Thursday, September 04, 2008

From the vault: Penny Arcade

Note: This review originally appeared in issue #276 of the Comics Journal.

Penny Arcade: Attack of the Bacon Robots!
By Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik
Dark Horse Comics

In the world of Webcomics, Penny Arcade is the shining city on a hill. How many aspiring cartoonists, online or off, can boast the sort of devoted following that writer Jerry Holkins and artist Mike Krahulik have been able to garner? How many Webcomics not only are financially viable but can boast 2 million visitors in one day? How many strips are popular enough to create their own three-day festival that attracts upwards of 9,000 people? Not to mention a yearly holiday charity drive that nets thousands of dollars in toys and other materials for children’s hospitals across the U.S.? I’m wracking my brains and PA is the only strip that has the same sort of devoted following.

A good deal of the strip’s popularity is due to their laser-like focus on video games and the video game industry. As a sort of tri-weekly editorial cartoon of gaming culture, PA has attracted a number of people who are more interested in the specific content than the format. In other words, the gamer geeks who follow the strip for the funny references on “Metal Gear Solid” and Lionhead Studios aren’t necessarily interested in or even aware of “Acme Novelty Library,” much less “Bone.” That’s not true of every single PA fan of course, but I think it’s safe to say that most readers aren’t necessarily devotees of the art form.

Now, at what may be the peak of their popularity, Dark Horse has seen fit to collect a number of initial Penny Arcade strips into one, actual, physical, softbound book, “Attack of the Bacon Robots.” When first published in January, the book sold of its entire 30,000 print run in less than two weeks, again, testifying to the strip’s popularity.

Rather than attempt to cull through the years and compile a “best of” collection, Holkins and Krahulik decided instead to run the strip in chronological order, so that “Attack” (a title which has absolutely nothing to do with the contents inside by the way) covers the period from November 1998, when the strip started, to December 2000.

I’m not sure that was a very good idea, as the strips collected here fail on any number of levels to entertain. This is early, awkward work and not really representative of where the strip is now. If the reason for this book is so Luddites can discover what they’ve been missing, they may ultimately decide they haven’t been missing much.

For those of you not in the know, Penny Arcade deals with two main characters, Tycho and Gabe, who serve as stand-ins of sorts for Holkins and Krahulik (though they don’t look anything like their cartoon counterparts). There are a number of supporting players, including neighbors, wives, second bananas and an angry, alcoholic DIVX machine, but they serve mainly as window dressing or to offer a not-too subtle punchline. This is Tycho and Gabe’s show all the way.

In fact, there rarely is any sort of ongoing plot or continuity in Penny Arcade. Characters frequently die only to pop back up again a few weeks later. Tycho and Gabe are never really developed in any significant way beyond the two-dimensional wiseacres they were designed to be. This is strictly a “get in, get out, three panels and you’re done” comic strip, with nothing extraneous to get in the way of the humor. It’s not character-based like Scott Kurtz’s “PVP,” another popular game-themed strip is. Its sole job is to alternatively ridicule and laud various games and the people who make and play them.

Penny Arcade thrives on anger and antagonism. Violence is its central means of sustenence. Virtually every strip involves someone being maimed, beaten, injured or hurt in some fashion, if not outright killed. Threats are frequently thrown around like so many penny candies at a Fourth of July parade. There is no situation, no set up, and no punch line that isn’t enhanced with someone’s blood or pain. And when they aren’t, there’s lots of good-natured snark to go around.

Oftentimes this in-your-face hostility is quite funny, but it’s so frequent that as a reader I start to wonder if Holkins and Krahulik area just a wee bit defensive about their love for their particular hobby, so much so that they overcompensate in the strip by presenting a faux sort of manly aggression, complete with ironic distance.

The strip, as you may suspect, is entirely dependent upon your knowledge of video games, the more extensive the better. Never heard of Battle Arena Toshiden? Too bad for you. Even with extensive game knowledge, though, you might have trouble. I remember Chu Chu Rocket for the Dreamcast, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out exactly what the particular strip in “Bacon Robots” is trying to say.

Each strip in “Bacon Robots” comes with its own flavorful commentary from Holkins, further underscoring the point for me how much I hate strip collections with commentary from the author. In general these types of annotations are very useful, and Holkins’ is no exception. What I find astonishing is that he had a great opportunity to offer some insight on some of the more dated strips. A few sentences explaining what say, “Soul Reaver” was might have gone a long way to uncovering the humor in jokes that have long since passed their sell by date. But no, instead we get useless blather. A note to all strip cartoonists compiling their work into book form: unless you’re Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz or Gary Larson, let’s just avoid commenting on every single strip you ever made. Use the extra space to add more strips, lower the page count and drive the price of the book down, OK?

I’ve been quite harsh here in my assessment of the “Bacon Robots,” but the fact is, Penny Arcade is frequently quite funny, at least these days. As the cover art for the book suggests, they got a lot better. The strips signal to noise ratio is much higher now than it has ever been (though it’s still pretty low if you don’t follow video games). Much, much better, funnier material awaits future collections, which is where I would recommend most PA newbies go to slake their curiosity.

Or you could just go read it all online for free.


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