2020/09/22

Web Comics Autopsy: Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade

Pop culture trends come in cycles. A new property shows up on the scene, gains traction, and explodes in popularity. Entropy always gets a vote, though, and the IP holders inevitably turn to milking the brand. A consequent decline in quality follows, and the brand--sometimes the whole genre--goes moribund.

The web comics fad of the early aughts gives us a fascinating case study in the rise and fall of an entire medium. 

While sticklers can point to primitive examples of web comics from the early 90s or even the 80s, those precursors are analogous to Pong played on oscilloscopes. Web comics as we think of them now didn't get a foothold until 1997 when outfits like Big Panda offered hosting to hundreds of digital comics creators.

That web comics didn't start their rise until that year will have significance to frequent readers of this blog.

By the year 2000, you had print comics industry wonks like Scott McCloud waxing utopian about the "infinite canvas". In retrospect, the notion of artists posting free comic strips to dedicated web sites and thriving off tee shirt sales seems cockeyed. That kind of wishful thinking will be familiar to newpub authors who remember big indies' lauding of Amazon as our liberator from oldpub's chains.

It comes off as laughably naive in this day of Big Tech censorship and rampant deplatforming, but a stock character of every aughts tech blog and combox was the technocrat who'd mount his soapbox and declare the internet the solution to every problem imaginable. Always lost amid the grandiose promises of technological progress was the unchanging, fallen state of Man.

Not even tech-savvy whiz kids can dodge the Gods of the Copybook Headings. By the middle of the last decade, the web comics bubble had burst--a victim of ascendant social media and changing consumer tastes.

Sometimes, though, a property gets enough going for it to weather its industry's collapse. If you can attract a big enough fan base for Brand X, you'll stay afloat when the hangers-on who chased the Brand X-fueled trend fall away.

In the web comics scene, Penny Arcade stands as the exemplar of that rule. Created by then-roommates Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, PA spearheaded the video gaming subgenre that took web comics by storm in the low 90s and early aughts. Contra public perception of PA's closest competitors, writer Holkins wasn't dragged to fame on artist Krahulik's coattails. His distinctive wordsmithing and daily blog posts proved essential to the comic's "it" factor.

Comics are a visual medium, and to its credit, Penny Arcade could trenchantly get its point across without a single line of dialogue.

Penny Arcade Mega Man 9
The single greatest web comic strip ever produced.

It takes more than a competent artist to pull off that trick. You need a solid writer informing the visuals.

Those visuals started out pretty crude, as the PA duo readily admit.

First Penny Arcade 1998

But to paraphrase George Carlin's character in Bill & Ted, they did get better.

Penny Arcade remake 2013

And bigger. Throughout the aughts, PA grew to become the top web comic in the world. Under the capable guidance of business manager Robert Khoo, Krahulik and Holkins expanded their operation to spinoff comics, print books, a clothing line, an abortive video game series, a charity, and most notably, an international convention franchise.

Being two pretty typical Gen Xers with a massive platform and faulty brain-to-mouth filters--mainly referring to Krahulik here--based in Seattle, it was inevitable that the pair would run afoul of the Death Cult.

It's a further testament to PA's resilience that they've endured not one, not two, but multiple witch hunts that would have buried lesser enterprises.

The pressure brought to bear on Holkins and Krahulik by hysterical fanatics may have taken a toll, though, as they've taken to publicly holding forth on their preferred brands and dosages of SSRIs.


Neither the manufactured controversies nor the creators' personal challenges were what led to my parting of the ways with Penny Arcade. The site gradually went from a thrice-weekly must-read to an occasional side trip over the course of the aughts, mainly owing to PA entering the corporate IP Milking Phase.

In due justice, PA's decreased focus on the comic in favor of their more lucrative business projects wasn't the creators' fault. It was the logical result of socioeconomic changes sweeping the industry back then. Free comics uploads simply didn't convert to enough shirt and mug sales to make a living.

What can be laid at the creators' feet--particularly Krahulik's--was the art and subject matter's rapid drift into self-indulgence. There was a long stretch from about 2004-2005 when two out of the three weekly strips would be based on World of Warcraft. That was uninteresting enough to someone who didn't play WoW. Even worse, the strips started relying on WoW inside baseball for their humor value.

Frankly, and there's no beating around the bush here, PA's once crisp art degenerated into vomit thanks to Krahulik's imitation of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi.

PA Vomit

Still, the honored axiom, "Hate the game, not the player," applies. Krahulik and Holkins achieved remarkable success in the cutthroat entertainment industry and have maintained that success despite their market sector collapsing around them. No less impressively, they remain surprisingly resistant to the Death Cult despite their prominence in the Pop Cult.

For now, Penny Arcade continues as the coelacanth of web comics--a living record of what is now internet prehistory, when creators and consumers alike could tell jokes without losing their jobs.

20 comments:

  1. I read some webcomics back in the day. Two of them, 8-bit Theater and Bob & George, ended. Another one, Captain SNES, is somehow still going.

    They came up in that awkward groove during the low '90s/ and the early '00s just before '90s nostalgia exploded with AVGN, Newgrounds, Retrojunk, and the like. Unfortunately, since they fall into the post-9/11 camp of western culture they were pretty much doomed to not have any of the nostalgic cache of even something like Friends.

    That's partially because these comics were all made by college-age Gen Y (and the youngest Gen X) kids slowly learning that the world before them is not the one they were promised. It's no coincidence most of them turned hardcore woke, are on meds, or completely left the scene after their comic ended/was abandoned.

