Calling the Penny’s Arcade | Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

The creators behind the mind-bogglingly popular webcomic Penny Arcade sit down and discuss comics, conventions, and more before a recent appearance at St. Louis’ Mad Art Gallery.

 

The first thing I noticed about Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the writer and artist on the mind-bogglingly popular webcomic Penny Arcade, was how charming they were. We had polite pre-interview chitchat about how awful flying is and where we were going to sit for the interview (Krahulik offered me the seat behind the desk, I took it out of sheer nerves) and how awesome it was that trains had bars inside of them. The second thing I noticed was that these two were utterly fearless. They say what’s on their minds with very little censoring and they’re side-stitchingly funny. Interestingly, when the censorship does come, it’s from the half of the partnership that hasn’t said something both unprintable and hysterical. They will take the time to sign every book clutched in every hand for a standing-room only crowd but, when setting ground rules for the talk, will say things like "Raise your hand or shout or use a flare gun. I haven’t cleared that with Mad Art but I’m famous." And the crowd will laugh, utterly captivated. All this for the two mad geniuses behind Penny Arcade, a webcomic that began as a collection of gamer nerd in-jokes but has since expanded to become the source for cutting-edge nerd humor about everything from the latest console releases to the Harry Potter books to the ubiquitousness of Pokemon.
 
The event where this interview was conducted, jokingly dubbed “PAX Central” by the Penny Arcade boys themselves, was cosponsored by Mad Art Gallery and Left Bank Books, and filled the gallery to standing room only capacity and spilled out into the hallway. Krahulik gave a webcomic demonstration, which mostly involved drawing his famous characters on request, and Holkins handled most of the questions. The questions ranged from upcoming projects to musical recommendations (MC Frontalot, always a safe bet at these things) and the possibility of a PAX Central actually happening. PLAYBACK:stl had the opportunity to sit down with Holkins and Krahulik before the event to discuss book tours, technology and The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 1/2 Year Anniversary Edition, the definitive guide to the history and inner workings of the Penny Arcade empire.
 
Photographs by Mike Rengel. Click on thumbnails for a larger image.
 
Erin Jameson: So, you guys are having a good tour so far?
 
Jerry Holkins: Umm, yeah, it seems like…
 
[The Mad Art office phone rings.]
 
JH: What the fuck?
 
Mike Krahulik: Should we answer that? I don’t think so…
 
EJ: Are you kidding me? Do I pick this up?
 
MK: Noooo…
 
[phone keeps ringing]
 
JH: Am I working? Are we on the clock?
 
MK: We are having a great tour, yes.
 
[phone rings]
 
EJ: So, yes…
 
[phone rings]
 
JH: [mimes answering phone] Jerry Holkins, the Penny’s Arcade.
 
EJ: That would be awesome. I dare you.
 
JH: No, I’m fine.
 
MK: I double dare you.
 
EJ: So you guys just had PAX East [a Penny Arcade-inspired gaming festival in Boston, Mass.] last weekend, how was that?
 
JH: It was rad, we PAXed it up. It was rad, it was radical.
 
MK: It was just as good as the West Coast.
 
EJ: Was this the first year you were doing that?
 
JH: Yeah, first year, first time in the venue.
 
EJ: Were you nervous?
 
JH: Yeah, we’re always nervous. We’re on vacation from being nervous.
 
EJ: So, do you guys ever go to any cons? Is that possible for you?
 
MK: Yeah, we go to San Diego Comic Con…wait, you mean like, go and not work?
 
EJ: Yeah.
 
JH: Oh, no. No, no, no.
 
EJ: It’s always a worky thing?
 
MK: Yeah, we haven’t gone just to go in at least ten years.
 
JH: Have we ever gone to a convention for recreational purposes?
 
MK: I don’t think so.
 
Joshua Price, Penny Arcade executive assistant: E3?
 
JH: Kind of. It’s not public, though.
 
MK: E3 is still kind of working these days.
 
JH: It seems like cons are really cool.
 
MK: I would like to go to one someday.
 
EJ: You totally should. You could get a fake mustache and a hat…
 
MK: That’s all it takes.
 
JH: That would work, actually.
 
EJ: Totally. [Mike,] you might have to do something else since you already have a mustache.
 
JH: So shave.
 
MK: That’s true. I would shave it off.
 
