The Penny Arcade Interview: Subconscious Lashings in a Dark Dream

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Penny Arcade is/are doing a dee-luxe hardcover book called The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade in honor of their 10th anniversary. If you don’t know what Penny Arcade is, it’s one of the greatest comics on the Web. Or off it. Go there and don’t come back for at least two hours.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

OK. So when they decided to do an anniversary volume they may not have factored in that they would have to talk to people like me about it. But then it was too late. I called Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, a.k.a. Gabe and Tycho, at their office in Seattle last week, and these are the things we said into our telephones.

Unlike most people who are funny on the page, they’re not less funny in real life. Also they are physically beautiful.

LEV: OK, so how long do I get you guys for?

MIKE: I don’t know. No one has ever asked us that before.

LEV: Well, let’s keep going and you say stop when it’s over, or I’ll say stop if I’ve run out of questions.

JERRY: We need a safe word.

MIKE: Artichoke.

LEV: OK. That’s the word. So you guys are doing a big deluxe hardcover book. What was the impetus here? What was the conversation where you said, awesome, let’s do this book?

MIKE: We wanted to do an anniversary book to sort of celebrate the ten years that we’ve been doing the comic. And being lazy, we came up with that idea around the 11-year mark, and so when we finally decided to do it, it just seemed appropriate that we should sort of respect it with a hardcover. It’s actually a lot of work that we did, and I think it deserved a hardcover.

LEV: How did you mark the actual 10-year anniversary? Did you go out to dinner or do shots or something?

JERRY: I think we meant to go out to dinner, but we ended up not doing that. That’s more or less the strength of our convictions.

LEV: And so now you’re doing a book tour. What happens at those events?

MIKE: Yeah, we’re going to sign books. My idea of how the events will take place is something like, people will line up with their books, we might be at a table, we’ll have pens, people will come up to us, and we’ll sign the books until there’s no more people in line.

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LEV: That sounds like a good plan. That should work.

MIKE: Well, it’s our first time doing it, so I don’t know.

JERRY: It’s never been attempted.

LEV: What do people generally ask you for at these things?

JERRY: Typically, money. I would say that’s 90% of the requests.

LEV: God, does that work?

JERRY: Yeah, but sometimes they have very specific requests like they want ingots of some precious metals. It’s a huge pain in the ass.

MIKE: Or they just want an autograph and a sketch, which we are uniquely qualified to give them.

JERRY: But that’s not the preponderance of requests in any way.

MIKE: I’d say it is.

LEV: Who do they want sketches of? Do they all want Annarchy? I bet they all want Annarchy.

MIKE: I do a lot of Annarchies. Mostly Fruit Fuckers, a lot of Gabes –

JERRY: Jim Darkmagic.

MIKE: Doing a lot more Jim Darkmagic these days.

LEV: Wow, so his stock is rising?

JERRY: Yeah, his stock was up almost at the inception. We were surprised.

MIKE: At the last Comic-con I think I did more Jim Darkmagics than anything else.

JERRY: We sign a lot of Player’s Handbooks.

JERRY: We sign at least as many Player’s Handbooks as we do our own books.

LEV: I’m kind of interested in how famous you guys are. I mean, all hardcore gamers know you, but does it translate outside that? Do you get recognized on the street?

JERRY: We occasionally get recognized.

MIKE: Yeah, but we live in Seattle. There is a lot of gaming here.

JERRY: Yeah, there is a geek contingent.

MIKE: Like I’m not sure I would get recognized in some Midwestern town. I think because of where we live we might get recognized more than we might someplace else. But you usually it’s by other geeks who are also very shy, so it’s commonly like, “Hi, I like your comic,” and then they leave.

JERRY: Yeah, yeah, that’s the extent of it. It’s very rarely incredibly elaborate.

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LEV: That actually sounds like a pleasant interaction.

JERRY: I would say it’s an interaction that is at the level that is appropriate.

LEV: You guys both have kids. Has that changed the strip at all? Has it changed Gabe and Tycho?

MIKE: Yeah, we definitely do a lot more strips about fatherhood now than we did before.

JERRY: Yeah, compared to zero in previous years, I would say it’s ascending north.

MIKE: But I think our audience has sort of grown up with us, you know.

JERRY: It’s been 10 years.

MIKE: There’s a lot of them now that are also parents, so I think that resonates with them.

JERRY: Yeah, at conventions it’s not uncommon for us to see people we’ve seen for years bring by a human larva.

LEV: And other kinds of larvae probably too.

