An ode to video game webcomics

Penny Arcade, by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins

Let us pause for a moment to sing the praises of videogame webcomics.

What’s that?

You think me mad?

Think me foolish for reflecting on comics that fall back on cheap gags, like funny drawings of a fat Italian stereotype in a red jumpsuit? I reassure you, my fellows, no merry jest-maker am I!

Think back, if you will, of the decade long ago fondly called the aughts. Back in 2005, something rather incredible happened. People dared to call video games by the “a” word: “art.” It started, as most things do, with a review of the movie Doom. Roger Ebert, the doyen of movie critics, answered a follow-up question about why he didn’t consider video games to be art.

Scandal!

That led to some back and forth whining and the kernel for an entire philosophical inquiry: what are the parameters of art? And do video games fall within those parameters? A simple remark grew into the modern version of the Dadaist movement. All of the sudden, gamers demanded that their hobby be place on the same pedestal as Andy Warhol and Dave Brubeck.

In the aftermath, video games, perhaps, became art … but not exactly how either party imagined what form that evolution would take. Now, I’m not here to settle the debate. Nor do I think that the average gamer particularly cares if Final Fantasy VII is enshrined in a museum at some point with an accompanying plaque written by a stuffy curator. However, when an entire industry is on the cusp of respectability, why aren’t video games portrayed in mass media beyond the obvious, superficial digs?

Cru the Dwarf, by Sean F

Despite the lofty aspirations, video games remain the spat-upon, low society, brain damaged, overstimulated, illiterate, friendless, forever adolescent, redheaded stepchild of the multimedia world. It’s a world forever drenched in the sweet Clearasil aroma of male adolescence. When the most prominent game these days features a scene where you can bash Hercules’ face into a bloody mess… well, make your own conclusions as to who that was aimed for.

At the same time, video games are more ubiquitous than ever before. There have been incredible strides to attract women and the elderly (traditional bastions of non-gamers). The average age of video gamers is a nice hale 35 years old and 68 percent of American households have video games. Oh, sure, a lot of that is probably skewed by the Wii and grandma playing nothing more than Wii bowling… but it still counts.

Yet who speaks the language of the gamers? Niche magazines like EGM and online sites like IGN, the G4 Network before it became a series of Cops re-runs and Extenze commercials…

Crazy Buffet, by John Pading

… and yes, webcomics, which embraced the video game culture whole-heartedly and without judgment. In a way, video games and webcomics are like-minded kin. The world of digital comics, back then, was the ignored, ugly kid brother of the world of comic books (itself the ignored, ugly kid brother of the publishing world). No one in their right mind could imagine a videogame-themed comic succeeding either under the umbrella of a print publisher. Even a video game-themed indie comic sounds way too niche.

But on the web? Anything’s possible.

So, in a way, webcomics were perfect for gamers. Gamers were already among the top percentile of proficiency with the world wide web. Game forums were perfect for sharing favorite strips. Gamers are already geared toward the visual medium.

And these webcomics spoke their language: cultivating their own pop culture library of first-person shooters and MMORPGs; tapping into the new nostalgia of Bioshock, Baldur’s Gate II, and Banjo Kazooie; playing up the console wars while cultivating the forbidden allure of the girl gamer.

Castle Vidcons, by Tyler Rhodes

These webcomics are filled to the brim with in-jokes, some absolute head-scratchers to anyone unfamiliar with the content. Ultimately, they’re about socially-inept losers… But they’re our losers, goddammit. Self-aware losers who laugh off the quirks of there obsessions because, ultimately, they know what they like… and what they like is a good challenge, fabulous controls, and the thrill of victory.

While the rest of the world were telling them that they were pale-skinned shut-ins for playing video games so much, webcomics were there to assure you that, hey, playing games is fun, complaining about games is fun, talking about old games is fun … and, hey, you’re not alone.

Part of the reason why superheroes became the popular comic genre is because comics were the only place where one could find superheroes. I imagine the same is true for fans of video game humor. Outside of the rare WoW-themed South Park episode, Attack of the Show skit, or crude Flash webtoons, webcomics are the only place in the world where you could find video game humor. The format fits.

Virtual Shackles, by Jeremy Vinar and Mike Fahmie

Virtual Shackles, by Jeremy Vinar and Mike Fahmie

It’s true: a lot of video game webcomics are downright awful. A huge downside is that these webcomics, by nature, are as awkwardly adolescent as the industry that spawned them. More often than not, the “heroes” of these webcomics are misanthropic man-children. Despite being written by 30-somethings, the characters still swear as if they just discovered bad words. The creators rail with impotent and petulant range at those who would deny them video games, inflating tiny issues into an attack on their civil liberties.

But, really, are they any worse than the worst that any other webcomic genre can give you?

