16-year-old me would have been shocked to see Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik on Time Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People list. In high school, Penny Arcade was among many webcomics I read, chortling at its vulgarity and intelligent, idiosyncratic commentary on the gaming industry.
Since then, they've used their growing popularity to start an annual gaming expo in Seattle, called PAX, and a kids' charity, Child's Play; they've made games, collaborated with numerous other artists, stirred up online controversy, built up a staff of about ten and an audience of 3.5 million, and become, in Time's opinion, "the tastemakers, and conscience, of an industry the size of Hollywood."
Their newest project is Strip Search: an online reality game show about webcomic artists.
Reality TV is renowned for being the absolute worst way to convey reality, but Strip Search stands out for a lack of inter-personal tension, back-biting, and fame-seeking posturing.
"Ostensibly, if you wanted to do a reality show," says Jerry, writer of PA and co-creator of Strip Search with Mike Krahulik, "it probably wouldn't hurt to have some kind of tension. To us, that was more or less the existing model. But when we were looking through the little packets they [contestants] would send, the interview and the video questions, we really were choosing the work that we liked the best.
"Personality was not our primary thing, but we were obviously very well served. These are real people." It's true; Strip Search's contestants are remarkably humble and grounded.
Though they're far from being famous, all of the contestants have some kind of online presence. "It isn't like Project Runway," says Jerry, "where you're not going to be able to see their stuff really, or you're not going to be able to taste the food on Top Chef. You can actually go be a fan of these comics and these artists today."
This, to some degree, keeps them on their best behavior. They have an obligation to represent themselves the way that they would want to be seen by a current and potential readership.
Jerry takes it a step further. "Web comic artists—and this is a problem for any independent medium, indie games, app store—ask me what can be done to succeed to a greater extent. It's a problem of exposure, and that's sort of the deeper payload of Strip Search. Mike and I can determine who wins the game, but there can be multiple winners and there doesn't actually have to be any loser in the conventional sense."
The show provides instant exposure to all of the contestants, connecting them to the PA name and showing their art and personalities.
The challenges, too, test and develop their skills in a number of practical, industry-related fields. This isn't just making dresses out of garbage or a meal out of olives and Thai Chili Sauce. They have to make art, sure, but they also have to respond to Twitter trolls, deal with the public, and set up convention booths. This struggle, the internal one, is where the show's drama surfaces.
Contestants face three challenges each day, the third being an elimination round in which two contestants write and illustrate a full comic strip in 90 minutes, while the creators (Mike and Jerry) heckle and goad them.
"Lexxy," asks Mike Krahulik, illustrator of PA, in one usual elimination round question, "if you had to pick one person from the house to attend your birthday party, and one person to die, who would they be?"
Along with testing the artists' concentration and nerve, the questions put them off their guard and get them to reflect on their process. It's also, of course, a deliberate homage to reality TV as a standard, and that "existing model" of abusive judges, interpersonal tension, and induced bad behavior.
Each day ends with Jerry and Mike surprising the eliminated contestant with enthusiastic encouragement and advice—in the back seat of their car home.
"People respond to that moment," says Jerry, "but that was not planned at all. It's just that when we did the first elimination, it was so hard, and Alex's pain was real to me, and when we saw that they'd turned the camera off, we just sort of got into the truck."
Strip Search, with two episodes per week broadcast free online, represents a coveted boost to networking and publicity, but also a sort of boot camp for artists serious about working in a mercurial industry still in its infancy. What makes it stand out in its genre is its genuine intention to show artists for their best work rather than induce them into portraying their worst behavior. What makes it revolutionary is that, by featuring artists whose work is already online and free, who make money only by advertising and selling T-shirts, even the losers can win big if they take advantage of the brief limelight.