Friday, May 11, 2007

Blast from the Past: An unpublished interview with Penny Arcade

When I first started reading it, I bookmarked the comic page of Penny Arcade and rarely bothered to read the news post because most of the time, the news post was about things that I really didn't care about or know anything about.

However, over the years, even though the comic is pretty much uploaded in the morning when I read all my webcomics, I'll visit the site twice: first in the morning to see the comics, and later in the afternoon to read the blog entries from Tycho (and Gabe, if he chooses to post).

You may not care about this, but that's just one more sign to me of how I've evolved as a gamer. I may not read all the gaming magazines and webzines (and believe me, I'll get to the print magazines another time), but I do click on pretty much all of the links in a Tycho rant/ramble because I want to know what they're talking about and why.

As a girly gamer, I want to read about games I'll probably never play because I want to know if it's worth it for me to eventually play them. I'm a little upset that they've never covered Shining Force: EXA because that's my current RPG gaming obsession--and the main reason why I started this blog--but I understand now why they don't cover certain games or issues now that they've started doing the podcasts.

That's inner knowledge I didn't have when I conducted this unfinished interview with them, originally intended to be published in Sequential Tart way back in 2004.

Gabe & Tycho: Hanging Out at the Penny Arcade
by Trisha L. Sebastian

I have a confession to make:

I am not a die-hard gamer, I am a woman, and I love Penny Arcade.

What's not to love? Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I faithfully check in on the antics of Tycho and Gabe (a.k.a. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, respectively) who skewer the best and the worst things about the computer and console gaming world with an irreverance that borders on the BLANK [couldn't find the right word, was hoping it would come to me later rather than re-write the sentence] while making fun of themselves and their kind. Every day, I learn something new about circles and fandoms I don't move in while giggling madly at their often profane and very violent rantings.

At the same time, the two have mastered the art of making money at doing webcomics while starting an entirely new genre of comic strip, brought an everyman's eye to the multi-million dollar industry and have even harnessed the power of the people to raise money for a worthwhile cause.

So when I heard that Tycho and Gabe were going to be at UberCon in Secaucus, N.J. this past February, I jumped at the chance to interview them for Sequential Tart. I cornered them abour an hour before the dealer's room opened and shamelessly monopolized Jerry Holkins' time for an hour after the room opened while Mike Krahulik sketched for an endless number of fans.

Because after all, BLANK [I have a hard time coming up with ending sentences to blurbs or stories].

ST: How did you guys come up with the idea of Penny Arcade?

JH: We really didn't come up with the idea. I'd hate to take credit for it. We entered a contest that a really famous and respected video game magazine was holding on its website, Next Maybe they were looking for somebody eventually for their magazine or they just wanted more content for the site but it wasn't even us together at that point. We were living together [and] Mike had done some test comics for them, and after that, it seemed like something really fun to do. We'd been working on different comics but they never really came out, like we were never really able to finish them. And it was perfect, it never occurred to us that we needed to work with a smaller format. We just thought of ourselves as failures, I think. Is that about right?

MK: Pretty much, yeah.

JH: So eventually I wrote a couple [strips] and he was kind enough to draw them. And then they told us not to send anymore. They'd had quite enough of our unique sense of humor.

ST: And what year was this?

JH: That would have been 1998.

ST: How long had you guys been friends and roommates?

MK: Roommates since ... 1994

ST: In college, or ... ?

JH: None of us really went to a regular human college.

MK: Not really.

JH: We met in journalism class and we actually had a small post-apocalyptic adventure comic I think ...

ST: What was it called?

JH: It was called David and Goliath.

ST: So how many PA strips had you done before they told you not to send anymore?

JH: Five? So we were like, "Somebody should probably see them." I mean, we went through the trouble of making them. So we went to other gaming websites that were big at the time. Some of them aren't as big now. Eventually we settled on one called Looney Games which was like a gaming 'zine which we presumed would be bohemian enough to really investigate some of the more racy themes we wanted to touch on. We were quite wrong about that. [The editors] would constantly interfere with what we were trying to do, which was add the f-word to every strip. As you can see we no longer have that level of editorial control.

ST: On average, how many times have you used the word "fuck" in your comic?

JH: My goodness.

MK: We don't really know.

JH: We use it whenever it needs to be used. That is the way we speak. It's that the strip and the post, to a slightly lesser extent, mimic our speech.

ST: I remember one of the comics and/or one of the rants mentioning how you basically take conversations you have and present them in comic form.

JH: Yes, that's true.

ST: How much time does it take you to come up with the next comic?

