Fixing Frank

As a follow up to yesterday's postmortem on Penny Arcade, I thought I'd address some of the comments about how the comic lost its way by showing how it could be fixed.

Comics being a visual medium that capitalizes on a picture speaking a thousand words, the best way to explain what I mean is to show you an example.

Luckily, PA produced a comic that embodies the strip's besetting vices.

Penny Arcade Frank

To preempt comments about PA's woeful slide in art quality, yes, this strip predates Mike Krahulik's ill-advised departure from his cleaner Stephen Silver-inspired style to ape John Kricfalusi.

Let's leave the art issue aside since a) I'm an author and editor, so addressing the dialogue is more my line, and b) the new art's demerits are self-evident.

Back to the example strip above. It's built on a solid chassis. Tycho's word economy has always been one of his greatest strengths, in that he favors strong verbs and nouns over weaker words with lots of modifiers. It's deceptively high-density. That's why his dialogue packs a punch.

Bonus points: Naming all three clerks a variant of "Bob" is a delightfully subtle joke that manages to be a play on words and a sight gag at the same time.

In the minus column, this strip is much wordier than it needs to be. We get the premise of "Vietnam vet with a screw loose managing a Game Stop" in the first panel. The multiplication of Frank's high-density epithets feels redundant. It also oversells his character and lowers him from an archetype to a caricature.

Time for a peek under the hood. Most jokes in the Western tradition follow an A, A, B structure consisting of a framing device, a narrative in the context of the frame, and a punchline that typically employs a semantic shift to deviate from the established frame. In three-panel comics, each panel customarily presents one of these elements, proceeding in order.

A Penny Arcade strip, in contrast, usually puts the punchline in panel 2 and leaves panel 3 for a reaction to the joke.

That's where this strip breaks down. The third panel isn't a reaction to what happened before. Frank launches into a non-sequitur stuffed with crazed vet tropes that come off as redundant and too on-the-nose. This is where he becomes a caricature. Honestly, you don't need it at all.

The other oddity in this strip, even for Penny Arcade, is that the setup and the punchline are reversed. Frank delivers the joke in panel 1, and the framing isn't provided until panel 2.

In joke structure terms, you'd diagram this script as: B, A, ?

OK, there's nothing less funny than analyzing humor, so let's have another visual aid. I took the liberty of editing the comic. Here's what emerged:

Penny Arcade Frank edit

Not every PA comic has its setup and punchline reversed, but you can apply this reverse Chekhov's razor to almost every strip.

Behold the power of editing! Make it work for you.


  1. If you wanted to add context to the situation you could have a simple first panel that shows the employees gathering talking about how understaffed they are for the holiday season while mentioning that their manager is the only employee left from last year. It's a easy setup for the above joke.

    I'd say that was always my biggest issue with a lot of PA was that you needed to read the accompanying blog post to understand what they were even talking about. A simple setup negates the need to do that, which their best strips actually have.

    But that's just my input. It isn't like I'm a comedy writer.

    1. You make an excellent point I overlooked. PA's over-reliance on inside baseball is the main reason I stopped reading. Last night I flipped through their first four trade compilations. Hardly any of them are intelligible without Tycho's notes, and almost none of them hold up.

      PA's contemporary Gen Y nostalgia site Homestar Runner had their number:

  2. There at least *were* two blogs dedicated to improving comic strips by removing things. One removed all of Garfield's dialogue. The other removed panels 3 & 4 of 4 panel ctrl+alt+del strips. It was a real eye opener of how much space people waste on meaningless filler that actually REMOVES comedy and drama. There were some similarly edited scenes in RLM's Plinket review of fembusters that removed all the improv dialogue and let the scene breathe.

    1. Make that panel 2 & 3 of CAD strips.

    2. It's striking how the major 3 and 4 panel webcomics only contained 2 panels' worth of entertainment.

      Print comics fans rightly complain about how the rock star artist fad followed closely by the auteur writer fad devastated the industry. Now consider that every big webcomic was headed by an e-celeb artist-writer team.

      This is why having an editor is nonnegotiable.


  3. Why do the employees not have arms?

    As to joke telling, in my old comedy writing class I took years ago, I recall my teacher telling us to cut out superfluous dialogue, that editing was our friend. Better to go from setup - buildup - punchline then on to the next and never over extending the joke pass the rule of three or you’ll kill the comedy just as you start to get going. One exercise we would do is watch SNL sketches and edit them down so that they were actually funny. Course that reduced the sketch to about 3 minutes or less. SNL could never do that because the cost of their sets forced Loren and the writers to overextend the sketch...like a 2 panel comic into a 6.

    1. "Why do the employees not have arms?"

      Good eyes.

      That's a fascinating insight. Your teacher is wise.

    2. Cannon fodder who've been disarmed can't mutiny.

    3. This is why Mad TV and Kids in the Hall simply reused so many sets for locations. Smarter idea, in the long run. Probably why they've aged much better than 95% of SNL did.