The Webcomic Overlook #234: Penny Arcade (2013)

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I have a set of unspoken rules about this site. One is don’t write reviews of outright porn so this site doesn’t get flagged as an adult site. (Also, it’s kinda hard to criticize what people get off on. I mean, who am I to judge, really?) The second is to never write a review of webcomics that I would give the mythical zero stars, i.e. comics I hate so much that I would never want to give any extra publicity ever.

The third rule: don’t write a review about Penny Arcade. I have so many reasons why I don’t want to do it. So many reasons. First and foremost, I tend to review an entire run of a comic. Sure, there are exceptions (and I’m making one now). But what kind of value is there to go back and look at a comic that once looked like the worst sub-1000 pageview garbage ever accidentally discovered on Drunk Duck?

Secondly, it’s a video game webcomic that manages to stay current. People, if you’ve read as many video game webcomics as I have, you start to notice that they are 50% about Mario, 30% about Link, 20% about Final Fantasy, 10% about Street Fighter, 5% about Sonic, and 5% about rape for some reason. No joking, people, the math checks out! The downside: it makes it had to get the references because, while I do play video games, I sorta also don’t have time to spend more than three hours a month perched in front of my XBox. So most of the references would likely go over my head.

And third: what hasn’t been said about Penny Arcade that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? There are sites everywhere dedicated to the damn thing. Seriously, do you need the opinion of an anonymous webcomic reviewer in a luchador mask telling you whether or not you should read what’s probably the most successful webcomic of all time?

And yet, here we are with a review of Penny Arcade from the last year. I know, right? So what ultimately changed my mind about the damn comic? Long story short… this ridiculous strip:

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I mean… look at it! LOOK AT IT! I don’t think I’ve actually read Penny Arcade for a while now, because I remember the good old days when the faces, while still wacky, wasn’t totally boneless and/or off-putting. Jesus Christ, people, what happened? As a result, I took it upon myself to read the Penny Arcade strips from 2013 to determine if this was just an abberation or if, indeed, the long running comic had gone down the crapper.

So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with one of the “100 Websites to Bookmark Now” (Entertainment Weekly, 2006), Penny Arcade is a webcomic about video games. It’s written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik, members of the prestigious Time 100 (Time Magazine, 2010). The two are are also responsible for Penny Arcade Expo, which is “hailed as celebration of gamer culture” (Wikipedia, citation needed). Penny Arcade stars Tycho and Gabe, who are Holkins and Krahulik, except different looking. For example, Krahulik does not have massive beaver chompers like Gabe, nor is Tycho bald like Holkins. (EDIT: Thanks, David Herbert, for the correction. EDIT 2: Thanks, Josef for setting me straight on Gabe v. Tycho.)

Penny Arcade has had an interesting 2013. There was a lot of humor to be mined form a year when both Sony and Microsoft released new consoles, with Microsoft especially causing a legendary PR nightmare. Penny Arcade itself was the center of a lot of changes, with the “dickwolves” controversy bubbling up yet again and certain business elements — such as the “PA Report” — getting the axe. They also aired “Strip Search”, the first ever reality about webcomics.  The end of the year saw Penny Arcade moving away from the video game portion of the business and entrenching itself more firmly in the webcomic side of things.

Which still doesn’t explain that weird looking saucer mouth.

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Surprisingly, the 2013 Penny Arcade is that it’s pretty light on insider video game knowledge. There are plenty of times when I have no idea what’s being referred to, but for some reason I find even these moments to be a little charming. While not necessarily about video games, there is a strip that seems to be about an obscure internet drama surrounding a Tesla review (which is elaborated in the accompanying blog post). Of course, any amusement I got out of this was being reminded about how petty and childish people on the internet can be. It has nothing to do with the actual comic, which is terrible.

What is becoming more and more apparent are that Gabe and Tycho are becoming cranky old men. In modern day version of the newspaper comic Nancy, the character of Fritzi Ritz often reminisces about music and entertainment of the 1940’s. She’s clearly acting as a mouthpiece of the author Guy Gilchrist, since a young 20 year-old woman shouldn’t be dreaming of the good old days of Duke Ellington or whatever. It’s kinda weird that Penny Arcade is sorta becoming that kind of comic, only with more profanity. What’s with kids these days and all their Facebooks? Hey, remember the good old days of SNES? Interestingly, Holkins and Krahulik seem to be pretty unapologetically aware of their crankiness. And kindly get off their lawns, you damn kids.