    It's an awkward subject to talk about.

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    1. People forget that the pop culture artifacts by which a generation defines itself are made by the generation before. The Beatles were Silents who made music for Boomers. Gabe and Tycho are Gen Xers who drew comics for Ys.

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    2. 8 bit theater brings back good memories.

      I just kind of stopped paying attention to Penny Arcade after college. Too busy on other subjects. That Ren and Stimpy comic saddens me. Never saw PA that bad. And I really liked that cartoon as a kid, even.

      I did meet the PA guys at E3 in the early noughts. Even then it seemed like they were kinda bored with it, although with Krahulik being excitable and Holkins jaded and snarky it just fit in with their "characters".

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  2. I read a fair number of webcomics back in the day, many hosted on Keenspot/Keenspace. At the same time, I used a build-your-own-comics-page feature on the Houston Chronicle web site, to follow syndicated comic strips after I dropped my local newspaper. But starting around ten years ago, I started to lose interest in both, and have barely looked at a comic strip recently.

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  3. I have to disagree with you, Brian. The webcomic you cited as the best ever is really good, but this one is better:

    https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2009/03/09/progress

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    1. I am a terrible and vulgar person. My favourite is the dickwolves joke. matter of fact it might be the only one I laughed at.

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    2. You, unlike the shrieking scolds who pilloried PA, have a sense of humor.

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    3. I'm pretty sure my Aunt sent me that joke in a cheesy chain email once.

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    4. Sorry, Unknown is me. I forgot I was using a different gmail account than normal.

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    5. The 'Progress' comic is funny because it's absolutely true. The 'book' technology is alien to a lot of people these days.

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    6. It's not really funny because it's not really novel or true. I remember similar jokes going around a decade before that comic was published, and I found them amusing when I was in high school.

      The problem is that even the most illiterate people are still familiar with what a book is. Modern people simply tend to lack interest in reading, or alternately don't see the point of paper. I'm being a bit of a stick in the mud, but there's a problem when an issueis misdiagnosed - and society's lack of appreciation for literature is a big issue.

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    7. Humor is 1% subject matter and 99% execution.

      Comic strips are a visual medium. The best comic strip writing is when you can tell a joke with no words at all. The same goes for movies, and that's why Charlie Chaplin is rightly regarded as a legend.

      That's also why the Penny Arcade strip where the jaded, bitter man is transformed back into an innocent, carefree child by video games perfectly conveys PA's essence. What's more, they actually needed all 3 panels.

      The book strip is as wordy as a leftist meme and cheats by stretching the second panel's dialogue into the third.

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  4. I had a whole folder of webcomic links, read them fanatically from about '04 until I graduated college in '12 when I just...stopped. I couldn't look past the cultural poison so many of them started peddling. The Death Cult killed so much that was if not good, at least entertained.

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    1. One commenter on Twitter had the right of it when he observed that Penny Arcade was a PS2 era phenomenon. It doesn't make sense outside of that context.

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  5. I had a whole folder of webcomic links, read them fanatically from about '04 until I graduated college in '12 when I just...stopped. I couldn't look past the cultural poison so many of them started peddling. The Death Cult killed so much that was if not good, at least entertained.

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  6. Spot on. PA puttered out, right alongside quality videogames puttering out.

    Even PAX, for us at least, went meh. You used to go and see some cool stuff and have a good time. It was a mini-game to get tickets, but we got them and went as a family.

    However, one year, we went, and the kids noticed that almost every game they played, when it came out, had degraded graphics or functionality. They would play Cool Game, and when Cool Game came out, it wasn't as cool as it was at PAX.

    What a great post! I hope it continues:

    PVPONLINE: puttered out with occasional SJW lectures. Now trying to reboot with a near-future comic that has no bearing in the near future because it's still set in Seattle and Seattle in the near future is Detroit II.

    VGCATS: Went spotty, but then decided to draw porn.

    CTRL-ALT-DEL: funny and endearing, made a lot off printed books, then turned mean and retcon gay.

    Etc.

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    1. Thanks for the field report. I'm not qualified to do postmortems on other webcomics since PA was the only one I read. That task I leave to other hands.

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    2. I was hoping someone would mention PVPOnline.

      I was shocked at how funny some of their early strips were, but they went from actual computer and gaming-based humor to flatulence, sex jokes, and corporate scheming, which you can read literally anywhere.

      This is one of the best tech-related strips I've seen: http://pvponline.com/comic/wed-jan-06

      (The only thing I have actually read that's hosted on Keenspot is Brawl in the Family by Matthew Taranto, which is mostly surprisingly clean and fun. It ended a few years ago. I appreciated that it didn't really attempt any social commentary or lectures, just fun.)

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  7. Penny Arcade is still in my feed and I read it. But it isn't as good as it once was. That said, it once was amazing. Take this news post from when Gabe's oldest was born: https://www.penny-arcade.com/news/post/2004/9/10

    "The second way, the way that now seems apparent, is to recognize that the significance of an event isn’t necessarily diluted by its frequency. Consider that we might live absolutely encompassed by marvels and wonders. I am suggesting that we are up to our asses in signs and portents that we are quick to omit or can’t interpret."

    This comment, that we are awash in miracles that we are frequently too blind to see or and too jaded to appreciate was entirely eye opening for me. We live in a culture which seeks to push God into the outer darkness, yet he is still here in front of us in the first cry of every child.

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