And for many, video game webcomics are a gateway. You come in looking for the videogame humor, but you come out with a new appreciation toward the webcomic format. I have seen forums devoted to sharing video game webcomics (often to laugh at them in the ways the creators never intended) evolve into general webcomic discussions where fans begin to share higher quality works. Video game webcomics transform gamers into webcomic fans.

Another Videogame Webcomic, by Phil Chan and Joe Dunn

Now, webcomic creators aren’t Archie Andrews. Eventually, they grow out of their adolescence. As they grow up, so do their webcomics. PvP dropped video games some time ago to turn into an office drama/Garfield hybrid. Ctrl+Alt+Del became more a comic about sensitive family issues. 8-Bit Theater is in the process of wrapping up, its creator more interested in working on far more critically acclaimed projects. Penny Arcade may be one of last of the old guard left following its original mission statement. They have to: it’s central as that is to Gabe and Tycho’s emergent media fiefdom.

But even without them, there are still plenty to take their place: Virtual Shackles, Brawl in the Family, Awkward Zombie, Nerf Now!!, Crazy Buffet, Another Videogame Webcomic, Of Noobs and Men, Digital Unrest, 2P Start… just to name a few.

As long as there are video games, there will be video game webcomics.

Long live video game webcomics.

NOTE: Yeah, I know that was not, technically, an ode. That’s what I get for having “Ode to a Grecian Urn” stuck in my mind while writing this. Curse you, Jeopardy! If you feel so inclined to compose an actual ode, though… well, I won’t stop you.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on March 24, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. El Santo, have you read any of the works of Eegra (http://www.eegra.com/show/sub/do/browse/cat/comics/id/4)? I think you’d really enjoy it. Its a surprisingly highbrow gamer comic imported from the shores of Australia. And by high brow, I mean more poop jokes.

  2. So what you’re basically saying is that even though the monkey may fling shit everywhere, at least it brings attention and thus it’s good.

  3. There are quite a lot of problems with video game comics, especially ones like CtrlAltDel and VGCats, which are insanely popular. But as a whole, they have had an enormous influence and have introduced many people to comics, and I can respect that. PvP has introduced me to several comics that I have fallen in love with. And the problems of video game comics are not unique to their medium. Literature has plenty of nutjobs and hacks being published, yet people don’t condemn the medium altogether because of the amazing works being published.

    I don’t think Penny Arcade will ever go away, though, unless one of the creators kicks the bucket. Penny Arcade is so inherent to video game webcomics that it’s practically the Google of the internet.

  4. Please….if you’re doing a tribute to video game comics, it would be best to never mention CAD. It’s never funny, it takes itself far too seriously, the author is an egotistical jerk, and the art is so bland it’d almost be better for it to be unspeakably atrocious.

    • Perhaps… but for all its faults (which are numerous), CAD does has a very strong following. I’d actually feel remiss if I didn’t end up mentioning it in a piece about video game webcomics. Not to mention that, in a way, it’s also highly influential. For good or ill, plenty of similar-looking webcomics followed in its wake.

      Think of Buckley as the Rob Liefeld of webcomics. Liefeld’s style would win no awards, his storytelling was atrocious… but he was phenomenally popular in the 90′s and his style very much imitated. If talk about comics in the 90′s and you omit Liefeld’s oeuvre, then you miss a big piece of what made the 90′s… the 90′s.

      • The only difference? Apparently Liefeld is a really nice, friendly sorta guy, who is very enthusiastic and supposedly easy to work with, and he’s willing to admit in recent years that his art style wasn’t very good at all.

  5. I think the difference between good and bad gamer webcomics are that the good ones have something original to offer and/or are Penny Arcade, and the bad ones try to be either Penny Arcade or like someone else who is trying to be like Penny Arcade. Usually the PA wannabes may get bored from that style and drift elsewhere, though there’s no telling where it will go from there.

    One thing that sets PA apart from the imitators is that while the fictional characters Gabe and Tycho often ACT immature and childish, the PA imitator comics themselves ARE immature. Tycho and Gabe know their crowd well and are both very good at what they do.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s the artists that don’t try to be PA that end up having an easier time. They make their own niche in the web by basically writing what they know. Instead of trying to pander to the gaming crowd in general, like PA, they make comics about their favorite games and what they play. That’s why comics like Awkward Zombie and NerfNow are so popular. I bet if more people posted regular comics about Team Fortress 2 and other Valve games they’d be surprised how many fans they’d get, there’s a pretty big crowd on the web centered around the Valve.

  6. Some people will disagree with me, and some people will even think I’m an idiot for supporting their misanthropy, but I genuinely believe that Penny Arcade provides a valuable service. They hold the video game industry accountable. And if someone in the industry perpetuates some large-scale bullshit, they’ll call them on it–it doesn’t matter if it’s crap games, exploitative retailers with lousy customer service, useless products, or intelligence-insulting marketing campaigns, they’ll skewer it and expose its seamy underbelly for what it is. And in an industry that attracts an unnatural amount of bullshit, I think that’s a valuable service–especially given that Penny Arcade provides it in such an entertaining format, and for free.

