by Daniel Kaszor
June 21, 2013
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Twitter is a hard place to have a conversation says Mike Krahulik.
A few hours after the latest Penny-Arcade misstep, Post Arcade editor Matt Hartley came over to my desk and looked incredulously at me.
“What’s wrong with this guy?” he said.
He simply could not understand the recent actions of Mike Krahulik. As the artist who draws the popular video game webcomic Penny Arcade, Krahulik is not only an icon in the gaming world, he’s also a primary face behind one of the largest gaming conventions in North America (Penny Arcade Expo), and one of the biggest gaming related charities (Child’s Play).
Our editor just couldn’t understand how Krahulik could possibly hurt those brands with such an unforced error as making blatantly anti-transgender comments on twitter. For those who don’t want to read the comments, Krakulik essentially said that trans people are just people in elaborate drag.
But I’m not sure that Krahulik sees himself in the same light as my editor and indeed, much of the gaming world.
Krahulik has said that he sees himself as just the art guy on some stupid webcomic. Both he and the other half of the Penny Arcade comic team — writer Jerry Holkins — have often expressed befuddlement at their brand’s success, seeing themselves as just a couple of guys who write a sometimes offensive online comic strip that somehow spawned an impressive gaming empire around them.
Of course, the problem is that, whether they like it or not, Penny Arcade is more than that.
Krahulik and Holkins are the public faces of a company, and make a point of being in front of everything it does. They emcee several aspects of the massive Penny Arcade Expos. They host the auction dinner for their still growing gaming charity Child’s Play. They provide the characters for their yearly Dungeons & Dragons podcast with Wil Wheaton.
Sure, a lot (most) of the work putting these events together belongs to their team, led by their Business Development Guru Robert Khoo, but both the Penny Arcade creators put their personal stamps on everything associated with the brand.
Whether they like it or not, they are both inextricably tied to Penny Arcade.
This means that every time they say something stupid it hurts not just them, but the entire empire they’ve built, an empire based around community and inclusiveness.
PAX was, and still is, a success because the Penny Arcade team sold it as an event built for the community — for gamers — and people embraced that at least partially because of good will they felt towards Penny Arcade.
Indeed, the righteous anger and jerk behaviour that both Krahulik and Holkins would show in the comic was often lauded by the community, as it was often directed at people who were trying to pull a fast one, such as when the team faced off against anti-video-game activist Jack Thompson.
Now the cracks are starting to show in the Penny Arcade veneer
In mid-2010, Penny Arcade released a comic entitled “The Sixth Slave.” It had a rape joke in it.
[Man] Hero! Please, take me with you! Release me from this hell unending! Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.
[Wolf] I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.
[Man] But ...
[Wolf] Hey. Pal. Don't make this weird.
© 2010 Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, http://www.penny-arcade.com
That, in and of itself wasn’t even really the issue. What was the issue was how the team reacted when someone complained.
Instead of accepting the — admittedly strong — criticism that rape is a serious issue, Holkins and Krahulik opted to mock the complainant. They even went so far as to create a line of “dickwolf” t-shirts based on the joke within the comic, which many believe passive-aggressively belittled rape victims.
Matthew Inman boasts that his site, The Oatmeal, has received over a billion page views since he launched it in 2009, making it one of most widely read comics in the world. But Inman bears little relation to his lumpy everyman profile on the site, and the disconnect between that cheerful profile and his actual identity — an edgy comic and unapologetic online operator — collided this week after a rape joke made its way into his typically safe comic.
In this comic, Inman described the role of different keys on the keyboard. F5, he said, was the “rape victim” of the group. “I MUST VIOLATE YOU OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!” a rapist blob monster said to the F5 key as it ran away crying.
Inman quickly found that he’s now too big to jest about sexual violence in the language of Reddit. The Internet was quick to trash the comic.
His own fans quickly took him to task on The Oatmeal’s Facebook page. “Really, in your awesomeness and creativity, you couldn’t come up with something better than a rape ‘joke’?” one asked. “I expected more from you.”
At first Inman ignored the criticism, but by Tuesday, he felt enough heat to remove the panel with the rape joke. But he added a comment at the bottom complaining that comedians like himself are no longer allowed to say the word “rape.” Defensively, Inman said he’s previously “donated $1,000 of my own money to a battered women’s group.”
The removed panel from Inman’s comic theoatmeal.com / Via elevatorgate.wordpress.com
“To all those who complained: thank you for censoring me,” he wrote. “It worked.”
