Stickler and Hat-Trick review Gabe and Tycho’s Penny Arcade

Stickler and Hat-trick, in association with Comixpedia present…

Stickler and Hat-trick at the Keyboard

This week, they review PENNY ARCADE, created by Gabe and Tycho!

( Tonight's show is sponsored by Bigger than Lifeâ„¢ Prunes. Enhance the size of your after-dieting effects today with new and improved expanding prunes!)

Stickler: Welcome to a new year of At the Keyboard!
Hat-Trick: This week we're taking a look at one of the biggest and most successful webcomics out there, Penny Arcade, created by Tycho and Gabe, which updates on M-W-F schedule.
S: Well, let's just get this out of the way. PA is a great webcomic. When we were asked by Mr. Editor who lives under our couch to review Penny Arcade, I was a little nervous…
HT: We volunteered, dumbass. Thanks!

S: Indeed we did. Anywho, I thought to myself, "What can I say about Penny Arcade that hasn't already been talked about over the water cooler by thousands of fans or hyper-detailed discussions by resident webcomics historian, T Campbell? What is the point of critiquing something that is critique proof?"
HT: And what did you come up with?
S: That there is still some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for!
HT: You're a geek.
Editor-in-Chief: *popping out of the couch through the cushions* Sam rules! He's SOOO the hero of the trilogy!
HT:And you're a creepy geek.
S: So are you, Mr. I-own-the-entire-print-run-of-Youngblood.

HT: Ahem… It comes down to this: everyone that reads Penny Arcade has their own opinion about Penny Arcade. Anything we say right now will not change their opinion of what they think of it. So we can only do our best, and honestly review the comic as any other comic might be reviewed.
S: Oh thank god. I thought we had to like it.
HT: What?
S: I mean, Godzilla made money at the box office; it doesn't change the fact that it was craptastic.
HT: So, you… don't like Penny Arcade?
S: Oh, no, I like it fine. I just thought we were under pressure to like it.
EIC:No, you're just under pressure to like me.
S: I thought we were only under pressure to let you sleep under our couch 'cause you slipped that clause in our contracts?
EIC: That, too.
HT: Umm… yeah. Anyway, a little over five years ago, Penny Arcade started putting up strips not unlike many webcomics that exist today. Two crass, video-game playing guys making jokes about said video games, or the people who make them, or about how much they love them. The difference is, when Penny Arcade started, there were no other comics like it.
EIC: True, that. While there were other webcomics out there (though not many) , and a webcomic like User-Friendly was a techie strip that occasionally made jokes about games and gaming, PA was certainly the first webcomic to really focus on video games and gaming proper.

S: Kinda makes you wonder, with the quality of strips it had in the beginning, how it would do if it came out today?
HT: Well, that's a big IF. I mean, someone had to set a standard high for the countless gamer webcomics to reach towards. If PA never existed, another gaming strip would have been hailed as groundbreaking, and there would have been copycats of that. Despite some weaknesses in its first year or so, Penny Arcade was in the right place at the right time.
S: Please elaborate on said weaknesses…
HT: Okay. Gabe's art, while in full color, lacked any kind of engaging dynamics that made things really interesting to look at. The static characters just stood or sat around seemed to exist only to give Tycho's jokes a medium to present themselves. Often, repeating panels only had subtle (if any) changes. The same artwork might be used again in a later strip. While there were occasional gems of hope that showed that Gabe had extrordinary talent, the majority of the early strips become distracting in their simplicity. In fact for the first year or so, the characters seemed to exist in gradient land with little or no backgrounds. This was clearly a time when the artist was still searching for a style the worked for Penny Arcade.
S: I can see you did your research.

HT: Tycho's writing in the first year was stronger than Gabe's artwork, but not by much. It was using jokes that walked the line between obvious or too inside-joke-ish for people to care.
HT: Too many of the strips fall back on old standards of making fun of a character's sanity, bizarre happenings at the computer, or causing pain to someone.
S: I'd like to add that the early strips sometimes had text that was hard to read.
EIC: You can read? Did I ask for that in the contract?
S: Uh, yeah, boss. Right under "must be able to respond to stupid questions without flinching."
EIC: Ah, good. Carry on, then.

HT: Let's remember, guys, that we are comparing these minor problems to the standards set today by the medium's exceptional webcomics, including Penny Arcade itself. To see that Penny Arcade learned from its mistakes and has a sense of humor about it makes it all the more exceptional.
S: So, there were some weak strips in the beginning, but things got better.
HT: Much. The thing that makes the strip worth reading, and one of the best webcomics out there, is that readers can relate to what Gabe and Tycho are talking about.
S: And it's not just gamers, either – people who know nothing about video games can find the jokes hilarious because they either know someone who thinks like these characters, or they can find humor in the humanity of the situation.
HT: It's funny how even though there is rarely any continuity in the strip, the relationships and dynamics of the characters continue to build, and a lot of that is the readers getting used to the attitudes of Gabe and Tycho and the way they think. Gamer shoptalk often results in conflict of interest. At first it was alienating to those out of the loop, but later it becomes quirky and accepted by incorporating punch lines that anyone can enjoy. We learned that the girlfriends have a lot of control over their men. And we see more senseless violence that becomes hilarious in its familiarity. They even occasionally include a bit of meta-humor, as they make fun of their own dialogue format, or the downside of selling out for self-preservation.

