Rethinking Penny Arcade

For as long as I have been following webcomics, I have been perplexed by the wild popularity of Penny Arcade. In my original review I reached the conclusion that it was the blog posts on the front of the site, of which the comic was a mere illustration, that were the real source of the comic’s popularity, and very little I’ve seen since has dissuaded me from that.

Last Friday, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins announced that Penny Arcade would be scaling back considerably; gone would be the Penny Arcade Report or third-party videos on PATV. The implication of the blog post seemed to be that if it weren’t for how huge Child’s Play or PAX had become, they’d be abandoning those things too.

This is a surprising about-face on a number of levels. For one thing, I don’t think the PAR really had a chance to reach the same levels of indispensability as Child’s Play or PAX, only going on for a year and a half. For another, just last year PA held a Kickstarter to remove ads from its web site that, regardless of its original intentions, ended up growing their brand even further, through the creation of the Strip Search web-reality show (though in retrospect that Kickstarter could be seen as a warning shot that something like this could be coming down the pike). It’s tempting to read this as a response to numerous controversies that PA had gotten into recently, especially a job posting that seemed to encourage applicants to lower their salary expectations – a pure cost-cutting effort, in other words.

Still, when I read this, I wanted to be a fly on the wall when Gabe and Tycho told their sugar daddy Robert Khoo about their decision. Khoo once told Gary “Fleen” Tyrell that PA was “a content-creating company focused on the videogame industry, with the webcomic just one part of it. Granted, the comic is the dominant part, but he didn’t commit to that always being true.” Gabe and Tycho now seem to have gone the opposite direction: they have effectively made clear that they don’t want to be a general “content-creating company focused on the video game industry”.

To be sure, it’s not like Khoo forced everything they’ve done over the past 15 years on them; Gabe introduced the PAR as “what we want to see from games journalism”, and both Child’s Play and PAX occurred as a result of Gabe and Tycho thinking about various issues. At no point did they do anything solely because Khoo told them it was the next step they needed to take on their march to global domination. Rather, it seems that Gabe and Tycho have come to the same realization I’ve tried to follow: that just because you feel someone should do something doesn’t mean you’re the ones to do it.

You might think the lesson here is a variation on an old theme: not to do something just because “that’s what you do” or “that’s what you need to do to grow your business” or your “brand”, but because you actually want to do it. And maybe it is. But if I was right about PA – if, as I put it when the PAR launched, “the larger empire that PA has grown into is not a symptom of its success; rather, it literally is its success” – I can’t help but wonder if Gabe and Tycho may have just made the decision to take down all that made them popular in the first place. By keeping Child’s Play and PAX they may only be turning back the clock to five to eight years ago, still a stage when they were the envy of the webcomics community, but they may still prove to be a cautionary tale, a sign that sometimes, those people telling you to “grow your brand” may have a point, because without them you may not have a brand.

To be honest? The only reason I’m reviewing this comic at all is to continue a new streak of posts every weekday.

(From Penny Arcade. Click for full-sized vampire feeding habits.)

I have no idea what this comic is talking about, even after reading the news post. Maybe it would make more sense if I were reading the comics leading up to it, or the prior newsposts. I don’t know.

All I know is, reading it out of context like this? Makes it resemble some sort of surreal, horrifying Dadaist experience. And the expression on Gabe’s face throughout the strip isn’t helping.

(Wait, Gabe is referred to, within the strip, as “Mike”? I don’t even know what to make of that…)

The most pivotal week in the history of webcomics

I’m slowly working my way back to doing regular webcomic reviews – look for some down the pike, starting with a review of Comixtalk, once I finish my studies for the quarter – and not a moment too soon. We’re in a heady period for webcomics, a turning point in their development. This has been an eventful week.

