Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Innocence lost: On Penny Arcade

Lets whip out the big guns, shall we? Penny Arcade is the brainchild of creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, most known as their cartoon personas, John Gabriel and Tycho Brahe, artist and writer, respectively. Penny Arcade is the outspoken, ruthless maniac lurking and grinning coyly in the dangerous streets of the Interwebs. Strange as it may seem, it is also the rich kid of the block. To my knowledge, of all the webcomics I read, this is the only one that employs a person to manage their revenue, so massive is it. It also holds a charity event called Child's Play every year, with outstanding results. So, why has it become such a huge success when others of their kin struggle just to be on time with their updates? Read on for your answers.

These are not your grandparent's funnies

Penny Arcade is not for the faint of heart. There's profanity and violence galore, and no punches are pulled. If some developer is pushing back the release of a certain game endlessly, if a publisher has earned the scorn of a mob of enraged gamers, you can count on Gabe and Tycho to thrash them accordingly. There's a lot of commentary on pop culture, clichès on the gaming world and, of course, the latest developments in the videogame industry.
This description may lead you to think that Penny Arcade is nothing more than mindless entertainment for the hordes of geeks scouring the Internet, in search of their next hit of videogame culture. And this could very well have been the case, were it not for the literary prowess of a certain Jerry Holkins. He manages to give the characters a unique voice, a soul, if you will, without making them stilted or wooden. While it is true that Tycho is much more prone to bouts of genius than Gabe ever is (he is the writer's alter ego, after all), he is just as likely to behave as an idiot as Gabe. None of them has been the butt of the joke more times than the other. To illustrate this, there is a sort of recurring gag that has them inflicting horrible violence upon each other for a pac-man watch. Not to mention the cast of secondary characters, impressive in its range: from Charles the Mac fan, to Frank the disgruntled war veteran and owner of a game store, not to forget Brahe's 8 year old niece Anne "Anarchy" and his on-again, off-again boyfriend. There's sparks of brilliance everytime some character speaks, and there's a stroke of genius in their interactions. A writer, even one with a talent as meandering as mine, must pay respect to that.

Brilliance in soup

However, all this does not make a comic strip as popular as theirs is. So, what's the real reason of their unequaled success? The answer, my friends, is in a madman's ramblings.
Enter carrot cake soup. Read. Now.
Tycho's pieces of writing (rants, in webcomic slang) are deliciously malicious, arrogantly insane. These may be the ramblings of a madman, but make no mistake, he is an astoundingly lucid madman. A madman whose insanity has beaten his mind so mercilessly that it has turned into a raging, pulsating ice cold diamond of reason. He serves us slices of his madness with some side dishes of witty banter, and we eat it up. And, oh, how we delight in it. They were the first to discover the formula "come for the comic, stay for the rants", and they are still the best.

Execution style

However, Penny Arcade is not entirely without fault. The complete lack of any sort of continuity between strips makes it lose a lot of the depth it may have had. However, it has the advantage of allowing you to start reading from any point in the archives and still enjoy most of the jokes. It is exactly the opposite experience to what other continuity-heavy strips like Achewood provide, and none is without its merits.
A final warning: Penny Arcade is not at its core a gaming comic, it is the gaming comic. Actually, come to think of it, you haven't played a game in your life? They don't want you there. Seriously, just close the window and walk out of the room, head hung in shame. At least, that's what they said.
In all seriousness, I'm not much of a gamer myself, but I find the strip, and specially the rants, so mesmerizing that I can't resist returning. However, I can understand why most people wouldn't find their twisted sense of humor palatable. My best advice? Try it, it may be your cup of tea, but don't force it upon yourself. Maybe, just maybe, it's not your thing.

Tomorrow: Under the shadow of the Behemoth: On PvP

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