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Wishing “Penny Arcade” Happy Birthday with Tycho

by  in Comic News Comment
Wishing “Penny Arcade” Happy Birthday with Tycho

The first thing to strike you about Jerry Holkins — better known as Tycho — is he’s at once the duplicate and opposite of his illustrated avatar in the popular webcomic “Penny Arcade.” He’s just as passionate, verbal and introspective, but at the same time Tycho’s not nearly as violent, high-strung or aggressive as the strip may suggest; hardly the man who reportedly flipped off a box full of kittens.

It’s been a busy year for Holkins’ and his partner Mike Krahulik’s “Penny Arcade.” Fans of the sardonic slacker series are in heaven, between the long-awaited collected editions –such as the recent “The War Sun Prophecies” and “Birds Are Weird” from Dark Horse Comics— and the first installment of genre-smashing gothic-horror-roll-playing-game comedy “On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness.” All this and the strip is still going strong, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on

“Penny Arcade” celebrated its ninth birthday last month, and in this first of a two-part feature, CBR News sat down with Jerry Holkins, popularly known as Tycho, to talk about the strip’s life and achievements, its artistic influence and motivations, and where video-gamedom’s most famous slacker duo might be headed next.

CBR: You and Krahulik have been producing “Penny Arcade” for nine years now. Do you have any thoughts on how the strip’s changed since its inception?

TYCHO: Well, for a long time I couldn’t perceive that it had changed. I’m pretty close to it, obviously. Even after some pretty vast artistic changes, I couldn’t pick up on what been altered. I’m not going to say that it’s necessarily better than it was, but we’re much better at doing what we intended to do. We have an objective and we try to execute it. We just have a lot more experience with the medium now. We can do what we want to with it, where as at first it was pretty experimental. We still take weird chances and introduce strange ideas of course but now it’s on purpose.

“Penny Arcade” vol. 1 collection on sale now from Dark Horse

One of the more memorable weird chances from the early days was the kidnapping of Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto.

Sure. But we can only kidnap Miyamoto once and then after that we either need to find someone new to kidnap or take it upon ourselves to create some new energy.

Having produced the strip for so long, is it difficult to find ways to say something new with it, perhaps something more serialized, like a narrative? Or does the vitality of contemporary gaming always provide you with new material

I think if we wanted to do something that was more narrative, strip-to-strip, we could accomplish that. We could do some pretty strange stories. But I think that our rate of delivery — which is to say, it’s only three a week. But I don’t think three a week is very well suited to long stories. It’s not fair to the reader and to be perfectly honest, that’s why we don’t do them very often. We have ideas for stories often but I’m not sure it’s a really fantastic fit for the three a week format.

“Armadeadon” is a very good example: It’s a popular story, but took two weeks out of the strip, during which you couldn’t comment on gaming news.

“Penny Arcade” strip

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Of course, we tried to ameliorate that at the time by making much larger individual installments but we have so many other projects going on at a given time that we’re not often in a position to deliver a full 12-panel piece three times a week. And I know that may seem strange but we have to agree on every single facet of a strip and we often don’t agree on much.

“Penny Arcade” seems to pack much more into every panel than many other webcomics.

I appreciate you saying that. I think we’re genuinely lucky in that we’ve both found a partner in the other that we can implicitly trust. I can’t imagine who else I could accomplish something like this with. I just don’t trust most people to have my best interests or the interests of the work at heart.

How long do you see yourself producing the strip? Will you still be making “Penny Arcade” when you’re 80?

“Penny Arcade” strip

Probably. I think when we started the strip there was a much greater need for it. When we were first put together, blogging wasn’t at the level it is at now. People weren’t uploading their own video reviews. The community didn’t have the voice and the access that it has today. We’re happy to do this, we enjoy but I think that everyone can do it. And I think that’s becoming more and more true as the tools are democratized.