First was “Dating-Guy-gate”, when Least I Could Do‘s Ryan Sohmer accused Canadian network Teletoon of ripping off his concept for another series. The facts of the matter are very complicated and the whole thing has a good chance of going to court, but the upshot of the whole affair was a Kickstarter effort to film a LICD pilot (I’m incredulous that Randy Milholland had to set it up for him because Kickstarter is limited to Americans for some reason), which proved wildly successful. This could be a momentous moment for webcomics, and Sohmer is in a uniquely qualified position to lead the charge. While I have a feeling that, once I finally get around to reviewing it, I will absolutely loathe LICD for its alleged sexism and allegedly Mary-Sue-ish main character, there are few webcomics I can think of that are better suited for translation to television, or any other medium.

Most other gag-a-day webcomics are either too decentralized to support even the sort of plot for a 30-minute show (Penny Arcade, xkcd), or would have trouble appealing to even a broad enough audience for a fairly focused cable network, especially a problem with video game comics (as with previous efforts of Sohmer’s Blind Ferret Entertainment, PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del). Least I Could Do is one of the few popular gag-a-day webcomics with broad enough subject matter to actually attract the interest of TV networks. In fact, I don’t know how much Sohmer would be considering American outfits, but I could easily see LICD fitting right in alongside the animated comedies on Fox’s Sunday night lineup – on an American broadcast network, alongside such titans as The Simpsons and Family Guy. If LICD could pull that off, it would become, by far, the most famous webcomic in the world overnight.

(Translating a story webcomic to the big screen poses similar challenges. Most story webcomics, especially former gag comics that underwent Cerebus syndrome, have an odd mix of humor and seriousness that would be difficult to market or portray on the big screen. Even a comic as story-focused as Order of the Stick would be difficult to translate, but even Girl Genius has an odd enough balance to give Hollywood execs pause. The equivalent to LICD in the story webcomic community, from the perspective of how easy it would be to translate, would probably be Gunnerkrigg Court – a story that has drawn more than a few comparisons to Harry Potter. But as we’ll see, there is another way to turn a webcomic into a movie…)

Next came DC’s announcement of digital day-and-date distribution for its revamped universe, which has led more than a few retailers to cry doom. As well they should; DC makes up about a third of the comic book market and is probably responsible for much more than that coming through their doors. That many are calling this move inevitable does not make it any less of a stake in the heart of the direct market, or any less one of the bigger ones. We’re likely to see many more would-be comic book creators make the move to graphic novels and webcomics.

Finally came what could be the biggest news of all: One of Penny Arcade‘s old spinoff concepts has been optioned by Paramount to be made into a feature film. Forget a show that could have languished in obscurity on a Canadian cable channel: this could see millions of Americans flock to movie theatres and make Gabe and Tycho millions of dollars, not to mention (as with the LICD animated series) pave the path for more webcomics to see the silver screen.

And that’s before we get to the detente between print cartoonists and webcartoonists at this year’s National Cartoonist Society Reuben awards.

These are baby steps: even if LICD gets made into a series it could be on some obscure or Canadian-only channel, this isn’t Penny Arcade itself but an idea they threw out there once, and both are far, far away from actually being made. But I get the sense that this is a turning point, a milestone week, in the history of webcomics. If even one of these projects get made it gives webcomics by far their broadest exposure they have ever had, and between that and DC’s colonization of the digital market could lead to a huge influx of new people into webcomics. We may look back on this past week as the one that webcomics started to bloom, started to move out of their extended adolescence and into the full-blown adulthood (or, if you’re more like Bengo, out of childhood and into adolescence) that would confer upon it the respect and corpus of literature due any other medium.

Don’t worry, the webcomic reviews should return to Tuesday after this.

(From Penny Arcade. Click for full-sized infinite Tigers.)

Because of time constraints, low battery power, and the fact my first attempt at this post got lost partly because of my own stupidity, this post will be an experiment in shorter webcomic reviews.

Penny Arcade is, by almost any measure, the most popular primarily-web-based comic in history. Millions of people peruse it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and who knows how many of them have tried their own knockoffs of the PA formula. Jerry Krahulik and Mike Holkins often do promotional work for actual big time game companies and their actual games. “Gabe and Tycho” have created more memes than anyone this side of xkcd (Greater Internet F**kwad Theory, anyone?) and managed to channel their many readers’ efforts into their Child’s Play charity. They’ve even started their own gaming convention, the Penny Arcade Expo, on the backs of their wildly successful comic strip, further establishing their bona fides as among the most powerful people in the video game industry.