EJ: You’re very inclusive, there are a lot of fandoms that get mentioned in Penny Arcade—a lot of really old sci-fi references, for example. Is that just naturally occurring, or do you research?
 
MK: That’s just stuff we like.
 
JH: The comic is just about who we are. If you could see the diagram that charted the fandoms that we’re a part of, it’s pretty vast. And between the two of us, we cover a lot of the bases. So that’s just who we happen to be and the strip is about us. That stuff just finds it’s way in there.
 
EJ: So the ancient Japanese stuff, the Cardboard Tube Samurai, just…
 
JH: Oh, we love manga, [especially] action-adventure manga: Lone Wolf and Cub, Usagi Yojimbo.
 
EJ: Since Penny Arcade is so about who you are and what you like, is it just something you do for yourselves and it just happens to be really popular?
 
MK: I think in the beginning…yeah, it still is that. We just definitely try to make comics that we think are funny, that we like. Because there’s no way you could please [everyone]. If we tried to please people, I think we’d go insane. The only thing we know is what makes us laugh and so that’s what we try to do.
 
EJ: Is there ever a point where you would quit doing Penny Arcade?
 
JH: Oh, certainly. Well, we [still] like doing it, but it started very quickly, it started out of nowhere.
 
MK: Yeah. I don’t know when. I don’t see that happening soon, certainly. [But] I also don’t see us doing it when we’re 60.
 
EJ: It’s good to know we have a few more years.
 
MK: The brightest stars burn quickest.
 
JH: That’s what they say.
 
EJ: The candle burns at both ends and all that…
 
JH: Fire is a concern for creative people. Watch out!
 
EJ: So, the Wired interview that you guys did with Chris Baker, did you guys regret the level of honesty?
 
MK: No. We just got used to him. He was playing Halo with us every night and I forgot he was recording everything we said.
 
JH: He was sort of an embedded reporter after a while… He went native, like, quick. He was just a guy, and he was very compatible with us personally. Under other circumstances, we would’ve been hanging out, just as dudes. And so we actually built a relationship and that allowed us to be pretty forthright.
 
EJ: I thought that it gave hope to a lot of wee nerdlings out there.
 
JH: It’s possible.
 
MK: Keep reaching for the stars! But hope they don’t burn out too quickly.
 
JH: That’s a huge problem. Watch out!
 
EJ: Mmm, fire is bad. Do you guys still game every night?
 
JH: Well, it depends. All the big games [so far this year] have been single-player, like Mass Effect [2] in January, Heavy Rain [in February] and God of War (III) in March. But when it’s a multi-player game… There was a pronounced Modern Warfare 2 phase that was company-wide, essentially.
 
EJ: You guys are famously Apple converts. Would you be developing anything for the iPhone/iPad?
 
MK: I think an iPad app would be really cool but, you know, we’ll see.
 
JH: In fact, after this trip, our friend, Josh, who also works at Penny Arcade, is bringing a software engineer back. Our newest hire is a software engineer, and he’s going to drive cross-country back to the office to bring his car and his stuff. And we also have a new designer in-house and it seems like we’re putting all the pieces together to get something like that done completely in-house and at a high level of skill.
 
EJ: Do you guys ever have to play the boss?
 
JH: No, no. I would say that our corporate structure is very interesting in that we recognized…well, someone else recognized that we don’t have the ability to run a business. And so we actually work at Penny Arcade…almost as employees.
 
MK: Yeah, Robert [Khoo, PA Director of Business Development] really runs the office. He runs the company. So [for] everyone in the office, he’s their boss and [while] we just sort of do our own thing, he tells us what to do.
 
JH: Robert comes in and tells us what to do, and we do it.
 
EJ: Does he really?
 
MK: That’s why we have him. If he didn’t tell us what to do, we wouldn’t do anything.
 
EJ: Just kinda hang out and play video games and occasionally draw a comic?
 
MK: Yeah.
 
JH: I don’t even know about that. I’m not sure much what would get done. The business…it would be, like, feral. It would be like Land of the Lost within the space of a week. There’d be pterodactyls and shit.
 
EJ: Do you still handle a lot of the stuff with Child’s Play? [Editor’s note: Child’s Play is a charity founded by Holkins and Krahulik that works with gamers to donate video games, toys, and other items to children’s hospitals around the US. For more information, visit: www.childsplaycharity.org.]
 
