottmiller, 18, and the staff of Lakota West High School's newspaper The Voice are Homestar-obsessed.

"We would all quote the site," Schottmiller says. "When I see someone who was on my journalism staff, I might say, 'The e-mail, the e-mail, what what, the e-mail,' or some other random Strong Bad quote."

Dudley has since converted others to the Homestar cult, including some Walnut Hills High School students, and they're engaging in quoting contests.

"There were about five of us that loved it in one of my classes," Dudley said. "We had quote-offs, where we would recite quotes from the site and try to guess who said them."

Rosenbaum, who has visited the site for the past two years, believes Homestar fever is contagious simply because it is so accessible.

"I like the innocent absurdity of it, more than anything else," Rosenbaum says.

"It is the same sort of stuff they have on (Cartoon Network's) Adult Swim, but without all of the adult humor. It reminds you of what it's like to be like a goofy kid - and everybody gets that."


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