Wishing "Penny Arcade" Happy Birthday with Tycho, Part 2

Tue, December 18th, 2007 at 12:00am PST | Updated: May 27th, 2008 at 9:02am

Comic Books
Jonathan Callan, Contributing Writer

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"Penny Arcade," arguably the most popular web-comic in history, just turned nine years old last month. It's been a good year for the comic, too, between the publication of the long-awaited collections of their work such as "The War Sun Prophecies" and "Birds Are Weird" and the upcoming first installment of their gothic RPG horror comedy "On The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness." CBR sat down with one half of the infamous duo, Jerry Holkins (popularly known as "Tycho"), to discuss the "physics" of PA's humor, its most famous trials and tribulations and where the strip had ended up nine years from when it was started.

For part one of this interview, click here.

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The style of "Penny Arcade" is really unique. While others like "PVP" might lean toward a style influenced by the syndicates " simple set up, punch line, etc. PA's three panel grid is often set up with multiple punch-lines and a denouement ,for lack of a better term. The only other syndicated strip I can think of that did this was "Calvin and Hobbes." What strips did you read growing up?

Like newspaper comics? Well, as a young person it was definitely "Peanuts" and "Farside." I felt like Larson really understood where I was coming from. But you're quite right. In the years leading up to "Penny Arcade," both Mike and I worshipped Bill Waterson. He would have four or five or six panels and then on Sunday he'd just go completely crazy. In other words, he put a lot more real estate to use. He was just tremendously gifted.

I especially see the influence when you eschew the punch-line entirely. Does that comedic instinct comes from Bill Waterson's influence?

You may be right. I can't perceive that structure in a way an outsider might be able to. Probably because I would never be able to do it with a straight face. I would never compare myself to Bill Waterson. At the same time, I think we may have been influenced by that sense of timing, but the main reason is that for us there's a golden… ideal of a comic. The big jokes, the really funny parts of a comic, are in the middle of it. They're in the second panel, right smack dab in the middle and we don't feel we have to leave the reader with that. We're trying to make a good entire comic, we're not trying to make a good punch-line.

I think also we feel like the punch-line is not a conclusion. We want to have content in that second panel that's bizarre or unique in some way, but we also feel that it's really important that you need to resolve the comic in some way. You really need the punch-line true, but you can't put the conflict out there and have that be it. It needs to be resolved in some way, even if it's a somewhat unsatisfactory resolution as is so often the case in real life. We feel like that's the job of the… denouement is exactly the right word. The job of that third panel is to return the reader to their [the characters'] normal life.

"Penny Arcade," despite its best intentions, has had a lot of feuds over the years: Jack Thompson, Scott McCloud over "the infinite canvass" and "micro payments," Harlan Ellison, American Greetings, and a joke rivalry with Scott Kurtz.

True, but I think those are largely over.

You're friends with Scott McCloud now aren't you?

Oh yeah. I see him every year at the Comic-Con International in San Diego. We have genuine experiences there.

PA actually got a shout-out in McCloud's "Making Comics."

I didn't know that. That's great.

Regardless, if you guys were at fault in these feuds, you guys did never shy away from the fight. The Jack Thompson t-shirts, portraying American Greeting Cards as Nazis, etc. Do you guys enjoy rolling up your sleeves on behalf of gamers and fans or do you just see it as a natural outgrowth of the irreverent way you see the world?

"Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness" video game coming in 2008
We have a hard time with authority that we feel is arbitrary. A lot of times if we don't understand something, like with the American Greeting Cards controversy [PA faced legal troubles over a portrayal of Strawberry Short Cake that poked fun at American McGee's Alice], I mean yes, we did something that was naughty which was the whole purpose of it, but we were sort of surprised to find that that was not legal. And I mean that was ridiculous for us, we were obviously just na�ve. We didn't have experience with that. But I tried to imagine the real lasting harm that we could possibly inflict on a gigantic corporation.

You also had the fight over your publication rights. For a while it must have seemed like one court battle after another.

[Sighs] Yeah. Yeah. We have a hard time... taking our medicine I guess. We aren't really well-suited to civilized discourse.

But that made for some amazing strips. The American Greetings Nazi strip is one of my favorites.

