It's been a good year for the "Penny Arcade" guys. Their online reality show "Penny Arcade: The Series" debuted in February. They released their sparkling milestone collection, "The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11.5 Anniversary Edition" early this year. They cracked the Time 100 list of "most influential" people (artists' division).
And today, their famed three-day gaming convention PAX launches with a lineup as stellar as ever. Now fully 12 years in, artist MIKE KRAHULIK and writer Jerry Holkins seem to be able to continually grow their born-of-a-humble-webcomic empire without losing any of their creativity, inspiration or connection with their millions of fans.
So as PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) gets underway in exactly 30 minutes, Comic Riffs today is running its full interview (conducted earlier this year) with the Seattle-based Krahulik -- aka alter ego Jonathan "Gabe" Gabriel -- who discussed his artistic growth, his inspirations and influences, and his commitment to their fan conventions PAX and PAX East and their charity Child's Play:
MICHAEL CAVNA: The multi-day conventions, the show, the videogames, the highly trafficked website. Are you ever amazed at how big it's all gotten?
MIKE KRAHULIK: Constantly. Starting from just the concept of making comics with my friend to then employing a bunch of other people -- that's crazy. Now, you look at everyone else [you work with], and they're really on you to keep on being funny so they can pay their rents.
[courtesy of the creators.]
MC: In the foreword to your book, John Scalzi says that "Penny Arcade" helped create the webcomic genre. How big or small do you see your role in "creating the genre"?
MK: When we started in 1998, we knew of only two or three other comic strips that were online. If we started anything, if we inspired other people, it wasn't [intentional] -- we didn't start out trying to create a new genre.
MC: When you started, did you consider the syndication route?
MK: For us, we had no experience with syndication at all. We created "Penny Arcade" and we had these comics and we mailed them out to the sites we loved. ... There was no other place to put them [our comics]. Having people see our work was a completely new experience. We were trying to make comic books at Kinko's and leave them at the store [for people to see]. We started to have an audience. ... We were making [almost] no money -- we thought the payment was that people were seeing it.
So we launched with loonygames.com. At that point, our rudimentary HTML skills didn't allow us to build our own website.
(images courtesy of Mike Krahulik)
MC: Did you develop as a cartoonist quickly, or has it been a more gradual development?
MK: For me, it's been pretty gradual. I'm constantly wanting to do better than I did before. I'm constantly learning about the art of cartooning.
MC: Who have been influences artistically?
MK: Well, I studied guys from comic books like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane and Mark Silvestri, the Image crew. When I started "Penny Arcade," I had no concept of "cartooning." I'm definitely more confident with my linework now. I've had to get all-new heroes. But Stephen Silver was a major influence. For "Clerks," his animated lines blew me away. I'd look at the "Clerks" images online and copy them for hours.
MC: What are your cartooning tools these days?
MK: I'm using a Wacom tablet but not doing physical drawing anymore. I suppose I could go to a Cintiq but I'm supercomfortable with this set-up. It's pretty rare that I'll physically draw something. ... For years, I was drawing every strip [by hand] and coloring in PhotoShop. I spent four to five years doing comics in that fashion. [Later] I missed that physical element of the art. That's why I started painting as a hobby -- acrylic painting -- to reconnect with the physical art.
MC: So looking back at 11-and-a-half-plus years of "Penny Arcade," are there any strips that, in hindsight, you regret doing?
MK: No -- everything that we've done has gotten us to this point. And this point is great.
MC: As for the writing, you guys have said you don't want to rely on continuity. Why not, exactly?
MK: I think continuity for us, we see it as a crutch. It would be very easy to trick people into reading our comic with cliffhangers and continuity story-lines. We almost see that as cheating. A lot of "Penny Arcade" has to do with what's going on right now. That's a big part of why "Penny Arcade" is successful.
MC: So you guys launched PAX six years ago -- can you retell its origin story for us?
MK: As "Penny Arcade" grew, we started to go to a lot of conventions and to meet our fans. It all started at San Diego Comic-Con and then Baltimore to ... Sakura-Con. We traveled all over. None of them were the sort of convention we wanted to have. We're not really comic nerds -- we're video gamers. We saw the opportunity to make [the kind of convention] we wanted to go to.
MC: So you've got the online show now. Will we ever see "Penny Arcade: The Feature Film"?
MK: We've sort of had brushes with Hollywood. We wrote a pilot for an animated series: "The Penny Arcade Show." [Hollywood] wants our audience but they don't want "Penny Arcade" -- they want to make changes and our input is limited. We don't have to do that. We can wait until the right opportunity comes along.
MC: You and Jerry are both dads now. Does your spawn appreciate what Dad does for a living?
MK: He knows that Daddy draws comics. I think it's probably normal for him -- he thinks every Dad draws comics and does something fun.
MC: Speaking of kids, can you speak to what inspired you and Jerry to found [the charity] Child's Play?
MK: We had a pretty massive audience, so we thought we should try to do something good with it. Originally, as gamers, we tended to collect old systems and games. We thought: If we could get these to [children's] hospitals, it would be great. But hospitals don't want used stuff because [kids'] immune systems are compromised. ... But it all started with Seattle Children's Hospital. We pointed our readers to Child's Play. It was quickly successful. My house was full that first year with toys delivered there for us [to give to kids]. We took a semi to the hospital. From then on, it's been a big success.
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