Friday, November 21, 2008

Penny Arcade: 10 Years, 10 Comics

There is some kind of strange parallel between Half-Life's 10th anniversary and Penny Arcade's, but I'm neither creative nor crazy enough to think of one. As easily the most popular (and arguably best) gaming webcomic, Penny Arcade has been an institution for a decade, holding up a mirror to gamers and nerd culture in general, by turns providing us with a good laugh, necessary mocking, or exasperated sympathy. Through their characters/alter egos, Tycho and Gabe, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik make life suck a little less three times a week.

I figured, what better way to celebrate the comic's 10th anniversary than going back through the archives and selecting a favorite comic of mine from each year?? Of course I had at least three comics from each year I would consider brilliant, but I went with my gut and chose only one lest this go on too long. Let's take a trip back in time, shall we?? Note that because of the way Blogspot hosts image files you may not be able to read these very well. I post them anyway for visual reference. A quick visit to the site and its archive will give you the proper version. Just use the dates I provide.11/5/2008: This comic may specifically deal with the videogame industry, but it speaks to anyone who has seen a favorite author/TV show/musician/website/artist fail despite the quality we see in the product. Gabe is our frustrated proxy in a world gone mad: why are sellouts and cashgrabs more successful than genuine creativity and would-do-it-anyway-even-without-funding-artistry?? Tycho's cynical response is classic Penny Arcade: the only lesson to learn from this scenario, and others like it, is that the universe really is crazy and true greatness is a kind of mistake that is eventually corrected.
6/8/2007: Anyone who's been baffled by the loading screens of an in-store demo unit will know all too well the absurd complexity that some games try to squeeze into an image you view for only a few seconds. Penny Arcade prove themselves masters of satire by taking the button designations to ridiculous extremes, my favorites being 'Feel Remorse' and 'Choke Pixie.'
2/8/2006: I'm about to experience a similar joy tomorrow when the Ohio State/Michigan game occurs and people I would prefer not to talk to will come into my job and try to strike up conversations with me, attempting in the process to see which team I'm rooting for. You would think telling people you don't follow sports would seem more normal after high school, but if you're a guy and not overtly gay you still get exasperated reactions until your funeral. And maybe even after. "He had a wife and a son, but he didn't like sports?!"
3/11/2005: While they never shy away from giving honest, often profane reactions to videogames or news about them, Penny Arcade have a way of exaggerating said reactions to an extreme to underscore both their opinion and the absurdity of feeling so strongly. If this comic seems a bit extreme to you, keep in mind that Sega used to be a beloved company not only of software but hardware, too, and their fall from grace has been entirely their fault post-Dreamcast. Remember when we all thought "well, now instead of having to own a Saturn or Dreamcast to get their awesome games, we'll play them on all platforms"?? That was a nice idea until the universe corrected itself again.
4/30/2004: For awhile I always hated the non-gaming "slice of life" strips done by Penny Arcade. Then this comic came along and my guard was not simply lowered but shattered. As their podcasts testify, even when they aren't talking about videogames, Jerry and Mike are funny, self-aware, and self-deprecating nerds. Thus a strip in which Tycho's ever suffering wife--based on his real life wife, of course--is made to...suffer. Greatly. Her reaction in the second panel is priceless. Though if I had to put a price on it, it might be as high as five dollars.
8/25/2003: Nerd Rage is a phenomena that one must be both inside of and outside of at least once to fully understand. I still think Crystal Chronicles was bullshit but this comic helps put my frustration and anger into perspective. The 'money game' played by console fanboys on message boards gets a just skewering here as well.
11/25/2002: There's a fine line between a hilarious list and a hack job thrown together because the writer couldn't think of anything else (it's usually why I do lists....wait, what??). But since Penny Arcade only do this kind of thing sparingly and they do it so well, it's tough to accuse them of laziness. This strip fits in with the 'Loading Screen Controller Instructions' comic above: simple features of an even more simple product are stretched by the actual copy on the box and then stretched further still by this parody. Thus a plug on a glorified powerstrip becomes an 'Exclusive Hyperperformance Megaport' into which you can "plug something in if you want to."
7/25/2001: This is one of those classic 'talking' comics in which the dialogue between Tycho and Gabe is the bread, butter, and the meat. Gabe as the arrogant/ignorant asshole and Tycho as the frustrated teacher of sorts is a well mined trope of Penny Arcade's, but that never makes it any less funny. See also the more modern strip from 11/10/2008, in which Tycho ends the comic by responding to a self-justifying bias of Gabe's: "You teach me so much Gabriel. You teach us all."
2/23/2000: We've now entered the 'old school' era of Penny Arcade, an era in which violence and anti-social behavior were the rule of the day. Well, moreso than they are now. My favorite part of this comic is not Gabe's "Well, shit" line, but the way Tycho apathetically watches the proceedings and offers to "maybe" call a hospital once he's done eating a Pop Tart. Who could blame him?? Pop Tarts are somewhere in the Ten Commandments I think. Thou Must Pop A Tart, or something.
12/8/1999: As with bad movies and bad music, the only thing that can compete with the satisfaction of playing a really great game is making fun of a really shitty one. Jerry and Mike have sometimes remarked that it's hard to write funny comics about good games; luckily there's always a disproportionate amount of 'execrable' to 'amazing' in all forms of entertainment and art. This comic has always stuck with me for some reason. I think it's the idea that a game is so bad it's literally toxic, but it's even funnier because it's somehow only toxic to Tycho and not Gabe.
12/21/1998: To be perfectly honest the first few Penny Arcade strips haven't aged well. They look as primitive as many of the games of '98 do and they aren't very funny, yet they are important evidence for how far Jerry and Mike have come. They only released a few comics in 1998 anyway, so I went with the best of the bunch. This strip was the first of many times they would tackle the 'violent videogames make people violent' issue and while it's far from the best, I've always wondered if the person Gabe is dragging into the closet is dead or not. If they are dead, his asking for a hammer is all the more grotesque. And funny, somehow.

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