    • What really backs those guys up is that Penny Arcade has evolved to more than just a little webcomic. Now when they register a complaint, it’s not just some whiny internet fanboy somewhere. It’s those guys who host one of the largest video-game conventions, who have a charity, and who have published a video game themselves. And all those extracurricular functions are so carefully selected so they have a.) industry clout and b.) can still legitimately say that they’re the voice of the average gamer. I have much respect for Krahulik and Holkins, myself.

  7. I’ve been waiting for someone to write an article like this for a long time. Thank you.

  8. There is a quite infamous comic on Drunk Duck called “Powerup Comics”, that was intended as a parody of every excess commonly found in gaming comics: the two-guys-and-a-couch setting, the gratuitous violence, the copy-paste artwork (to the extent of cutting a leg at the knee in a frame and placing the two parts at an angle in the next, so that the character could bend his leg), the misogyny, the nerdy sense of entitlement, and so on. And it’s one of those cases where the parody is so close to the original that making the difference between the two was almost impossible when I first came across it.

    I, too, have been waiting for such an article in a long time; but while you find redemption in such comics, I for all ends and purposes do not — even though I could qualify as an occasional gamer (if that is not an oxymoron). Just look at the heavyweights. You say that Penny Arcade hasn’t changed in the ten years it’s been around, and that it is true to its original statement; I think on the contrary that this is its real problem, especially if we are to assume the character have aged as quickly as their creators (and not fallen into a fountain of youth à la Tintin). By now, dear old Tycho and Gabe (the virtual ones) must be in their late twenties at the very least, yet they keep on railing about video games as though they were still teenagers living in their parents’ basement. In fact, I don’t recall seeing anything in the way of a day job, or an indication of how they make ends meet. There is rarely a sense of anything beyond the world of gaming, of obligations not related to playing. This is the “fun, fun, fun from cradle to grave” mentality I lamented somewhere else, and for what? To sell merchandise. I wasn’t a reader of Penny Arcade five years ago, but I wonder what it looked like when you weren’t being bombarded with the impression that you were dealing with a media empire that had stopped worrying long ago about whether it could pay next month’s bandwidth usage. Now I get the impression they do it strictly for the money.

    Buckley’s webcomic isn’t better, really. You talk of Ctrl+Alt+Del as having converted into a comic about “sensitive family issues”. Yet you have to keep in mind that the word “miscarriage” could easily become the next “jump the shark”. Everyone faintly acquainted with webcomics, especially gaming webcomics, seems to have heard of it; Yahtzee at Zero Punctuation even singled it out as an example of what not to do with a comic that started out in a humorous vein. Even worse than Buckley’s idea of having his main female character going through a miscarriage was the manner in which he handled it, which was callous and insensitive. His remark that he had been involved with a girl who suffered a miscarriage, in a relationship that he considered doomed anyway, was even parodied by Cyanide & Happiness. If you’ve read all that is said about Buckley on other sites, it’s easy to know that the guy doesn’t have the sensitivity, nor the depth, to pull off such a switch. He should have stuck with his lame gaming jokes.

    Why do gaming webcomics seem to suit the medium just fine? I suspect it’s as you pointed out, that the development of video gaming is quite parallel to webcomics: the product of stunted teenagers, for stunted teenagers, only content with producing inside jokes and cross-references as a self-validation mechanism.

    P.S.: “Doyenne” refers specifically to a woman.

    • P.P.S.: Also, if age is the main criterion for appointing a “doyen”, the honor probably goes to Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, 93 years of age and still writing film criticism.

    • Re: Doyenne/Doyen: Ah, you’re right! Thanks for that catch. I’ll fix that. Also, the definition I was working off of was “a person considered to be knowledgeable or uniquely skilled as a result of long experience in some field of endeavor”, so I think Roger qualifies.

  9. El Santo,

    “Ctrl+Alt+Del became more a comic about sensitive family issues.”? “Think of Buckley as the Rob Liefeld of webcomics”? Okaay – maybe that’s the best take on Buckley’s I’ve heard.

    One comic you didn’t mention that really was a notch above almost every other “video game” comic was Concerned (http://www.hlcomic.com/) which turned the Half Life saga inside out into a very funny comic while still being a very sincere tribute to the game.

  10. I liked a lot this article, many webcomics were/are made by teens and when they grew up also changed the dynamics of their webcomcis
    (greg dean real life, I dont remember the last time that questionable content made a music reference, and a long etc)

    So when they gamer comic creator evolves the comic change

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