Penny Arcade’s “Strip Search” is a Bridge Too Faron February 20, 2013 at 1:11 pm
I love the Penny Arcade comic, I really do. It didn’t directly inspire me to dip my own toes into the webcomic pond, but it did make me aware that webcomics could be a thing, and that it was also possible to build a loyal audience around a niche and make a pretty good living at the same time.
I also love PAX, the populist gamer convention that the Penny Arcade boys have grown and nurtured over the years. It’s burgeoned into an upbeat, quirky, and very cool community of like-minded individuals. And it made it cool to be a gamer nerd. It’s a wonderful cultural phenomenon and we all have Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins to thank for that.
But this new thing… the reality TV-style webseries they’re making? This is a bridge too far.
In case you haven’t heard yet, Penny Arcade has produced a reality show called “Strip Search,” which features 12 web cartoonists who live in a house together and compete with each other for the prize of $15,000 and a year working at the Penny Arcade offices. The Washington Post has a write-up and interview on their website, and there’s another, shorter write-up over at All Things D.
First of all, I want to say that I have nothing but respect for the contestants. If I rant and rave from here on out, it’s absolutely not because of them. Sincere kudos to them for having the guts to enter the ring.
No, my problem is with the creators, and I’m having a hard time with this because I really like what Krahulik and Holkins have done for themselves and their fans over the years, and I think they’ve done some really cool projects beyond merely the writing and illustration of a very good webcomic.
But a reality show? I realize this is only my personal opinion, but reality TV is the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of video entertainment. It’s the television equivalent of the traffic accident on the side of the road. It’s crass and shameless. Krahulik and Holkins can pretend all they want that they’ve done an amazing thing by producing their own reality series, and they can pat themselves on the back for promoting other comic artists, but the bottom line, to me, is that they are promoting themselves at the expense of others.
Look… the reason any production outfit makes a reality TV show is because they are insanely cheap to produce and audiences gobble them up. The people who go through the grinder in front of the camera for weeks at a time are not considered “actors,” so they are subsequently not paid as “actors.” Granted, I do not know how much (or if) these contestants were compensated for their time, but I’d be willing to bet you my battered and dog-eared copy of The Lord of the Rings that they received next to nothing. Sure, they get exposure, but actors get exposure, too, and they also get paid. You know who gets paid for this little venture? You know who’s going to rake in the big bucks? Penny Arcade, that’s who.
I completely understand that Penny Arcade is a business. The strip is the thing that brings eyeballs to the site, and creates loyal fans. In order to make actual money, the name must become a brand, and sell products based on that brand. People associate the name with a positive experience (i.e. a funny comic strip) and become loyal customers as well as loyal fans. So Penny Arcade has branched out. They do the usual things that webcomics do (books, merch), and they’ve also managed to greatly expand the PA brand in other ways (PAX, PATV, The PA Report, First Party clothing line, etc.) This is what a business does. I get that. You gots to pay the bills. There is a line somewhere between pure artistic integrity and empty commercialism, and to be a working artist, you have to balance those two forces and hopefully end up somewhere in the middle. I can’t say exactly where the line is, but I strongly believe reality television is way over that line. The contestants are all hard-working artists, and they’re not naive for participating in this madness; they realize that it’s a racket, but they’re doing it because they feel they have something to gain from it. And likely they will all gain something from it, even if it is simply the experience of doing it.
I also understand that any business venture, even webcomics, is inherently a competition; you want as many people as possible to look at your stuff, and since life is short and time is precious, if people are looking at your stuff it means they aren’t looking at someone else’s stuff. But it’s quite possible to be competitive and respectful to your peers at the same time. One thing that’s really impressed me about the webcomics scene is that so many of my fellow comic artists are so positive and encouraging to one another.
But I’ve lost so much respect for Krahulik and Holkins. They’re taking the legitimate aspirations of fellow artists and using them to make a cheap game. They’re putting these people into a house together and contriving situations to create drama where there shouldn’t be any. It smacks of sociopathy and it’s just plain crass. Strip Search is no more about actually helping comic creators jump-start a career than Celebrity Rehab is about actually helping substance abusers. What it’s really about is making more money for Penny Arcade. Everyone needs to make a buck, I know this, but there comes a point when you have to ask yourself “how much is too much?” Krahulik and Holkins are artists; they forged a connection with thousands of other nerds with their art, and those thousands of other nerds repaid them by buying their stuff. But what kind of art is a reality show? What kind of value does it have?
Penny Arcade ran a Kickstarter campaign to keep their homepage ad-free for a time. They achieved their goal. But it seems pretty ironic to me that they would invest the rest of their Kickstarter cash in a project that falls on the exact opposite end of the artistic integrity spectrum.
When I say it’s “a bridge too far,” I really mean that. It’s Operation Market Garden. It’s hubris. I think Penny Arcade is a great comic strip. But if Strip Search is the direction they’re going in, then I worry about what the future holds for the Penny Arcade brand.