JH: It varies greatly. Like sometimes the conversation that becomes the comic is multiple hours in the making. Sometimes we're discussing something of import or interest to us that eventually takes on that shape or it gives us a rough outline or it gives us some punchline or something like that. And we need to craft something around that. But it varies so widely that it's not even worth trying to estimate it. Like sometimes it's instantaneous. Sometimes one of us will have an idea already and we'll enjoy it a lot and we'll say, "Well, we need to make a comic out of that." So I guess [the answer is] zero moments in some cases. And then other cases, it's just torment.

ST: What do you think accounts for the popularity of Penny Arcade?

JH: I think that we update when we say we will and we've been doing it for a long time.

MK: I think updating on time is a big thing. People know they'll get a comic when they come on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

JH: Yeah. You'll note that neither of those two things that I've said is because it's awesome. I think that we do good work. I think that we've had some really funny comics, and I don't think that we're the best comic online or anything like that. I think that people can depend on us to satisfy the requirements of the relationship that writers and readers are supposed to have.

ST: You mentioned you were in journalism school ...

JH: No, not journalism school, this is journalism class. [Laughs]

ST: In high school? Oh, okay. [Laughs]

MK: It's not journalism school -- trust me on that.

ST: This is an art question for Mike. It's amazing looking at the strips from 1998 and seeing them now. Tell me about the evolution of the Penny Arcade style. How did you move from one style to the other?

MK: When we first started Penny Arcade, I was coming off of BLANK [one of those thing I needed clarification on] to actual comic book art, so I didn't consider myself a cartoonist, necessarily. My style was pretty much a combination of everyone that I liked at the time in comics [like] Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Mark Silvestri, all those guys. And it wasn't until I'd done Penny Arcade for maybe a year that I really started getting interested in comic art and animation. Eventually what I tried to do is use my interest in animation into the artwork I was doing for Penny Arcade. I wanted it to look like still frames from an animated cartoon. And that's still something that I'm [doing]. If you look at it today, it pretty much looks like cels. It's got these thick black outlines, the characters are in sets that you might find in a cartoon.

ST: Is that something you've been toying with? Doing the strip as an animated series?

MK: Absolutely, yeah.

JH: I think eventually we probably will when the deal is right, when we have the right amount of control over it.

ST: Obviously, you guys have been down this path.

JH: We were working with a guy and he certainly had the best of intentions and we appreciate him asking us to work on a pilot. But when we write a scene for you and you send it back to us, only you've taken out all the jokes and put in your own stupid crap, we're probably not going to work with you again. And that's what happened the first time, and we decided we weren't interested in that. Like, we have an idea for a show, a real idea for a show -- we don't need your ideas for the show, we already it ... So unless you want to do a Penny Arcade show that ... you know what I'm saying? [Chuckles] We don't mean to sound imperious but it's sort of ours, so you don't get to make those kinds of decisions.

ST: And you know what's best.

JH: Well, for Penny Arcade!

ST: You mentioned this yesterday at the webcomics panel, but I think that Penny Arcade is unusual in that not only do fans read it, people in the gaming industry read it. Tell me more about that.

MK: We've been really lucky in that it's been well received by people who are actually making the video games we like to play.

JH: Even when we're mean!

MK: Yeah, they seem to take it really well.

ST: What's the best and worst reaction you've gotten from a company regarding your comic?

JH: We've been included in a couple games, or certainly elements from our comic has been included in a couple games.

ST: Can you give me an example?

JH: They say they didn't mean to do it for Penny Arcade, but certainly it's a Penny Arcade element so we like it anyway. In Legacy of Kain there's the Cardboard Tube Reaver mode. That was pretty cool.

MK: There's BLANK STARFIGHTER [another thing I needed clarified], the code to unlock everything is "penny arcade".

ST: What's been the worst reaction from a video game company?

JH: From a videogame company? We don't really get bad reactions now. I think they're smart enough to know that it would be really bad PR to get pissed off at us.

MK: Yeah, it would be really bad PR to get pissed off at a comic strip.

JH: Right. You know what I'm saying? It just doesn't merit -- I mean, many people read it and enjoy it or don't enjoy it, but it really doesn't merit a response by and large. I mean, sometimes we may get some nasty email or something like that, but that's hardly worth mentioning in the context of the other emails.

ST: Considering your standing in the webcomic industry -- because I personally think you guys are one of the key touchstones because it's such a wonderful success story for you guys being able to do this as your fulltime job --

JH: Yeah, you were there at the [webcomics panel] ... There were two other people who were doing it fulltime. They spent their entire moment trying to play down the fact? And it's like ... it's not ... [Long pause] It isn't uncool to be able to do what you love; that's not something you need to play down. I don't understand that.