He had to walk that sneering response back, too, writing on Twitter that both the comic and the comment were “fucking stupid.” He finally said he was sorry, then quit Twitter for the day. The comic is no longer listed on his website’s homepage, though it remains accessible with the last panel removed.
Inman is finding what big American businesses have known for decades: Keeping your mouth shut is generally better for business. Inman embodies a generation of online publishing entrepreneurs who came up as independent figures, with a touch of the outlaw. On one hand, Inman sees himself as a comedian, an artist who has to answer to nobody, a guy who works for himself and is thus finally free to mock people who dislike his work. But on the other hand, The Oatmeal has always been first and foremost a business, designed by a formula to be as popular and inoffensive as possible to the social-media-sharing Internet public.
And making rape jokes is bad for business.
Unlike most cartoonists, online and off, Inman, 30, came to the profession by way of one of the Internet’s most-hated practices: Search engine optimization tricks.
Inman, back when The Guardian speculated in 2008 on whether he was a “genius…or a fiend,” was an online marketer who made his name devising quizzes and cartoons aimed at going viral on the web. But the real purpose of this linkbait was what was hidden inside: search-engine keywords and links to his clients’ websites, an underhanded tactic meant to shoot them to the top of Google.
Inman’s transformation from a reviled search-engine-optimization expert and marketer to a beloved comic artist was less dramatic than it sounds. Inman has described The Oatmeal as a kind of continuation of his Internet marketing work. He’s still making cartoons and quizzes carefully configured to go viral, but instead of doing it for clients, he’s now lining his pockets directly. And on The Oatmeal, he hosts some comics and quizzes originally created for SEO traffic right alongside work created originally for the site.
“With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else,” he said in an interview two years ago.
Inman’s SEO work was successful, but he was always beholden to the whims of Google, which doesn’t appreciate schemers looking to game its search engine, and shut down one of his most effective tricks, hiding the term “free online dating” in unrelated quizzes.
With a webcomic, though, Inman doesn’t have to rely on outrunning the Google police. Instead, he focused from the start on the conversations on other, more human, platforms.
“At the beginning, I assumed that, to be successful, I had to sort of pander to these ideas that were coming out of Digg,” Inman told an interviewer this month. Digg, of course, is no longer the social media giant it once was, but posting his comics there was responsible for much of his early success. Inman said he regrets that blatant pandering now, but his comics still seem to be written according to that formula — simply pointed at Reddit, Digg’s bigger spiritual descendent.
But Inman has had a complicated relationship with Reddit. Two years ago, Redditors discovered he had been posting his comics to the site himself, and, in his past job as an Internet marketer, had posted his linkbait quizzes and comic infographics designed to draw traffic to his SEO clients. If there’s one thing Reddit hates, it’s spammers, and after Inman’s Reddit activity was outed in a thread for a webcomic satirizing The Oatmeal’s pandering, there was a veritable Reddit backlash against his comic.
Inman reacted by rickrolling readers who had been linked to The Oatmeal from Reddit.
Soon he stopped, and Reddit, apparently unable to resist a webcomic from a sharp traffic guru aimed squarely at them, resumed serving as a major source of traffic. But the damage was done. Inman mocked his critics, but in the end, when his bottom line was threatened, his business sense forced him to capitulate.
A year after starting The Oatmeal, Inman said he was already making half a million dollars in profit a year annually from the site.
-- The Secrets of the Internet's Most Beloved Viral Marketer, by Jack Stuef
Heyyyyyy kids, who wants a big ol' dildo?!
It's your birthday! May a meteorite strike your worst enemy right in the balls today.
It's your birthday. I hope a glorious rainbow makes its way across the universe and hits you right in the junk.
It's your birthday! I hope an angry badger mauls your worst enemy right in the privates today.
What are your chances of surviving an intense lovemaking session with Bigfoot?
by Matt Inman of The Oatmeal
The argument was never that they shouldn’t be allowed to make the joke, but that the critics wished that they were the types of people who wouldn’t make the joke.
In the end, the Penny Arcade creators basically decided to “agree to disagree” and essentially stop talking about it. The entire thing had an entirely Chris Brown feeling too it: It wasn’t just that they had done something wrong, it’s that they fundamentally did not understand why people were mad at them.
Admittedly, the issue drained most of my enthusiasm for Penny Arcade. It made me not want to go to PAX. It made me not especially want to read the comic anymore. It made me hesitant to read the (mostly unrelated) Penny Arcade Report. I’ve never taken the time to watch their cartoonist-themed reality show.
