Conversing on Comics with Jerry Holkins and Robert Khoo

What do you do when you've created a comic book series that's become more successful than you ever imagined? Branch out. It's what Robert Kirkman did once The Walking Dead established itself as a hit, and in the webcomics world Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade have been doing the very same thing -- and their creation keeps getting bigger. And last summer, when their $250,000 Kickstarter campaign generated double its goal, they included some ambition stretch goals -- one of which is coming true next month.

In February, Penny Arcade will launch Strip Search, a reality/competition television series in which 12 cartoonists live together in a house and compete to win a $15,000 cash prize and space in Penny Arcade's Seattle offices for a year, complete with support from the company with merchandise, marketing and infrastructure.

Described by Krahulik as "Hell's Kitchen for web cartoonists," Strip Search isn't a new idea -- CBR did Comic Book Idol for several years -- but rather a new format. The show, which is being produced by the comedy troupe/video studio LoadingReadyRun, will feature 12 up-and-coming cartoonists including indie artist Erika Moen. Filmed late last year, Strip Search will debut in February at Penny Arcade's PATV and will also appear in some unannounced other venues. For more I talked with Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins, along with Robert Khoo, the comic franchise's president of operations and business development.

Robot 6: Big, big news, guys. For those just catching up, what exactly is Strip Search?

Jerry Holkins: Strip Search is, among other things, a reality show where cartoonists compete. So, it has many of the touchstones you see in shows of that type, but the challenges and the overall structure focus on craft and practical skills inherent to art and cartooning as a profession.

The impetus, financially at least, for Strip Search came from your recent Kickstarter fundraising drive. How exactly did that happen?

Robert Khoo: The concept for a "webcomic-based reality show" had been kicking around Mike and Jerry's heads for a while, but it wasn't until mid-2012 where we really sat down and hashed out how the production would work. We've planned our fair share of incredibly complex events, but what we didn't know was whether people would be interested in it. The Kickstarter stretch goal proved to us that yeah, this was something people wanted to see.

What are your goals, overall, with Strip Search?

Holkins: Well, the goal when we started was to make a reality show. That happened, certainly, but that's not all that happened. I'm not entirely sure I'm the same person I was when we started making the show, and I would be surprised if many of the contestants said the same thing.

You recently announced your 12 finalists – what exactly will they do in Strip Search?

Holkins: They'll be made to suffer terribly in a fine house we rented for them, while they do battle with one another for cash and prizes. Literally.

What are the challenges and eliminations like?

Khoo: The vast majority of events are designed to stress test the different facets of a professional webcartoonist. For instance, one of the earlier challenges is to work with Penny Arcade's design team to create a real-world product. To put even a little more skin in the game, we'll be offering said product for sale online, with the profits going to the winner of that specific challenge.

Was it hard judging other artists, Jerry?

Holkins: It was incredibly hard, harder than I would have expected. I mean, the overarching scenario we were judging them in was fairly ridiculous, right? They were contestants on a show, playing a kind of game, but at the end of everything -- when you have to send people home -- you're engaged in a very human endeavor. All the irony melts away.

I’m told that a bulk of the filming has already been done – so is the winner chosen but sworn to secrecy right now?

Khoo: Maybe.

What exactly will he or she win?

Khoo: They win a $15,000 cash prize, along with a full year integrated into the Penny Arcade machine. That means office space, access to all of our business folks, and our designers, etc.

If something like Strip Search was around when Jerry and Mike were first thinking about doing Penny Arcade, would you have tried to be involved?

Holkins: I would have been too scared. Mike could have done it, and probably done fairly well; this competition is very much for solo proprietors of sequential art -- single individuals who can cover all the bases when it comes to making comics. It's not really designed for writer/artists teams, like the one we have at Penny Arcade. Maybe in another season? Let's keep an eye on that.

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