This makes it all the more embarrassing at the forced attempts at being edgy. Now, foul language has always been an essential building block Penny Arcade foundation. In the early days when their main competitors were the generally kid-friendly comics in the Sunday funnies, dropping f-bombs constantly was a big signal that this wasn’t the kind of comic that you brought home to mama. Still, how many comics can you make where penis is the punchline? As it turns out, a lot. And so much of it is awkwardly phrased (“Now take the matched gems and squirrel them away in your vagina”) or just juvenile (“It has Donna from that 70’s Show. Topless”). Look, I’m not saying profanity can’t be funny. However, I seem to remember a time when Holkins and Krahulik were far more clever and didn’t just rely on dropping f-bombs and genitalia references as the punchline in every single goddamned strip. The two did write a strip where they admit that they tend to go overboard with the swears.

So… why keep doing it?

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Worse, though, I didn’t crack a smile at any of the strips. It’s a given that you’re probably going to run out of material after 15 years. But, man, does Penny Arcade now make the same terrible missteps that have plagued lesser webcomics. Such as: explaining most of the gag in a tiny yellow box or doing a Family Guy style vignette. Doing a “This is what you’re doing but this is what you’re really doing” type of gag. Or not … drawing. Hey, guys? Dueling Analogs called and they want their laziness back.

By the way, did you know that in The Year of the Lord 2013, making fun of “Franzibald” (i.e. Tim Buckley) is still a thing? I sure as hell was shocked.

Finally, we get to that art. Now, I think Krahulik has learned a lot of tricks over the years, and I applaud him for evolving and changing his style. That said, I think that Penny Arcade is living proof that the John Kricfalusi school of cartooning is not always right. It is, in fact, sometimes the most terrible art style you can try to emulate. Penny Arcade probably looked the best between 2008 and 2009, when the color was getting more sophisticated, the illustrations were becoming less rigid and more detailed, and the characters didn’t look like simple shapes from a cheap Flash cartoon. Since then though, Krahulik’s art has gotten so stylized that it’s a little bit off-putting. Penny Arcade is now filled with oddly shaped noses and distorted mouths, and it doesn’t look appealing at all.

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Krahulik reins in his style during the short drama mini-stories. Both “Sand” and “The Tithe” feature characters with less exaggerated facial expressions (though characters still have red noses as if they’re all suffering from seasonal allergies). These mini-stories aren’t very notable, though, because, truth be told, they’re actually kinda boring.  Again, kudos for trying something new, but man were these stories light-weight and totally inconsequential.

It’s admirable that Holkins and Krahulik have decided to refocus their efforts on webcomics.  Yet I can’t help but feel a wave of disappointment.  Penny Arcade just feels so played out.  The ribald humor that was fresh 15 years ago is stale and a poor fit for the webcomic creators who have out grown it.  Maybe they don’t want to admit that they’re no longer college kid anymore.  Maybe it’s all a ruse, since they have to maintain their reps as “foulmouthed outspoken rebels”.   Whatever the case, they have dug themselves in a rut, and weird-looking rubber faced art isn’t going to save them.

Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)

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 December 29, 2013, in 2 Stars, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Just so you know, you got the creators mixed up. Jerry Holkins is Tycho and the bald one. Gabe is Krahulik.

  2. Glad to know I’m not the only one to notice a decline in the art quality after 2009 or so. Sure, it’s more detailed and whatnot, but it’s just become… ugly. And the comics themselves seem to have gradually changed from “let’s poke fun at this game or news bit” to “let’s see how dark, mean-spirited, and vile we can be and that will be the joke!”. Which is a shame, because I used to like Penny Arcade.

    I get a sense from the non-PA mini-series they run on occasion that they themselves are a bit tired of Penny Arcade and wish to do something different. But like you, I find the mini-series, while wonderfully illustrated, are just boring and at times confusing. I still don’t understand what the hell was going on with any of them… it’s as if they came up with these little worlds and stories, but dropped us in right in the middle and refused to explain anything. Well, they did, kind of, but it was within the newsfeed that doesn’t even share the same page with the comic; if you can’t convey the plot in the comic without resorting to paragraphs of footnotes, you’ve failed as a storyteller.

    Well, that was a longer rant than I intended. I do hope that the new year and a refocus on the comic itself will bring Penny Arcade back to its former funny self.

    • There was a point where (I think it was Tycho) found out that he was schizophrenic, and he started taking medication for that condition. The guy himself worried in the blog post on the strip that revealed this fact that the medication might turn his writing into something unfunny. I don’t know if this coincided with the change in quality circa 2009, but it is something to ponder. I wouldn’t use this as an excuse, but it might be an explanation… maybe.

  3. “That said, I think that Penny Arcade is living proof that the John Kricfalusi school of cartooning is not always right. It is, in fact, sometimes the most terrible art style you can try to emulate.”

