Gabe and Tycho on Controversy and the Future of Penny Arcade

I did say there was a lot of merit that came out of the media Q&A last week, didn’t I? It was best to split it up in parts. We’ve read about Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the duo behind Penny Arcade and PAX, felt about the show’s first international visit. But they also had a lot to say about themselves, public image, and the future of Penny Arcade.

Last week we covered how the duo reacted to the news that certain people and groups were dropping out of the event. This was in part because of controversy caused by comments made by Krahulik on Twitter. The two have a bit of a reputation for causing controversy online – when asked how they respond to these issues, the infamous Dickwolves comics were brought up, for example.

‘There is a line,’ says Holkins, ‘and everybody’s line is in a slightly different place, and it’s not always easy to know where the line is until you cross it. The line is not a physical thing. It’s the boundary between people and how they feel about different things. Some sometimes you have to cross these things to find them. I can’t feel bad about those strips because they taught us something important.’

Krahulik reminds us that this line-crossing has been going on since the strip began. ‘And the reality is that we cross lines – for the past fifteen years we’ve been crossing lines in the comic strip – and 90% of the time, people won’t care. It’s that one time that we cross their line.’

‘They don’t mind if you cross other people’s lines,’ Holkins adds.

‘Yeah, you can cross other people’s lines all day – but don’t cross my fucking line.’ Krahulik went on to say that the lines between the duo can also cause a bit of internal conflict – Krahulik won’t make a joke about Jesus that Holkins would, but will make a joke about pedophilia that Holkins wouldn’t approve of. ‘Everybody has a different line and so if you start thinking, as a creative person, trying to avoid all these lines, you’ll never make anything. At least, I wouldn’t. So I can’t feel bad about that. The only thing we can do is make comic strips and hope that people like them.’

In that regard, the strip tends to be not so kid-friendly. When asked about whether or not they’ve ever let their kids read the strip before, both responded with a firm ‘no!’ before the question had even properly finished, before clarifying further. Krahulik mentioned that he let his son read one series in the past. ‘We did a series of comics about an RPG my son made called Lost Lands, and I let him read that series. But other than that, god no. Noooo. No no.’

Krahulik revealed that he teaches cartooning to various grades at his son’s elementary school, and that the children there often ask him what strip he draws and where or how they can read it. ‘And I just say “absolutely not”‘.

The strip has always had that angle, equally mature and immature, and we all know that it’s caused these controversies in the past. But it could also be influencing people. The duo were asked if they believed their strip has had an influence on the kinds of vitriol we see online in gaming communities and sites today.

‘I would hate to think that we are somehow responsible for the behaviour of a community as large as gamers,’ says Krahulik. ‘When the two of us started Penny Arcade we were just making comics about video games because that’d what we liked to do, right? Wer’re certainly not role models. We’re not even especially nice people most of the time. But as Penny Arcade grew we started to realise we had this power, and in sort of Spider-Man style ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. We didn’t ask for it, but it grew and we have it, and we try to do the best that we can with it.

‘That’s where things like Child’s Play come out of it, and things like PAX.’ The duo sees these creations as something of a karmic balance to offer a more positive and encouraging landscape than what might be found on the site and in the strip. ‘PAX is a place and Child’s Play is a thing, and all the stuff that we do is great and we want it to succeed regardless of what assholes we are. We try to put as much good out there as we can because we know that we’re also putting out a lot of shit. Penny Arcade is caustic and sarcastic and mean and violent and we recognise that but we also try to do a lot of good stuff, as much as we can’.

What about looking to the future of Penny Arcade, though? What will the site be like in twenty years time? Will it still be around when the original duo are long gone? ‘I think about my own mortality constantly,’ Krahulik joked. ‘We want things that we make to exist regardless of Penny Arcade – in spite of Penny Arcade a lot of times. So I hope that there is a Child’s Play in a hundred years. I hope there is a PAX. I hope there is a Strip Search or whatever.’

Holkins adds that there’s a sort of fantasy direction for the site and its offshoots the duo wants to take. ‘We want to make something like that and then just push it off the dock. To us, being ubiqitous and anonymous is the goal. That’s the fantasy. It’s a tough trip but I think we can do it.’

The question then naturally became about whether the duo had ever thought about who might replace them in the future. ‘We’ve had this conversation,’ Krahulik admits. ‘Ideally, I see us turning the strip over to a young artist and writer team at some point. At some point I think Penny Arcade needs to be, will be, run by a younger team. And I would love that.’

You know, Doc’s an artist, and I’m a writer…

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