JERRY: Occasionally. Sometimes just the eggs.

LEV: The strip seems less violent to me than it did in the beginning. Is it getting less violent?

JERRY: I would say that intellectually it is more violent, but there is probably less physical violence, just because we’ve tapped out a lot of those maneuvers. We’ll say, let’s do a strip where something violent happens –

MIKE: And we can’t think of any new physically violent way to hurt someone.

LEV: Yeah, well, that’s better than repeating yourself.

MIKE: I mean, we don’t want to go back to the “punch a man’s head off” well.

LEV: That’s a deep well. But it does have a bottom.

JERRY: Exactly. You can only punch it off so many times. Then eventually it just starts to fall off by itself. You want to get out of it before it gets to that point.

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LEV: How much do your kids understand about what you do for a living?

JERRY: Zero.

MIKE: Well, no, Gabe knows that I draw, that I’m an artist for a living. I’d say that’s the extent of it.

JERRY: Yeah, I was trying to tell my son that a writer is a kind of artist, and he said that that was not true.

MIKE: It’s not. It’s cute though.

JERRY: He’s like, you’re not an artist, and I was like no I express myself with…

MIKE: “I paint pictures with words.”

JERRY: You know how it is. You talk to these young people and they have this automatic way. They know where the fault lines are in a person’s psyche.

LEV: Let’s talk about the TV thing. Tell me about the impetus there? Because I am going to say “impetus” as many times as I can in this interview.

JERRY: If you look at where the web is trending now, it’s all about video.

MIKE: The fact is that we are both beautiful people, and we thought it was a real shame that other people couldn’t see us all the time.

JERRY: Not only could they not see us, they couldn’t gaze upon us, and I think those are two distinct states.

MIKE: I mean, when you look like this, when you walk around looking like this all day, more people need to see it.

LEV: Does it alter the process, having cameras in the room?

PA: Yes. I would say it does. I think it has a negative effect.

LEV: Like you’re less funny when the cameras are around?

JERRY: Yeah. But you got to understand that we’re saying that because they are here right now.

LEV: Oh. Right.

JERRY: We said that for their benefit.

MIKE: I think that for a while we felt like we would sort of have to watch what we say, because the fact is that a lot of stuff doesn’t end up in Penny Arcade, it’s too fucked up to put in a comic, and we thought, now we’re going to be limited in what we can say. But I think we’ve sort of gotten over that hump now.

LEV: You guys didn’t go to college, right?

JERRY: No.

MIKE: I went to about a week of community college and found out it was too hard for me.

JERRY: I tried to go, but I was earning too much money.

MIKE: My parents certainly wished I had gone to college.

LEV: Did they?

MIKE: Oh yeah.

JERRY: They wanted him desperately to go to college. They even paid for that first semester, didn’t they?

MIKE: Yeah. They paid for it, but I just went there and didn’t like it, and so I didn’t go anymore. They were very upset.

JERRY: It was my intention to go, but I couldn’t afford it at the time. I just couldn’t afford it, and I had to work. There goes that.

LEV: And then after a while there wasn’t any point because you were successful anyway.

JERRY: After a while I just gave up. I was doing tech services and stuff and I think I could have been very happy doing that.

MIKE: It wasn’t that we were successful; it was that, I was a salesman at Circuit City, and I had just resigned myself to that fate. I was like, well, I will sell computers for the rest of my life, and make comics on the weekends that no one will know about. It was just a matter of giving up, on life really.

JERRY: Neutral gear.

LEV: But it’s all worked out so well.

MIKE: It did, it worked out really well.

LEV: So the whole ping-pong thing. It’s really intense, isn’t it? Almost frighteningly so.

MIKE: We took it very seriously.

LEV: I watched the Bungie match on PATV, and I almost felt bad for the Bungie guys. Especially that Bungie guy who Robert beat. Because he looked really sad after he lost.

MIKE: He had been destroyed both mentally and physically.

JERRY: He had been digested.

MIKE: Like the Sarlac pit. He learned a new definition of pain.

JERRY: Over the course of 10,000 years.

LEV: You guys just seem totally fearless. Are you without fear?

JERRY: No, I would say that it is the extent of our fear that creates that environment where we’re willing to try out. It’s like they seem successful in retrospect, but at the time they’re like the subconscious lashings of a person in a dark dream.

MIKE: What? What does that mean?

JERRY: He got it, he’s a writer.

MIKE: I would say that at this point, we are not afraid to fail.

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