Do you have a reaction then to what’s probably fair to characterize as the extreme proliferation of what others might term “‘Penny Arcade’ clones?”

Well, again I think it goes back to our rate of delivery. We simply can’t communicate the fullness of this medium and the vibrant community around it. And the people you’ve described, they’re communicating from their heart what is going on.

“Penny Arcade” vol. 2 on sale now from Dark Horse

Your avatars have remained more or less ageless. The “dread spectre of continuity” aside, sometimes things like your kids make it into the strips. 40 years from now, do you think Gabe and Tycho might be making fun of arthritis along with the latest first-person shooter?

As it stands, the personas haven’t physically changed. I mean, they have if you look at the art, but by and large their personalities have become subtler as we’ve gotten older. You see that with our sons occasionally making it in. But certainly, if we were still doing the strip then, and I don’t think that we would be, as the concerns that we have faced have changed — and they always do, the strip changes. Like I have a strip about being afraid to go to the doctor. Well, that only gets worse as you get older. The strip is relevant to our lives if no one else’s.

Do you ever have the urge to do non-“Penny Arcade” material? Maybe things in mainstream comics, film and television?

Not especially. Like I said, it’s very rare to find someone that you can really trust in a creative endeavor. The reality is that I feel like I present a good package deal along with Mike (Gabe). But independently, I don’t think of myself as a gleaming intellect with so much to offer. He’s being weighed down by these three JPEGs a week that I must produce.

“Penny Arcade” strip

In a recent strip, you showed some solidarity for the Writer’s Guild strike.

I’m not smart enough to communicate on it with a lot of intelligence other than what I posted about it, which is that it made me realize how lucky I am to be working in this medium and not that one. That’s the primary thing it brought to my mind. You essentially have to negotiate for visiting rights with your own goddamned work and that is just madness. And I can’t imagine living, let alone creating, under those circumstances. I guess if you want to make a lot of money as a writer, that’s where you go. But that’s not my chief concern, thankfully.

You’ve mentioned in the past you’ve always had an eye toward a “Penny Arcade” animated series. In one posting, you said that if you or Gabe come up with an idea that doesn’t work for the comic, “that’s one for the cartoon.”

“Penny Arcade” strip

Oh, yeah. That always happens. But when we use that terminology it’s partially a joke. It’s an idea that’s too long or too elaborate or requires the moment to moment storytelling of a continuous scene. Obviously, in a comic, we have a tremendous level of control over time but that level of granular control is sometimes at odds with certain types of humor. As a result, ideas of that type tend to get filed away. Or we try to execute them in comics with disastrous results. Right now our time is basically plowed into the game, which has its own quirky sense of humor. It’s got a very strange, gothic horror storyline that’s different from the comic. But once we get out of that, if people want us to do a series or an animated feature of some kind, we’ll certainly consider it. It’s extremely difficult. I don’t know if it’s more difficult than a game but….

Has it come close a few times?

“Penny Arcade” vol. 3 on sale now from Dark Horse

Absolutely. Yes, that’s true. It either fell through or, well, the reality is that we’re making a living. So I don’t necessarily need the creative venue. I feel like I’m able to say what I want in the existing medium. I’m not about to diminish or dilute my existing work just so it can move. I’m not going to make a deal with the devil, which is usually what those types of deals are, just in order to do something that I’m not especially interested in to begin with. Obviously, that venue — getting onto television or whatever — I suppose the primary interest to most people is to get filthy fucking rich. Certainly, I’m not afraid of money but I know that there are other things more important than that.

You and Gabe have many friends in mainstream comics. What if Marvel or DC called you up and gave you free reign on a character or concept of your choice. Is that an offer you’d be interested in?

In this hypothetical scenario, would they be managing artistic duties?

You can pick whatever artist you want.

Yeah, I think that would be a really interesting project to try. I’m not sure where I would fit it in. Even when someone asks me a theoretical question, I try to fit it into the schedule of my actual life. I try to figure out in what cranny of my existence I could possibly fit another project. Above and beyond trying to raise a good son, which is time-consuming.