    I suddenly see my thoughts translated into written words. Amazing.

    Indeed, this seems to be the problem. Penny Arcade evolved from a stiff boring style into something more fluid and more unique, and then it never stopped. Now it has transcended its own flexible and cartoonish quality into something that is bound by no laws. Mouths are disconnected from faces, arms seems to be as flexible as… arms in Adventure Time, really; and if that ugly extreme close up of a mouth hushing words into an ear(or, in this case, a Weedle’s hearing holes, I suppose) isn’t reminiscent of Kricfalusi’s cartoons, I don’t know what is.

    And yes, it’s damn ugly and not really adding anything to the comic. It’s better than, say, VGCats and its stapled on over the top expressions, but it’s only so in the same sense that tetanus is better than good ol’ Spanish flu in terms of originality in ways to die horribly.

    Also, the saw-teeth everywhere. Seeing Rayman, of all creatures, with those weird wobbly teeth is still causing my mind to halt and take its time to process the incongruent information. =/

    Maybe now that comics are their focus again, it’ll get consistently more pleasant… but then again, they still don’t have their comic in their home page, so I doubt it.

  4. I agree with your perspective on the miniseries. They are inconsequential. But this is the area where Mike and Jerry actually care. You can see from the color and the design and careful planning and plotting that they are trying. I can’t help but root for them there and hope they give up their tired dick jokes on the same five video games and move on to subjects that actually interest them. I’d love if they just did Lookouts and left the gaming world entirely.

  5. For the last several years I’ve only stopped by Penis Arcade to gauge relevance of video game news. Did the PA guys make a comic about it? It’s probably big news, or a noteworthy game. But I certainly never dropped by for a laugh. There are none to be had. But it’s worth noting that dirty humor isn’t really my thing, and I believe that shock value is too often the last refuge of the comedian circling the drain.

    One thing I NEVER do anymore: read the news posts. I don’t like it when people deliberately try to talk over my head, and Holkins’ prose is so purple it makes me sick. It feels like overcompensation for something.

    I think it’s still worth considering some of the good things they’ve done… like starting a successful charity and sticking it to Jack Thompson in some of the funniest ways possible. I appreciate what they’ve accomplished as a writer and an artist, even if I don’t enjoy what they currently create. I find myself wishing they were the “little guys” again… and maybe that’s what this re-focus on comics is all about.

    • Side note: “(though characters still have red noses as if they’re all suffering from seasonal allergies)”

      You know, I’ve never understood this. PA isn’t the only place I’ve seen it, I’ve noticed a few artists that do this. Is there some kind of artistic point to having Rudolph Syndrome? Some of them look less bad than others but it seems like all it does is go “HEY LOOK I HAVE A NOSE AND IT IS VERY NOTICEABLE LOOK AT THIS BIG RED THING ON MY FACE”.

      As far as PA goes: I think Hawk’s comment is very telling. I feel like maybe it was the case that PA was never great, just that they were the best of their contemporaries and they filled a niche that people sorely clamored for. I’d like to think that I’ve at least glanced through a number of webcomics and I’ve certainly played a lot of video games, but out of all the gaming comics I’ve seen, I’ve let go of all but a handful, and of those, PA is probably the only “general current” gaming webcomic; there are others like Brawl in the Family, Manly Guys Doing Manly Things, and Awkward Zombie that are enjoyable but they tend to focus on the specific and often classic games (as opposed to those currently in the news) that the artist/writer likes. Every so often PA hits the mark, but more importantly, as much downhill as they’ve gone, I’ve yet to see something else rise to take their place. Obviously they’re not trying to compete with other gaming webcomics, but I feel like if another general current gaming webcomic rose to prominence (and was worthy enough to deserve its success), we’d either see PA refocus and improve, or maybe just proclaim the new successors and go off to do something else that they want to do.

  6. Thank you for this review (and happy 2014 to you). I’ve been trying for some time to understand the recent years of Penny Arcade, with, on the one hand, the strips featuring Holkins & Krahulik’s alter egos, and, on the other, the more narrative-driven material (like your magenta example from above). I just don’t get it. It’s as though the references are flying over my head, probably because I’m fairly old-school about video games and I assume it by simply not paying attention to what’s new (can’t afford a console anyway).

    Even though it has improved vastly since their first years, the artwork is now in a regression (it must have peaked at around 2005-07). Krahulik seems slowly to make his way towards a more grotesque style, but it’s not working, perhaps because the subject matter still aims for cuteness.

    But as I mentioned recently, their putting an end to their more mature ventures (like Penny Arcade Report) just indicates to me they’ll want to live in perpetual childhood, and that nothing more serious is to be found coming from them.

