The Webcomic Overlook #234: Penny Arcade (2013)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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)
Posted on December 29, 2013, in 2 Stars, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Penny Arcade, webcomic, webcomic review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.