“Penny Arcade” strip

Is there a specific character you’d be interested in?

You know, if I could write a comic of any kind, I’d love to write an arc for either “Powers” or “Y — The Last Man.” Just to tool around in the Bendis or Vaughan playground would be a real treat and an honor. I didn’t grow up reading comics like Mike did. I grew up playing video games, messing around with my Commodore 64. That’s where the bulk of my lawn-mowing money was being invested. And it had some pretty elaborate entertainments. Like the original SSI Goldbox series of RPGs. I mean, I plowed summers into that goddamn thing. I took my nascent gamer identity very seriously even then.

Your particular style of writing is beloved by your fans. Do you have any influences as a writer?

I definitely have writers that I like. I don’t consciously channel them, though I’m certain that I do unconsciously. Though the writers that I enjoy the most are Steve Brust, Neil Stephenson, and Tim Powers, who did “The Drawing of the Dark.” He takes real events and fantastical events and draws a line between the two fantastically. Definitely something you have to investigate if you’ve never read it.

“Penny Arcade” strip

How has fatherhood affected the strip for you and Gabe?

You know, I thought it would affect it more than it did. But I had no point of reference, though obviously Mike had taken the plunge before I had. And it was my worry in that time that it would affect it in some deleterious way. But the reality is — this is what we do. We’re good at it and we didn’t forget how to do it just because we now have this other responsibility. Though obviously, the full, er, palette of language we use in the strip is not available for home use now.

I’m sure you guys are asked about your favorite strip a lot. Gabe’s is the Canid strip, right?

Oh, the Canid is actually my favorite strip. His favorite is “Along Came a Spider.” You can find it in the “Penny Arcade” archives or on Penny Packer. I believe in that particular strip, Gabriel is convinced that he’s adopted some kind of mutant healing factor but that is actually not the case. As we see with hilarious results.

Considering newer strips, what would leap out as you as favorites?

“Penny Arcade” vol. 4 on sale now from Dark Horse

The reality is I kind of have a one-strip mind. The only strip that exists for me is the last one we did. I think there’s over a thousand now. It’s very difficult to manage it. Also, you’re talking to a person with a very poor grasp of time. So in this mental archive, I wouldn’t know how to demarcate a year ago. It’s really weird when I prepare the books. Going back, it’s like a museum of sorts. Things loose their currency in the new cycle at the rate that gamers receive it very quickly. Things that are important a year ago cease to be so and things that are not especially important, take the forefront. Things that are not especially enduring or immortal events, grip the psyche so.

Thomas Kemper, the cat, hasn’t been around for a while.

Are you saying you want more cat? I should turn up the cat, as it were?

He’s a great character.

The cat has a cameo in the game. Perhaps that will please you.

I’d just wondered if you’d forgotten you had a cat.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness” video game coming in 2008

Well, we each have our own cats at home now but initially, living together, we shared a cat. And we had to take that cat to the humane society. Which was a super-traumatic event that even now I tremble to recall. So mostly we have a difficult time remembering that cat without anguish. But now you know the real story.

What webcomics do you read on a regular basis?

Obviously I read Scott Kurtz’s “PvP.” I have consistently read everything that Kris Straub [“Checkerboard Nightmare,” “Star Slip Crisis”] does. He’s amazing. It’s just grotesque that he wastes his time making free entertainment for us. It’s ridiculous.

Obviously, “Perry Bible Fellowship,” “Overcompensating.” Just the greatest hits. The ones everybody reads. “Scary Go Round,” “Dr. McNinja,” “Sam and Fuzzy,” “Questionable Content,” etc. I could go on for a long time. Suffice to say, I take a keen interest in it.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this interview tomorrow. “Penny Arcade” fans should also be out the look out the first installment of their new game, “On The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness” due out later this month.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Indie Comics forum.

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