I like it because it has the false punch-lines in it. That strip has that ratio I was talking about. It has a full arc. I mean, the idea for us is that it starts in the lower left corner of the humor graph and slowly builds throughout. We have introductions, conflict and resolutions, but all within a very fixed space.

Again, the middle panel is the funniest.

You might think of it as like the physics of humor. That might be a good way of putting it, actually. That middle creates something that must be answered. Even if it isn't at the same level as the rest of the strip, time is still continuing and it must be resolved. The third panel shows the completion of the thing.

I find it interesting. Half-pixel just started a series on how to make a web-comic and one of Scott Kurtz's pieces of advice was "make your punch-line and get out," but your method is quite different.

Screen caps from "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness."
Yeah, well, I'm just going to keep my mouth shut on that one. Creating humor is an extremely idiosyncratic process. And I'm not sure that there is anything more than a very loose guide to it. I'm not sure that one can create a topographical map of it.

The Harlan Ellison feud was interesting. Your other feuds have often been with very web-oriented personalities. Ellison is a self-proclaimed luddite. So the web-brawl that emerged between your fans was strange to say the least. I remember a lot of wiki-wars for instance.

Yeah, yeah. He made a poor choice. This is the reality. I'm a huge Harlan Ellison fan and so I took the opportunity to meet him as an honor. And I did not expect him to be so churlish as to try to insult us in front of people we didn't know. It was very weird. Like I actually had my copy of the "Glass Teat" with me for signing purposes. Fiction is another thing altogether, but when it comes to commentary I think there can be no doubt that he and I plow the same ground.

I can certainly see that. Your news posts and his essay writing are very…

They're identical! And I'm simply doing what he did today, in today's medium. He either perceived that and was hostile towards it or didn't perceive it and was foolish. Frankly, I don't really care. I found the entire thing very disappointing to be honest.

"One should never meet a man whose work one admires. The man is always so much less than the work." But it's not surprising in his case. He has a reputation to be sure.

Screen caps from "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness."
Exactly. Just like us. We're the same. Doing the same thing. It's just… [sigh] It was tawdry. [Us meeting], it could have been very interesting. He and I could have just said weird words to each other for five hours. And it would have been incredible.

About your news posts, while we're on the subject. We've talked about how the strips changed. Would you say the news posts have remained more or less consistent over the last near decade? And do you think the news posts are an essential part of the strip? There's that reputation that you need one to understand the other.

Yeah, I guess that reputation is out there. We always think of that characterization as funny because, by and large, if you follow gaming news you don't really need much in terms of context. The first or second paragraph tops are what you're going to need for the strip. And I mean that's essentially a politeness, you know? [If you like games] you should know this. But basically, we see them as being the same thing. We see them as taken together in a sort of gravy and mashed potatoes setting.

So many people are like "oh, you have to read one to get the other." Yes, that's true. You're quite right. I suppose you want a sticker or something? That is the intention. That you read the entire site. Obviously, you don't have to. I'm not going to make you. But they're supposed to be taken together. As much as they're one, I think that there are plenty of people who read the strip and not the post and I'm okay with that. I know for a fact that I'm an acquired taste.

Screen caps from "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness."
PAX (The Penny Arcade Expo) and Child's Play (Penny Arcade's charity devoted to getting video games and peripherals to children's hospitals) are both accomplishments to be proud of. Do you enjoy the way the strip has gone from just a venue for slacker comedy to an instrument for positive change?

Well, I guess " yes. And also as a sort of community. Similar to the meeting stones they have in WOW [World of Warcraft], I think of PAX as filling a similar role in real space. Just having that sort of aegis to gather beneath I think is really nice. But obviously for Child's Play we started it because we knew it was the right thing to do, but I don't think we had any idea how important it was.

So in a lot of ways you guys have entered a new era of your lives: kids, your book collections, the new game "On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness." Is this a new day for "Penny Arcade?"

I don't know. Is it?

Thanks for your time, Tycho. It was a pleasure.

CBR wishes a very happy birthday to "Penny Arcade" and keep an eye out for their new book at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2008, "The Case of the Mummy's Gold," and the first installment of their new game "On The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness" due out later this month.

TAGS:  penny arcade, tycho, web comics

 
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