And for the life of me I can’t figure out why.

Now I’ve only read a couple weeks’ worth of strips and almost nothing outside of this year, so maybe the strip has jumped the shark and I just missed all the good strips. But Penny Arcade, in a lot of ways, reminds me of xkcd, in that I don’t know what to make of it. Many strips, like with xkcd, feel like little more than moments in time; Gabe and Tycho famously disdain continuity, and in fact are really the only two recurring characters. Often their strips are like editorial cartoons for the game industry, except they tend to be laden with injokes and sometimes are incomprehensible without the accompanying blog post. I don’t know if I’m in a position to appraise the writing, but the art… isn’t bad, and it’s certainly better than most PA knockoffs (then again, so is Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s art), but it isn’t spectacular either. On the rare occasions when the strip does dip into continuity, they can lack flow even with the blog post. (So, exactly what did happen to Tycho between these two strips?) Some strips feel like they’re missing a panel, or crammed into one panel too few, or fall flat for other reasons.

If you go to the Penny Arcade home page, you’re not taken to the comic but to the daily blog post. I can’t help but wonder if this is the real core of Penny Arcade‘s popularity; if most of the site’s readers come in not for the strip, but for Gabe and Tycho’s various musings on the goings-on of the video game industry, including the occasional video game review. Which makes it odd that Gabe and Tycho are so often held up by webcomic boosters as an example of All That’s Right with webcomics, when their strip may well be mediocre at best and probably isn’t the main draw to the site. Their praise may just encourage PA knockoffs who actually do a better job than they’re often given credit for of aping the PA style and quality, but don’t really get it, and don’t really grasp why PA is so popular, even having perfunctory blogs but letting the strip drive the blog rather than the blog drive the strip.

Of course, on the other hand, the geeknerd core audience of many a webcomic tends to like semi-surreal rule-breaking things. I guess it’s up to people like me to point non-geek webcomic shoppers to strips that are actually doing good things with the form like Order of the Stick.

I’d be more optimistic about the concept if I knew what the heck was going on in the demonstration.

(From Penny Arcade Bogey Golf. Click for full sized… whatever the hell this is.)

I got an e-mail telling me my Freehostia account was now working shortly after I posted with today’s strip, so I guess that was unnecessary. On to other things.

Penny Arcade, like Ctrl+Alt+Del, has no forum dedicated to its own strips, Websnark has been reduced to Eric Burns popping in once a month to spout off on whatever’s making the rounds in geek culture, Tangents is still a homeless bum, and I know of no other blog that comments on webcomics as up-to-the-minute as those two. So I have no way of knowing for certain if Friday’s news post is a joke or not. It probably is, but it’s nowhere near April.

All I know is if it isn’t, it really screws up my plans, because I had been planning on PA being one of the two posts I was planning to make early in the week to make up for having no webcomic post this week.

Even if it is, I’m only really going to have two strips to work off of, so I’m probably reviewing another webcomic blog for the second instead, reviewing PA next week, reviewing one other comic the week after that, and maybe posting a third OOTS post the week after that.

And that’s assuming I don’t get too sidetracked by other things, like Buzzcomix’ recent relaunch, about which more later…

Should I hold a cigarette, snicker, and say “You fools! NO ONE can stop me now! MWA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAA!!!”

Okay. Yesterday’s debacle is behind us.

But I’ve entered a new stage of my Evil Plan, and there are some people here who might not know of which I speak. And I should probably link to the strips in question to maximize the chances of my Evil Plan working.

So. Here’s Penny Arcade, and here’s Sluggy Freelance. I linked to Sluggy yesterday, but I’m mentioning it today, so I might as well link to it again.

One interesting aside? Remember yesterday when I talked about the two types of most webcomics? Well, Penny Arcade is probably the ur-nerdy, video game strip, while Sluggy is, as I mentioned then, an example of an unlimited wackiness strip.