Read Before You Follow: the Web is What Happens Next’s Most Dynamic Tool

Written by S.K. Madden

Eight years after being charged as an accomplice to murder, Milo Holliday is discharged back to the “real world” – and his Tumblr account, where he is subject to anon hate, YouTube interviews, serial killer stans, and harassment campaigns concocted on Kiwifarms. Though Milo is the central protagonist of Max Graves’s What Happens Next, the webcomic often feels like a series of character studies as the narrative weaves in and out of the lives of multiple characters connected to the murder of Haylie Gorski. Despite a meandering plot structure, What Happens Next maintains an unflinchingly suspenseful and propulsive rhythm, modulated primarily by how Graves makes use of his medium of choice. Each panel of What Happens Next reminds readers that it is a webcomic, and Graves exploits these critical differences to their fullest extent to showcase how his cast of terrifically appalling queer young adults have abandoned the real world for its digital simulacrum.

An adept cartoonist, Graves immerses readers in his virtual worldbuilding through the story’s art and design as well as its dialogue and plotting. Each “page” of What Happens Next is a singular panel, drawn with pixelated linework and oftentimes framed as an excerpt from a YouTube video, Tumblr post, or Skype call, with the user interface of each platform expertly re-created in the work’s signature style.

Oftentimes, one panel is simply one screen or one screenshot, guiding us through an entire world. Backstory and worldbuilding are frequently revealed in this manner, always in a horizontal rectangle rather than the traditional vertical page, lending the reader the feeling of reading or watching something on a laptop. You don’t have to scroll to read what happens next; each page turn is one click away.

This immersive page design also implicates the reader in the story, giving us a sense that we are not just passive observers but active researchers, tracking the latest convoluted online drama across multiple platforms. It also has the effect of blurring the lines between audience and character experiences. Frequently, when the story moves in and out of the framing of a social media platform, we also move in and out of the scene as readers, sometimes unknowingly. For example, when Milo re-watches an old video of himself and Haylie singing on YouTube, it’s not clear that we’re witnessing this scene from anyone in particular’s point of view. The story then segues into Milo’s memory and then his current reality, where he sits in bed watching the video on his laptop, adding another mournful layer to an already somber scene. Graves frequently guides the reader through his characters’ consciousnesses in this manner, giving us an intimate look into their emotional landscapes as we follow their digital footprints.

The credibility of the narrative goes deeper than its design and broader structure. Graves particularly excels at rendering complicated, believable, chronically-online characters. Each character’s personality is laid bare across Tumblr tags, DMs, YouTube apologies, and Skype calls gone wrong. Milo’s “before you follow” page on his blog is an excellent example of this. Set against a My Little Pony inspired theme, it juxtaposes concerns about the validity of neopronouns and unhealthy ship dynamics against his potential involvement in the murder of two young girls.

Each character’s online persona is instantly recognizable, revealing, and cutting. Beyond its suspenseful breadcrumbing of the story’s morbidly fascinating details, its awareness of specific online spaces  makes What Happens Next a comedic marvel. Watching Milo relive Tumblr drama of the 2010s invokes a deep sense of cringe and demonstrates just how stuck in time he is. Graves has commented before on this anachronistic approach (the comic presumably takes place sometime in the 2020s), clarifying that it’s intentional because it’s fun for him, but it’s also why audiences resonate so strongly with the comic. There’s something incredibly appealing to online audiences who rarely see their own niche experiences reflected back to them.

This was also part of the appeal of Homestuck, a titan of the webcomic genre that also exploited its medium to its fullest potential. As with Homestuck, the hyper-online nature of What Happens Next means that it both interacts with a set of era-specific internet phenomena and as a result of its character is in turn being reacted to as a piece of internet phenomena. This is most evident in the way that Graves distributes the comic. It’s hosted on its own pastel pink ComicFury website (a webcomic hosting platform designed to emulate or perhaps preserve the look and feel of 2000s-2010s era webcomics), but Graves also cross-posts each update his X (@maximumgraves) where the opening pages of the comic has amassed 1,300 retweets. Readers frequently comment on each update with memes, analysis, and questions, lending the feeling of reading forum discussion. It’s not uncommon to see readers reflect upon how “real” a panel feels, from Milo’s stoned tags on his Tumblr reblogs to Vikki’s theatric YouTube controversies. There’s an online, queer readership being built around this webcomic about very online queer people whose only sense of community is found on the internet. Max Graves’s specific style of distribution has amassed him an audience primed to understand and relate to his vision. There’s something still punk about publishing your work on the web and hoping for the best and What Happens Next proves that this doesn’t need to simply be a means to an end. Committing to the right form can open up storytelling possibilities – and audiences – still yet unexplored.

S.K. Madden is a New York based queer cartoonist who specializes in genre work that is strange and thoughtful. You can find their work at