I guess "success" ... I guess that's sort of uncool because then you're like a "sellout," a "poser." I'm ready for that [pause] hipster bullshit to go by the wayside. It's actually perfectly satisfactory. I think that Penny Arcade pretty much proves that you can do what you want and stay true to the way that you want to do things, and you can still garner traffic and you can still make it work.

ST: As a member of the comics community (something that we talked about at the webcomics panel), do you feel a responsibility towards that community at all?

JH: I think that we're reviled by many people in the webcomics community.

ST: Why?

JH: I think because they say that they revile us.

ST: [Laughs]

JH: They mail us and tell us they don't like us.

MK: Right.

JH: You don't understand, this all uncommon. When we came out -- Like now, there's thousands of webcomics. But when we came out, there was like ... four. PvP, User Friendly, I think BLANK TOWN [yet another thing I needed clarification on] was doing some stuff already and Sluggy Freelance. Those were the ones that I know about anyway. Our third or fourth comic was a comic ripping on User Friendly. You have to do it. It's just a part of making your comic. You have to come out and do that kind of stuff. And so when I see people doing it to us -- as strange as that is -- [there's] no problem. I understand. And I know why they do that.

ST: I wanted to ask this yesterday and I didn't know the best way to put it. You're obviously gamers and now you create comic strips. Have you ever wanted to jump into regular print comics?

JH: Oh, you mean like books?

ST: Yeah.

JH: Sort of. I mean, comics books ... I didn't grow up reading comic books, and so for me comic books ... I do not see comic books as some end point. Like, I have a trajectory and it's like, "Oh, when I'm actually successful then you have the comic book." Like that's how it happens. That is the recognition. Like being "Spotted." I've heard friends of mine that are currently on Keenspace who talk about being "Spotted." And that's just ... I just --

My goal is actually to make comics, so we were succeeding when we uploaded the first .gif. That's actually my goal. The rest of this stuff is sort of ancillary to that.

ST: Jerry, what are your comedic influences or your writing influences when it comes to writing the strips?

JH: I like Kevin Smith.

MK: Yeah.

JH: [He's] not really a conscious influence, but just the idea that friends spend hours talking about this sort of thing. Certainly you can say that's drawn from Kevin Smith, but I'm sure Kevin Smith did it because people do that. Singular interests start to take over.

ST: Art-wise, what would you say your influences are?

MK: Art-wise, my biggest influence is an artist named Stephen Silver. The Clerks animated series was the first thing I saw of his and then after that he did Kim Possible.

ST: What are your favorite comics right now?

JH: Oh, well right now, [Mike] actually brought a bunch of them in and they were great. Like we just read the first trade of Invincible, Wanted -- In fact he was drawing a picture [from that]. I mean, that's really, really good. I'm not sure why it took so long to make this gritty comic that focuses entirely on what would be the antagonist in any other book. I love Powers ...

MK: Fantastic Four.

JH: Fantastic Four is great.

MK: The new Punisher ... fantastic.

ST: So are you Marvel fans or DC fans? Or do you not care?

JH: We just like to read whatever is cool. I mean that is probably a reality for comic readers that spend more time with that medium. But for people who are essentially coming in after a hiatus, we just don't differentiate. We don't have those kinds of allegiances built up. Now if you want to bring us over into gaming or something like that ... !

ST: That's one of my next questions: what are you playing right now?


ST: What is your "guilty pleasure" game? As in, you're afraid to admit that you like this game.

JH: I had kind of a Magic: Online phase. I mean, it's one thing ... Over there [in Japan] you have Star Chamber. That's an online card game that you can only play online. Then over here, there is Chron X which is another online card game. [But] you can actually play Magic in the real world, like you don't need to buy these imaginary cards that do it. And eventually it got so ridiculous and I had to stop doing it.

ST: What about you?

MK: Lost Kingdoms was the last game I was embarassed to tell people I was playing. Well ...

JH: It made you feel bad.

MK: Not that it was a bad game. I loved it.

ST: What did you love about that game?

MK: It was the first collectible card-style game that I ever got into. I never played Magic, and I don't do anything like that, so the whole collectible card game was new to me. I think that was part of it.

ST: One of the recent strips that had continuity was where Tycho brought Gabe to a role-playing game. Jerry, how long have you been an RPG fan?

JH: Forever. You have to understand that I would have been an RPG fan for even longer, but I had to find a role-playing game that would not activate my mother's really intense religious prejudice. Obviously, D&D's not going to work. Many of them are these dark, gothic affairs that incorporate demons, ghosts and so forth. So what had to happen was Palladium kicked out their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and so for years we played TMNT, and then eventually, we said, "We'll play it in secret." It all started when I was 13.