To be clear, I wasn’t boycotting any of these things. Boycotting implies that I was refraining from buying something or partaking in something I otherwise would have enjoyed in an effort to teach someone else a lesson. This wasn’t the case. Instead, my overall enjoyment of the products they associate themselves with lost their lustre to me. They became less interesting.
I wasn’t alone in this assessment. The refrain of “I haven’t really been on side with Penny Arcade since the dickwolves thing,” while not completely widespread, is certainly something that comes up fairly regularly on Twitter and elsewhere.
Still, there are many in the gaming industry who see the entire incident as a little blip in the Penny Arcade history. A slight aberration for a couple of guys who make a living talking to their community.
However, Krahulik’s more recent support of a tentacle-rape card game and this most recent anti-trans rant makes it seem less like an aberration and more like the views of a small-minded jerk.
Final Tentacle Bento
So much of what Penny Arcade does is wrapped up in the idea of the guys behind Penny Arcade seeming like a bunch of good dudes you would love to play a few games with.
Now they’re starting to seem like that awkward guy who keeps coming to your board gaming sessions, upsetting everyone with the things they do and say, and you wind up having to explain to everyone else why you’re still friends with them.
Krahulik posted a response to the most recent controversy on the Penny Arcade website. The response mostly entails the email exchange he had with a trans-woman, Sophie Prell, who works at The Penny Arcade Report and considers Krahulik a friend.
The response is problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Krahulik doubles down on his position and secondly, it comes across a lot like “I can’t be transphobic, I have trans friends!” However, at the very least Krahulik is not dividing the issue into an “us” versus “them” scenario like he did in the past. Hopefully, this can lead to a greater understanding for him than with the dickwolves issue.
But let’s be clear, this is far from resolved.
So to Mike Krahulik I say this:
I understand freedom of speech is important to you. It’s important to me too. But speech has consequences. Speech has responsibility. When you start saying things that alienate people, they will walk away. This isn’t because they want to shut you up, it’s because they don’t want to hear what you have to say.
That would be fine if you were simply toiling away on a webcomic. Then you could fade away to semi-obscurity like Tim Buckley’s Control-Alt-Delete; serving a core of dedicated fans and not really bothering the wider world. No one would have to read it.
[Father] You know son, they say that every time a dragon speaks an unborn baby dies.
[Pregnant Woman] [Experiencing Pain]
CTRL+ALT+DEL, by Tim Buckley
But you aren’t just an artist anymore. Like it or not, you’re a leader.
Everything you do is tied to the Penny Arcade brand, which includes both the Penny Arcade Expo and the Child’s Play charity. PAX is a great grassroots endeavour, something that is important and increasingly essential to games culture.
The virtues of Child’s Play, which gives millions of dollars in games to sick children and hospitals, do not need to be explained. It is a tremendous initiative.
I like you so much, I'd dragon kick a baby for you.
Without a smiley face: imma dragon kick a baby.
Oops! Hit a pocket of babies!
What your life will really be like after having kids
[Father] I haven't slept in three fucking years.
[Baby 1] WAA WAAAA! BLOOOORRRRRRCH!!!
[Baby 2] WAAAAA! THRRPPPPPTT!
Congrats on the new baby!
[Baby] POOOOOOOOOP! THRRPTT!
Happy you-exploded-out-of-a-vagina day!
[Uterus-Dragon] You will never escape this cave! Horhorhor hahahaaa!
[Baby] That's what you think, Uterus-Dragon.
Happy you-escaped-from-a-vagina day!
KRAB 5 News: Breaking!
Insanely overweight demon bunny eats bus full of schoolkids!
Heyyyyyy kids, who wants a big ol' dildo?!
by Matt Inman of The Oatmeal
It would be a shame if people stopped supporting PAX or Child’s Play because you wanted to be closed minded. Because you wanted to exclude people. Because you couldn’t take the time take another perspective. And it would be tragedy if these great things that you helped build suffered because people turned their back on you.
I understand this isn’t easy. I understand that it’s hard to change your mind on something after you dig in.
But it can be done. And frankly, your reasons aren’t significant in the grand scheme of things.
So please, be bigger than this. Because this is bigger than you.
UPDATE: Krahulik has written several more times on the Penny Arcade site and has promised a $20,000 personal donation to the Trevor Project an organization battling suicide in the LGBT youth.
UPDATE Sept 3: Krahulik has stated that he regrets pulling merchandise related to the dickwolves controversy.
UPDATE Jan 6: Krahulik posts a New Year’s Resolution pledging to do better.