I wrote this article for the intent of creating worthwhile criticism of what is probably the most popular webcomic in existence–gaming or otherwise. I realize that gamers already know everything I’m about to say and non-gamers probably won’t care. People reading the Wikipedia page about the comic will find history and facts, but they may leave feeling that they still don’t understand the significance of this one webcomic in the genre of gaming. I aim to explore this in detail.
Wisely eschewing drama, continuity, and ongoing storylines, nearly every instance of the webcomic Penny Arcade is a self-contained joke on a current video game or connected event. Rarely do topics diverge to unrelated matters. Characters have little personality other than to convey the intended meaning. Contrary to expectations, this is actually a mark in its favor, as readers do not have to be familiar with the characters or events in order to enjoy any particular comic. Any jokes reliant on the nature of the video game being described are helpfully explained in detail with accompanying news posts. There is some very minor continuity that roughly coincides with the events in the creators’ own lives, but it is scattered and basically unnecessary for reading and enjoying the comic.
The humor used is often to point out a flaw or absurdity within a particular game, or to comment on a statement by a video game producer or publisher, typically with a scornful tone and gratuitous profanity. Indeed, the comic has generated literally millions of dollars in revenue solely via ads, which remains its primary source of funding today along with secondary sources such as merchandising, events, etc. Yet authors Holkins and Krahulik retain no loyalty to sponsors, genres, or persons. All in the video game industry are fair game for their praise or criticism.
This comic is hilarious to anyone who remembers the hubristic fiasco that was Daikatana. When they actually comment on video games and aren’t making ridiculous non-sequiturs, they are poignant in their simplistic understanding of the innards of video gaming. This one expresses an experience that many of us have had, with a sardonic conclusion. Penny Arcade speaks against astroturfing, conflicts of interest, and other forms of corruption. They founded a charity that has raised a total of $12,510,909 and increasing every year.
In effect Penny Arcade has graduated into a social movement. They have their own yearly gaming convention, and the webcomic has been tuned into a video game itself. They have taken on political issues affecting gaming. They not only responded “no” to the execrable Jack Thompson‘s attacks on gaming, free speech in general and his defamation of gamers as a whole, they went one step further: they proved him wrong and created an extremely successful charity that encourages gamers to contribute money and gift donations to sick kids in hospitals around the country. (See more of Thompson’s lunacy here, here, and here.)
The art has evolved significantly since its inception in 1998 from scattered pencil scrawls to exhaustively refined and tweaked computer images. Look at the actual artistic merit of Krahulik’s art now. The colors are fantastic. The composition is great. He has a mastery of expression and line weight. He’s actually a good artist now. Compare this to something like Ctrl-Alt-Del, which appears to make it a point to never ever change its terrible art. Penny Arcade is bound by no layout—individual comics can range from a quick gag in a single panel to a lengthy series of images to set up a punchline. They are willing to break the standard three-panel format if they think the joke is better with a different setup. Only Bill Watterson immediately comes to mind as someone willing to do the same.
In terms of quality and scope, Penny Arcade has clearly transcended the genre of “video game webcomic” while at the same time remaining the prototype and Platonic perfect form of the genre. Check this out. That’s not just a game comic, not just a webcomic. It’s bloody good art.
Penny Arcade’s focus on comedy trumps all other factors. Their first obligation is to the humor of the strip, and that is the appropriate perspective for a comic. Consider this comic. In a podcast with the creators, they mentioned that they had the joke (one of the characters is playing and enjoying a game that he would typically hate) prepared but they spent hours pondering what the funniest name for the alien creature would be. This shows the level of dedication they have to their trade, something that is lacking in their sloppily put-together contemporaries such as the mediocre PVP and the atrocious Ctrl-Alt-Del.
Other comics may place “respect for the games” or accuracy or not criticizing the games their readership really likes higher than the comedy. Penny Arcade just wants to be funny and all else is secondary to that. They don’t skimp just because their readers all know what they are talking about. Others may rely on in-jokes or genre tropes; Penny Arcade says, “But you still need to be funny.”
They aren’t afraid to ridicule themselves, either. The joke in that comic is that, for the first time in 14 years, the authors were drawn as how they actually look (Fat, bald, and hirsute) and not as idealized cartoon teenagers. Their dig on Harlan Ellison was fantastic, too.
There was a controversy two years ago regarding one Penny Arcade comic which, in its typical off-color humor, made a lame joke about rape. Though there are earlier comics using sexual abuse as a punchline that no one griped about, the authors escalated it by selling a real “dickwolves” t-shirt. Readers (Many of them actual rape victims) complained about this and the authors just gave a predictable, half-hearted “lighten up, don’t take it so seriously” reply. Some of their rabid fans even turned on the complainers. It was a PR disaster that just made Holkins and Krahulik look like jerks for not addressing it more responsibly.
What I’m saying is that the comic is far from flawless. Many times the punchline is simply “We said a swear word, see how offensive we are?” or lame gross-out gags. I admit that it derives a portion of its humor from vulgarity, but it fluctuates between being a typical characteristic of comics in the online medium and merely being a crutch. Online comics are free to be vulgar, and that freedom can manifest itself in either new humor that would have been forbidden in traditional media (which could be a contributing factor in Penny Arcade‘s success in fact, as they were working in a new medium) or simple shortcut-taking to humor.
They have their off days, to be sure, and in recent years they have spent more time pandering to varied audiences with comics about general “nerd” culture rather than focusing on video games. Yet Penny Arcade is a legend within the medium, one that originated a genre and has survived for fourteen years and scores of imitators to consistently deliver caustic comedy with a point. When people think of webcomics, video game comics instantly come to mind, and Penny Arcade is certainly responsible for that.
Penny Arcade is the precursor from which almost all other online comics are derived. The curved, cartoonish art style; the focus on video gamer culture; the excessively crude language: all of these can be found in nearly every online comic available today. This is a tiny fraction of the video game webcomics out there, and it’s unlikely that any listed would exist without Penny Arcade paving the way. The influence that Holkins and Krahulik have on webcomics as a whole is insurmountable and undeniable.
Extra thanks to my friend Erik Harmon for helping me with this article even more than usual.