A little over a year ago, shortly before I began this blog, I made a post to my personal blog on the topic of Penny Arcade. The post, titled "The Adventures of the Irrelevant Webcomic Critic," was in a way a precursor to this blog--about that time, I was realizing that if I read so many webcomics, I might as well talk about them with the internet. Here's a slightly-edited excerpt from that post: edited because, well, I am a better writer now.
Lately, Penny Arcade has been falling flat for me. Some of the recent strips have been good--like the one about the crystallized demon blood in the guy's refrigerator--but a lot of them I have just not found funny. The other day I was asking myself why, because I really want to like PA, every time, if at all possible.
Some of Penny Arcade's funniest and most compelling work, I realized, revolves around the concept of shame, particularly characters' perceptions of merited and unmerited shame. Consider the following comic, in which Tycho is reluctant to share the content of the user-targeted in-game advertising he is seeing: even while laughing, the reader can almost feel his discomfort sympathetically. Here's another one, where Tycho has forgotten his embarrassment and gets far too enthusiastic about the erotic possibilities of science-fiction extraterrestrial encounters. Gabe often doesn't know when it's appropriate to feel or display shame: for example, here. Or here. He is far too open about his endeavors! And that's funny.
But within the past month or so, deep though it may be, that well of shame has scarcely been tapped. The last place we really saw situational humor of this sort, relying on characters' differing expectations of what should and should not be was this comic. Now, Penny Arcade has a rich and diverse past of jokes, and they need not rely on shame to create quality material. For example: they're typically excellent satirists. However, Samus kicking Pikachu in the face is simply less robust as a comedic concept than Gabe's obliviousness to his own social dysfunction.
Lately I've been thinking about Penny Arcade again, for a variety of reasons. I figured I'd dig out that old post because at the time, I thought the path to a better and funnier Penny Arcade was paved with further explorations of shame. But then they busted out of the slump with the whole Deep Crow thing, and while their current work isn't the best they've ever done, it's decidedly stronger than a year ago. And lately I've realized: Penny Arcade doesn't have to be funny all the time in order to be good.
Penny Arcade provides more than just humor. As I've mentioned before, their take-no-crap attitude brings much-needed accountability to the game industry, whether it's through satirical invectives or celebration of genuinely awesome games. They're not beholden to game companies, retailers, or advertisers. They're not even beholden to their readers, in the sense that Krahulik and Holkins are free to experiment with off-the-wall not-even-gaming-related things like Twisp and Catsby or the Cardboard Tube Samurai.
And I guess that's where they're taking things these days: somewhere new. Krahulik's art has been taking new directions, shedding a bit of its Stephen-Silver influence for a more painterly approach to coloring. Also, with concepts like Lookouts and Automata, and projects like the Penny Arcade Adventures computer games, the two are expanding beyond continuity-optional humor into original storytelling. And if nothing else, the sorts of stories they're telling are at least original.
In short, I'm not sure what the future holds for Penny Arcade, but they do seem to be making better comics as of late, and hopefully the trend will continue. Suffice it to say that while a year ago I was considering taking them off my list of regulars, I'm much more interested now in following what they're up to.
(This post has been brought to you by Google and The Penny Arcade Wiki)