Penny Arcade Interview

Penny Arcade Comic Strip

Penny Arcade Feature

Penny Arcade is a webcomic focused on video games and video game culture, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik. In the early days of them starting the Penny Arcade Expo, I reached out to Jeff Bond, editor of Geek Monthly Magazine, and pitched him an article idea about the guys and their growing empire. It ran in the November 2008 issue of the magazine.

WRITTEN FOR

Geek Monthly Magazine

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There is a phenomena that occurs whenever Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik – better known by their online nicknames Tycho and Gabe – are around. For example, if you ever try to sit down and talk with either of them, you will be interrupted by a young man or woman wearing a shirt bearing some indication that they are a gamer. For two Seattle boys that look absolutely nothing like their infamous comic counterparts, it’s uncanny how often they get spotted across a restaurant by a fan that just has to stop and pledge fealty to these two kings of video game culture.

“I just wanted to tell you how much I love Penny Arcade!”

In this instance it’s a twenty-something lad wearing a t-shirt with a Mario World mushroom on it. Always happy to meet a reader, Jerry thanks him and chats for a moment before the interrupter, grinning, says goodbye and ambles off. Encounters like that are not uncommon, as fans consider them approachable. They know from their comic that they are just like them – they are gaming kin. They are of the same demographic that follows their comic three times a week, only along the way they have turned an experiment into a full-time business of merchandise, books, a video game, and a convention that easily rivals any other con going. All because they wanted to make comic books, but got sidetracked.

“There was a contest in Next Gen magazine in ‘98 – this was long before game portals and game blogs existed – and they had a website that updated once a day. Contrast that to something today, like Joystiq, that updates once every 4.3 minutes. This website would update every day at 7pm. And they put out a request for cartoonists that might one day get printed in the magazine.”

“We were making small comics and photocopying them and putting them beside the register at Gorilla Bob’s, which was a local comic shop, for a quarter. That was pretty standard issue comic trajectory back then.”

“We had moved in together, ostensibly, to create comics. That was part of the charter we had established as roommates. And the reality was that we spent most of our time playing video games. So, when this came along, we thought, “Perfect!” We’ll enter the contest!’ So we sent five in, and then there was no announcement. The whole thing fell by the wayside. But we had five strips, and we thought they should be seen somewhere.”

Those five strips, drawn by Krahulik and scripted by Holkins, have turned into five printed collections with Dark Horse comics, with new strips available online, free, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at Penny-Arcade.com. Those in turn will become collected, complete with the usual sharp, self-effacing, sometimes bizarre, always humorous, 20 20 hind-sighted footnotes from Jerry.

“We got a lot of mail about this one, asking what the symbolism of the whole thing was, but the reality was we thought it would be funny to see a man kicked in the face by a horse and, being so kicked, exclaim “Orff!”

While the heart and soul of their comic is looking for the absurdity in the world of video games, this has expanded over the last decade to encompass gaming culture, both on and offline. As their readership grew, a community began to take root. In the Pacific Northwest, fans even started organizing weekend gatherings consisting of massive LAN parties, rock concerts in the parking lots of arcades, and informal Q and A sessions with “Gabe” and “Tycho”. Then came the realization that this phenomena of community was much bigger than they though, and certainly bigger than a banquet hall at a Holiday Inn.

“We were invited out East to Ubercon and a lot of people told us that they paid their ticket, solely to meet us. And it made us feel bad, because looking around the convention, we didn’t feel like it was especially tailored to a gamer. There were gamers there, but it really didn’t have a gaming focus. And we were like, it seems like there should be a convention that has more of a gaming focus – if they’re coming solely to see us, maybe we should make it worth their time.”

That one trip turned into the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, which annually draws tens of thousands of attendees to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. And the timing was good – tired of guessing their way through the world of business, Mike and Jerry had recently brought Robert Khoo on board to be their manager, or as Holkins puts it “to be our monster.” And the monster was looking for a new Penny Arcade project.

“It was a huge organizational challenge for him, but he finds that sort of thing enjoyable. Managing resources… that’s why he likes games. RPGs are his style of game. He finds the manipulation of values in columns supremely enjoyable.”

Ideal for organizing PAX as well as Child’s Play, a non-profit organization that gathers together the collective goodwill of games everywhere, and turns it into over three million dollars worth of books, toys, and of course video games for dozens of children’s hospitals around the world.

“PAX is designed to be a corporeal Internet. Its purpose is to be an Internet you can attend. It’s a considerable challenge to plan them, but we felt confident that if we just tried to create the right context, the culture would manifest itself. And it did. And it does every year.”

With the new West coast venue filling up fast, could PAX spread? Holkins doesn’t discount the idea, though just one keeps them busy enough. But if there were ever to be an East Coast PAX, where would it be.

“Boston. We went to Boston – we were invited a few years ago, to speak at MIT, which makes no sense. They were so smart. We’re not that smart.” Say the guys who’ve made the final transition from commenting on games, to actually producing a game of their own. Holkins smiles, “I try not to think about it.”

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness launched in the Spring of 2008 as the first episode of four and features familiar Penny Arcade characters in an alternate 1930s filled with robots, mimes, the end of times, and a snarky narrator. While harkening back to old-school Japanese RPGs, the game is stuffed full of endless Penny Arcade-isms.

“Hopefully we’re making a game that’s worth playing, but in many ways it’s an inside joke. We were talking about this yesterday in the office – we really don’t have any Easter eggs yet. Because to a certain extent the entire game is an Easter egg for the long-time reader! The references and the characters… it’s all designed to amuse them. It’s a treat for them to enjoy.”

“It’s essentially a funny horror game. If you go to the HP Lovecraft Film Festival there is a lot of valid humorous interpretations of a setting that is about these unknowable, supremely potent animal forces of the universe and basically… I think there’s a lot of room to play around in that context. Horrible things are happening but the responses to it are normal responses. Normal responses that supremely jaded people would have to them.”

With three more episodes to go, a continuing schedule of comics (both for themselves and for various game publishers looking to promote their games with that special Penny Arcade spin), and always another convention around the corner, it’s hard to say what comes next. Jerry has a simpler take on the matter.

“We can’t manage time, or people or money, but we can create culture. That’s what we can do. That’s what the strip is – the creation and reinforcing of gamer culture.”