Penny Arcade and the Slow Murder of Satire




That Mike Krahulik would revive his position on Dickwolves, calling his pulling of merchandize from his store “a mistake,” came as a move that almost no one has found particularly surprising. The shock has worn off, though it’s as shocking it was two years ago when Dickwolves first became an issue, and as shocking when Krahulik vented absolutely stunning transphobia on twitter, that no one affiliated with Penny Arcade has challenged the apocalyptically poor job of community management from its figurehead. With nothing but silence from the other half of PA, Krahulik’s writer and business partner Jerry Holkins, Penny Arcade has placed itself in a position that would be unimaginable for any other organization of its size. Certainly, PA is too big to fail singlehandedly from such a PR disaster, but that does not explain the general lack of response or seemingly any effort made to address the problem internally (or at least project the appearance of solving it).

Likely no one is stopping him because it is difficult to stop someone who thinks of themself as a hero, and Mike Krahulik most likely sees himself as hero. This has been a common defense for many comedians and self styled satirists. They claim to tell things like they really are, that they can’t be afraid of controversy if they are speaking truth, and that for them to not speak their mind would be censorship.


This involves a deliberate misunderstanding of criticism. Criticism is not saying “you should not be allowed to say that” but “if you knew X you wouldn’t have said it in the first place.” The deliberate part of the misunderstanding comes from being unwilling to face the possibility that their brilliant, true, funny insight about the world was dull, mistaken, and not very funny. Often, this accompanied by the defense that the joke, is, after all, just a joke; those who take it too seriously are misunderstanding humor itself.

Yet, Penny Arcade is extremely proud of itself for ridiculing corrupt companies, criticizing failed promises, or simply having good taste in video games. You can probably already see the contradiction: Penny Arcade gets to be taken seriously whenever they wish it to be taken seriously. Otherwise it is simply japes.

He’s not the only one, and Penny Arcade, like many satirists of this generation, are complicit in the assassination of a once respected genre of humor. Like their contemporaries, Family Guy and South Park, Penny Arcade believes that it can make claims and state opinions through humor, but those claims and opinions only exist when they want them to. All the brilliance of satire without any of the responsibility or risk that comes with committing to an actual statement.

Penny Arcade is a reflection of how “satire”—which, by refusing responsibility, is no longer satire—has begun to devour itself. Humor, just like anything else, isn’t meaningful unless it risks enough to actually say something. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins are perfectly willing to make a statement by expressing regret at pulling Dickwolves merchandize (I believe Holkin’s lack of response implicates him until he expresses otherwise) yet, curiously, do not believe that their comic could also have made a statement about rape. The self-proclaimed iconoclasts of contemporary humor have become, in fact, shills for the status quo, selling their shameless endorsement of it as edgy and subversive. They cast oppressed groups as establishment bullies and their legions of fans as plucky rebels—even as video games have become widespread mainstream entertainment. Their humor says nothing new, and it cannot be clever because it involves no reassessment on any level of anything they or their audience already thinks. They are not standing against censorship, but against the idea that their own opinions and ideas, their very form of expression, might be something that should be taken seriously. A stance against criticism is a stance against the legitimacy of their own art, which they are sacrificing to deflect responsibility. Not so different from the industry the posit themselves as critics of when they say “it’s just a game.”

Penny Arcade isn’t just an unfunny comic strip, it is FUNDAMENTALLY lacking in humor. If you want a joke better than “why did the chicken cross the road” you have to put something at risk. “Just” a joke, like “just” a game puts an entire form of artistic expression on the sacrificial altar—all to avoid saying “I’m sorry.”

I was thinking about this last night and my difficulty with people who wish the whole thing would blow over because it was a bad joke anyway don’t understand the concept of shifting punchlines. The original comic was admittedly a joke in bad taste but when rape survivors came forward and expressed their feelings about it the PA team shifted the punchline to the rape survivors. Everything they have done or said about Dickwolves since then wasn’t referencing the original joke it was referencing survivors as a punchline. That people who survived abuse don’t deserve the respect of not having that abuse thrown in their faces and that’s its funny when someone does it and they get upset. This shifted punchline shows a lack of empathy and basic respect for other people’s lives that isn’t really humor and certainly isn’t good humor.

There’s a shit-ton of irony involved here, if you think about it. I remember seeing the “dickwolves” strip when it came out—basically the joke (as far as I could tell) was, “Your ‘hero’ is so focused on achieving specific, arbitrary goals that you never think about real concepts of suffering and heroism in the game’s setting.” (“I only need to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.”) You take out the really ugly rape “joke” in the middle of it, and that strip is actually saying something interesting. I mean, my immediate reaction was, “Ugh, didn’t need to go there,” but I can also see how the strip was supposed to work—and could work, if the second line in the second panel was changed to something more like the first line.

So the “shifting punchline” aspect mentioned up there is exactly where this started irretrievably going to hell. Because in aggressively, nastily doubling down on that one element of the strip, come hell or high water—rather than saying, “That was ugly and unnecessary and we didn’t need it to make the point we were trying to make, we’re sorry“—the Penny Arcade guys became the jackass “hero” on the arbitrary quest that they were satirizing. They only want to defend ~free speech,~ all right? Quest complete.