MK: Yes, we’re involved with everything that goes on, but at the creative level. We have ideas and we say what it should do and how it should work, and they all actually do it.
 
JH: Our main job is more or less to promote, to make sure as many people as possible know about it. There’s a lot of interesting side-projects that happen that are not really connected with Child’s Play and, in my opinion, that’s more or less the future, that’s the model. People put together their own miniature charities—[independent events] like Desert Bus [or], nationally, there are a bunch of Rock Band events—and then the money gets funneled into Child’s Play. It’s our job to make sure that people locally know about that stuff.
 
EJ: I think it’s so cool that you guys managed to start that out of spite, mostly.
 
JH: Yeah.
 
MK: Initially…
 
EJ: Has anything especially weird happened on this tour?
 
JH: No. It was such a cool, chill environment.
 
MK: [to Josh] Have you seen anything super-weird? You’ve been to everything.
 
JP: No. There’s cool stuff.
 
MK: Yeah, we’ve seen cool stuff. The girls last night that shared a husband were pretty cool.
 
JH: That was weird. Yeah, we did have to sign a dildo.
 
EJ: What?
 
MK: We signed a dildo.
 
JH: Yeah, we signed a dildo. But it wasn’t weird for us, it was great. We wanted to sign it.
 
MK: I don’t know that it was great…
 
JH: I wanted to sign it.
 
MK: …it was kinda weird.
 
EJ: Did you guys disinfect afterward?
 
MK: Well, we signed the box.
 
JH: It was just the box. Obviously, there’s a toxicity concern.
 
EJ: Right.
 
MK: [pauses] What do you mean?
 
JH: Well, if you’re going to draw on a dildo with permanent ink, does that seem like a safe thing?
 
MK: Oh. I guess not.
 
EJ: Soluble. Eventually.
 
JH: You have not thought about this dildo as much as I have.
 
MK: I didn’t really think about it enough. But you’ve given it a lot of thought, apparently.
 
JH: I’ve invested a considerable amount of my mental energy in that concept.
 
EJ: Again on the fan level, since so many of your comics have spread out on a pop culture level, do you ever get any negative feedback about that, fans asking "where are the gaming strips?"
 
JH: Occasionally. Even about the gaming strips.
 
MK: Well, we get negative feedback just in general. I mean…haters gonna hate, you know?
 
[all laugh]
 
EJ: Well said.
 
JH: According to Ludacris…
 
MK: I think Ludacris said it best when… [But] we get hate mail about all kinds of stuff. It doesn’t have to be about the game comics. It can be about "I didn’t like that game comic" or "why do you hate this game" or "your art looks like shit."
 
JH: That doubles back on the earlier question, which is that if your aim is to please people, you’re going to fail.
 
MK: I got a bunch of hate mail based on today’s strip because I tried some weird stuff with the colors.
 
JH: It was so beautiful.
 
MK: It was. But they don’t know that. They’re just retarded and they think it looked bad.
 
JH: But it didn’t.
 
MK: But they think it did. So they mailed me and they’re like "Oh, man, the colors today and the comic today sucked."
 
EJ: You know, I just looked at that comic, like, two hours ago…
 
JH: …and it’s beautiful.
 
EJ: …and I cannot remember which one it is.
 
JH: It’s about GameCrush.
 
EJ: Oh, yeah! No, I loved that.
 
JH: It was really good.
 
MK: It was really different. I used, like, some lime green and hot pink and it was a really fun palette.
 
JH: Really cool tones.
 
MK: And some people are just stupid.
 
EJ: It goes back to kind of what you guys were saying about manga. I thought that it looked [like manga], because, if you look at their covers, they’re very brightly colored.
 
JH: Yeah, it’s like "Hey, what’s up?!? I’m MANGA, check me out!!"
 
EJ: Okay, here is the final question…
 
JH: "Pirates or ninjas?"
 
EJ: No. God, no.
 
JH: See, I know. I know this is a classy establishment.
 
EJ: The dust jacket for the book: how many people do you think lifted it? [Editor’s Note: the cover underneath the dust jacket lists the book’s title as “Nearly Twelve Years of Bullshit.”]
 
MK: I don’t know. I hope a lot. I mean, that’s the real title under there. | Erin Jameson
 
To read Penny Arcade, visit www.penny-arcade.com.

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