It seems like it’s been a billion years since I started reading Penny Arcade (well, closer to eleven, but whatever) and back in those days, it wasn’t Krahulik’s art that sold me, but Holkins’ writing. The way that they cleverly positioned Gabe (Krahulik’s alter-ego) and Tycho (Holkins’) on contemporary gaming issues – whether it was games that didn’t work out of the box or their crusades against IGN – always connected with me. In those eleven years since then, they acquired a business manager and turned their web comic about vidya gamin’ into a multi-media empire with books, web shows, and two massive gaming conventions each year. So my question is: why do Holkins and Krahulik stick to hunting such small game when they’re fully capable of tackling bigger beasts?
The Dial-up Days
I was introduced to the strip when I was still relatively new to the internet, trawling forums for content. One thread in particular on a Fallout 2 fan forum prodded everyone to post their favorite web comics, baring in mind that this was back in the dial-up era where said comics were usually small and compressed to oblivion. From first glance, I was hooked: the humor was smart and it didn’t feature a bunch of anime figures. Double win. I spent the next hour or so going through the backlog – a feat that took quite a bit longer when I introduced the comic to my friends in college a few years later – and I now felt like I was in on the ground floor.
As big a fan of gaming as I was, it didn’t really surprise me that it was hard to drag out the subject during dry periods when releases were hard to come by. It was during this time that rather than tool around with dramatic story arcs (like other, miserable comics have done), they set out to punch the throats of other industries entirely:
Entwined with their thrice-weekly comics were Holkins’ news posts – originally designed to fill a physical space on their web site that would implode unless filled with a plump amount of subject matter – which provided a backstory to the comics as well as an awareness to their “business” dealings. Back in those days, their news posts revolved around donations for the site (since they had no business model at that time) and accidentally selling their book rights to a guy who fled to Alaska before paying royalties. Holkins and Krahulik admit they nearly sold the company at several points. Enter Robert Khoo – a fresh-out-of-business-school manager who told the guys he’d work for free to prove to them he could turn their web comic into a business.
As the years progressed and Penny Arcade got its affairs in order, they began to realize their true potential. Initially under-selling the valuable ad space on their front page and pushing t-shirts based on tropes established within the comics, Khoo expanded the Penny Arcade brand to where it is now: a web comic behemoth with a dozen employees, an incredible charity and the aforementioned Penny Arcade Expos (PAX) that host over 120,000 gamers annually. Featured in last year’s Time 100, the duo have become an important facet of gaming culture.
This commercial and critical leverage also allowed the duo to pursue other dream projects: like their own video games. Canadian developer Hothead produced two of the “On The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness” downloadable adventure/role-playing games, but a mixture of lukewarm sales and Holkins’ reported massive workload in writing for the titles put any future installments on hold. Reading the comics, it became apparent that the creators were feeling some creative cageyness that working on three video game comic strips a week would do to anyone. Helping them out was the fact that Krahulik’s art got much better, which allowed them to execute on strange, new concepts – an early one chronicled the adventures of a samurai who brandished a cardboard tube (related to a previous comic in which the treasured tube was found in a dumpster):
In 2009, Krahulik and Holkins showcased several strip concepts and let readers decide which to expand on. That first winner was Automata, in which sentient robots – treated as second-class citizens – serve alongside detectives in a sci-fi/noir 1940s universe (a slice of the Automata comic is featured as the masthead for the article). It was a revelatory experience for readers, but I’m sure it it was also something grand and exciting for them as well, having spent over a decade developing their alter-egos and their extended families.
Why Stop Here?
Even if you haven’t read the comic for eleven years, you get the dripping hint that Holkins and Krahulik are meant for so much more than a web comic about video games published 156 times a year. The duo have admitted that they’ll produce the strip until they stop, which almost happened mid-production several times over the years. There is no doubt in my mind that these guys have a galaxy of ideas and characters they’re chomping at the bit to expand on, but it seems as though their day jobs – their prized, golden geese- are holding them back. What if we could see more Automata or Lookouts on a regular basis? And not just in a comic form, but as an animated series? What’s the harm in out-sourcing production and writing? I’m sure the Penny Arcade guys are fiercely protective of their intellectual property, but virtually all creative endeavors are based on detached working relationships. I’m not sure what their business model looks like, but I know it’s expensive to build in-house production like that.
Even as I still read the strip every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I can’t help but think that even with cameras trained on them for their reality show, an established brand allowing them to reach for the stars, and a sea of potential before them, Holkins and Krahulik are in a Ferrari stuck in first gear, casually waving to the fans.