ST: So, I'm a woman and Sequential Tart is obviously a 'zine staffed by women. Do you think you have a responsibility towards the women who read your comic?

JH: No. But understand that we don't think we have a responsibility to a reader as a sort of theoretical entity. We believe our responsibility to our readers is to make the best comic strip we can make, according to our own specifications. Not to be insulting, but we actually have a comic concept that we want to make and enjoy making.

We don't actually target the comic. The comic tends to hit with people who game a lot, right? But that's not a choice of target. It just happens to be the people that we are and that's the way the comic manifests itself. Sometimes I'm not sure there's anything specific to the female experience of the comics. It's very rare ... Sometimes we'll incorporate our wives as foils; that's because we're intimidated by them, they're a lot smarter than we are.

ST: What was the reaction from your girlfriends (and later wives) when you brought them into the comic?

JH: It depends on what we're doing to them.

ST: [Laughs]

JH: Most of the time, it's alright. Sometimes [it's] a new character design for them ...

MK: It took me a while to [do that] ...

ST: I was going to say that while your characters have stayed the same, the girls have gone through so many different design changes. What accounts for that?

JH: But the guys haven't stayed the same. If you go all the way back from the beginning, their shapes have changed a lot. The reason the girls' changes are so obvious is you only see them once every two months, max. His style is still developing in a linear fashion, so the sample points when the girls come in are so diverse that you really notice the difference in the way that [Mike] thinks in an aesthetic sense [and] those things pop up.

Do you think that we should actively be courting the [female audience]?

ST: Not at all.

JH: 'Cause I'm curious about that.

ST: I like you just the way you are.

JH: Awww. That's sweet.

ST: I do! A lot of the times, though ... I remember it was the PvP comic where Francis had posted a comic strip, and then he put up the pages of text in order to understand the comic. I'm like that. I read the comic first, and then I read the rants to find out what the hell you guys are talking about.

JH: Sure.

ST: And from a female point of view, it is intimidating to review your strip because again, you don't understand what's going on ...

JH: [Laughs]

ST: I'm a casual gamer, I'm a button masher. But again, I learn so much about the gaming industry by reading your strip. So, for a new reader (and this was the question I wanted to ask last night at the webcomics panel, but we ran out of time), for someone who's never read Penny Arcade before and wants to understand what you're all about, what do you think the best jumping off point is and why? What's the most accessible to a new reader?

JH: That would be a pretty daunting task. We don't have continuity as such, but certainly we have elements that carry sometimes from one strip to another, so we have a sort of quasi-continuity. But ... that would be a very daunting task. It's hard for me to put myself in the mind of a person who's trying to come at it for the first time, because we're so intimately involved with it. But yeah ... God ... they have a long road to hoe. That would be very difficult for them, I'm afraid.

I guess they could start from the beginning, but in the beginning there really weren't news posts. You know what I'm saying? We were running [the strip] somewhere else; we really didn't have a news post portion.

You say that you read the comic and then you read the posts. Internally, we don't distinguish those two things.

ST: Because you basically create both at the same time?

JH: That's true. They're both being produced at the same time. Typically, the post itself is inspired by the strip. For us, that distinction seems arbitrary. You know they're on separate pages, but they're certainly on the same site. It isn't confusing on purpose. It isn't a hostile act. But now that you say it, it does seem impenetrable.

This is sort of why I don't see comic books as an end point. It is perfectly satisfying what we do [putting] video game comics on the web. Because you don't have to make comics that everybody likes. You don't have to do things that people are going to enjoy. If somebody doesn't get it, that's okay. It's hard to say. It's not as if they'll want for comic strips.


I never finished this for a few reasons:

  1. I needed clarification on those blank spots, and after sending a few emails to both Jerry and Robert Khoo without response, I gave up. Not a good trait for a journalist.
  2. I hate transcription with the heat of a thousand burning suns. How the hell do secretaries manage to do that?
  3. I had just been fired from Anime Insider and was trying to find a job that would let me stay in New York City. Job hunting in this city is one of the most soul-degrading things a person can go through, and I was on a timeline.
  4. I think I was also working on the Wil Wheaton interview at the same time, and that one was coming along much easier.

In the end, I'd love to interview the guys again sometime because so many things have changed. They're making their own videogame, they've published print collections of their strips, opened up their own online store, collaborated with the industry on numerous projects (with many more that are too numerous to link), created their own charity organization, created their own freaking convention...

Jerry's absolutely right in that they have every right to be damn proud of what they managed to do for themselves in the last nine years since they first started posting comic strips online. I know that I can't say the same for myself, and for that I'm a little bit envious. I hope that in the next nine years, I'll have as much to say for myself.

Here's hoping.

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