S: We should point out that another strength the comic has is its ability to make fun of anything or anyone. Some of the most successful strips involve Gabe and Tycho being intensely harsh on something or someone, and because it's obvious how much they enjoy this, the strip sells itself.
HT: Their attitude is "we don't care what you think, because we know we are right."
S: Yeah, a lot of strips I found myself not knowing anything about the topic they were ripping on, but completely agreeing with their opinion. Sarcasm is very persuasive.
EIC: Well, I have my own opinions on that – I'm not always convinced that straight-out trashing or sarcasm makes for a decent argument. Still, when it's obvious that they are deliberately going over the top, it makes it much more palatable. It shows that they are not being THAT serious with the slam, while their actual points can still be taken seriously.
HT: Yeah, just like we think you're the greatest editor in the world.
EIC: Really? Wow, I'm touched…
HT: No, no, that was sarc— oh, never mind.

S: Instead of just sticking to video games and computer jokes which appeal to a specific audience, Penny Arcade has opened its sights to shoot down many sitting ducks. Among the targets: Santa, Jesus, Harry Knowles, game review sites, rappers, video game movies, iPods, greeting card companies, even (uh-oh) critiques. Combined with the witty cynicism of Tycho's news posts, all of these "attacks" add to the appeal of the strip. Because let's face it, many times, they are saying the things that everyone else are afraid of saying. More importantly, they back up their facts in the newsposts, and they know what they are talking about.
EIC Now *this* I totally approve of. Backing up arguments, even if it started out as a slam or a trashing.
HT: While the range of targets, and topics, has widened as the strip progressed, so too has the personality of the characters. We've learned that Tycho has to have his rants every once in a while. We know that Gabe really likes his Star Wars. We empathize, sympathize, take recommendations, take offence, philosophize, and learn valuable lessons. It's also accepted that sometimes, they don't know what to talk about. All of this works because they execute each topic with confidence and style that demands respect.

S: The supporting characters have also become more of a factor in PA's humor, fleshing out the attitude of the strip. The cleverest is Chuck/Charles, an Apple fan, who serves an equal foil to Gabe and Tycho. Although they manage to downplay the Mac quite often, sometimes Gabe can't help himself.
HT: My favorite reoccurring "bad guy" of the strip is Frank, who defines the menacing task master of the idiots that work at the Software Etc..
S: I'd have to go with Div, a divx player, who redeems his mediocrity as an entertainment device by becoming a drunken master of verbal taunts
HT: Let's not forget the females of the strip, who are not only safe from the guys' taunts (smart move gentlemen), but also serve as a grounding outside perspective on the madness provided by the two gamers.

S: Although there is not much continuity, the creators have introduced a few reoccurring features over the years. Highlights include Tycho's late night talk show, Too Damn Late, Div's Happy Hour, and even their own annual awards show. Side storylines such as Cardboard and Steel showcase both creators talents outside of the regular format. It has given the archives a comedic pacing something akin to a sketch comedy show.
HT: Sketch comedy, huh?
S: Except it doesn't suck.
HT: Right. Despite countless examples of other comic artists that seek to emulate Gabe's style, he manages to stay fresh and challenges himself. The quality of the artwork has been on a steady incline since those shaky early strips. In 2001, the character design became more sleek, and with the bolder lines, made the strip composition more dynamic.
S: It's still essentially a talking heads strip, but the guys are actually doing things while they're talking.
HT: Plus, we started to see some backgrounds!

S: But not everything was working. Early attempts to break from the regular three quarter view of the characters were awkward or just didn't look consistent.
HT: Do you like the more recent character design or the earlier ones?
S: Well, as any artist progresses, the stuff gets tighter. The earlier characters were shorter, with wider faces, stiff bodies, and a bit muppet-like. They also had this bulge in the pants which I know was meant to be a pocket, but comes across looking like an erection.
HT: err….
S: Yeah. But today's strips find the characters a little more stylized, longer, and very fluid in nature. The more recent style merges the thick black line style of Jim Mahfood's work, with some cell animation, and a little bit of superdeformed manga mouths. And while the size and number of panels change often to fit the needs of the day's strip, it doesn't distract from the joke's delivery. So, I like the more recent style.

HT: Kara, incidentally, has probably gone through more character designs than anyone.
S: Good call. I also have to commend Gabe on constantly trying new things with his art. We occasionally see more comic book work, including the beautiful Cardboard and Steel. Strips created while at conventions are always in a sketchbook format. Early 2003 also saw some experimenting with a rough animation style, closer to that of Herobear and the Kid or even Strings of Fate. Gabe has also produced some really solid parodies, famous character send-ups, and political cartoons.
HT: Geez, we could go on, but here's a quote by Tycho from one of the news posts that nicely sums things up: "We don't know why Penny Arcade is 'so successful', whatever that is. If we're 'successful' at all, it's because we've made unlikely connections with people who feel like we're coming from the same general place. We just make comics."
S: Chances are, you will like something this strip has to offer. It might entertain you, or offend you, or both. Whatever it does, Gabe and Tycho aren't making any apologies.
HT: It seems like they're very level headed about the whole thing.
S: Even if they are a couple of stuponfucious fruit-f**kers.
HT: Hey!
S: Sorry, I couldn't resist.
EIC: That's it, I'm going to bed.
S: Make sure you don't let the fruit-f**kers bite.

Stickler and Hat-trick are staff contributors for the Comixpedia. The editor fellow seems to have a thing against fruit.