  7. On the subject of Penny Arcade and its recent controversies, Krahulik just posted a rather serious bit of self-reflection on the comic’s front page today. Some excerpts:

    We are all products of our childhood and what came out of mine was an unrepentant asshole. This person wasn’t a great fit for the handful of retail jobs I bounced between. I’m not what you would call a “people person”. It was a good fit for making comic strips though. In 1998 I finally discovered an outlet for the the horrible skills I had. My disgusting sense of humor helped to create Penny Arcade and grow it to what it has become today. The same things about me that I used to think were an asset, something good that I brought to the mix have become a liability though. It’s a strange position to be in and I’ve spent a lot of time this year reflecting on it. The person I am isn’t good for PA anymore and in fact who I am and the way I behave has caused real damage to it. So this person isn’t good for PA but I’m not sure it’s good for me either.

    I’ve done a lot of soul searching this year. I’ve tried to figure out what sort of person I am and what sort of person I want to be going forward. I know I don’t want to be this angry kid anymore. I take medicine to control my anxiety and depression but there is no pill I can take to stop being a jerk. That’s a deeper problem and it’s something I’m working on.

    I’ve learned a ridiculous amount this year. About myself and about other people. It’s been a difficult year, probably the hardest in my life and I realize I brought most of it on myself. That’s a sobering realization. I also realize that I’ve made it harder for the people I care about, my friends and my family. I can’t be this guy anymore. I have every intention of taking the things I’ve learned this year to heart and changing. I’ve said I’m sorry for the things I’ve said but I’ve never apologized for who I am. I need to separate the busted kid from the man I am now. I guess that’s my new years resolution. Might be harder than losing ten pounds.

    The whole thing is worth a read.

    Personally, I hope this does lead to some genuine self-improvement for Krahulik, and I wish him the best of luck in his efforts.

    • Interesting read, though the link is messed up. Here it is: http://penny-arcade.com/2014/01/01/resolutions

      I knew there was a tragedy in this story, and it’s an old one: that of a person who has trapped himself in a persona that he is now expected to live up to, while he would rather do something else. I think it can only grow worse; he can only come to hate Penny Arcade, the limitations he and Holkins have set up in an earlier age, and which their fan base now expects them to maintain. It can only lead to his wanting to kill off the damn thing, while he knows he can’t because it’s not only his source of success/wealth but also, more importantly, the thing he’s wasted 15 years of his life on. He can’t destroy it without destroying himself, and I don’t think he’s reached that point yet.

      But now I can see a few things happening. Maybe PA will contract out the artwork to someone else. Their fan base might not like it, but it’s possible. Maybe they will just carry on as usual, with no heart into it, turning the strip into predictable, mild and terminally safe content of the same kind PA’s faithful readers have been expecting, with the result being a slow but never quite dramatic decline, like The Simpsons. Or they might say, the hell with this, and do as much as possible to make the strip crash and burn. Now that could be interesting. Maybe they will now risk alienating their readers, it is to be hoped with more taste than Buckley. Maybe they will ask the tough questions that need to be asked. Maybe they will start telling their audience to grow up, that a life spent on video games is a life wasted, that there are more important things than the chasing of the latest gadget with improved graphics. I don’t think they have the gravitas for this, but maybe I underestimate them.

      • Yeah, my link apparently somehow got messed up in the formatting; thanks for fixing it. :-)

        I think your predictions for the comic might be bit on the cynical side; I believe that it’s entirely possible for Krahulik to continue doing the comic (and enjoy doing it) while still striving to improve himself personally.

        I do agree, though, that this is likely to cause some friction between Krahulik and the “Team Dickwolves” segment of the comic’s fanbase, and I’m interested to see how that might play out.

  8. What you review next?

  9. The Tithe looked pretty interesting, if a bit cryptic, but when it ended I was shocked. I thought I must have hit the wrong button and loaded the latest comic by mistake, but no, it just ends where it feels like it.

  10. To be fair, I really laughed at the “Blessing” comic.

  11. I guess you never heard about Mike and Jerry exploiting their interns who worked for them or were dumb enough to pay money for an intern job.* Apparently, Mike and Jerry posted a listing for someone to work for them, but the ad was ludicrous; they expected someone to do a 60-90+ hour position that barely pays the bills, thinking that having lunch with them and “being around the PA guys” justifies them exploiting and treating their employees like dirt. Reddit found out about the position and experiences working with Mike and Jerry, and ripped on Penny Arcade.

    Man, did PA fall from grace. I used to like these guys.

    • Didn’t see an edit option, so I wanted to add this:

      *I can be wrong about the paying money for an intern job, so don’t quote me on that. Sorry..

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