I was talking with my friend Katy today when she brought up the concept of word association games, something she plays with the students she teaches English to. She brought up how she would pick out a random topic, like that of an empty wall.
The thought of an empty, white, wall first reminds me of how it could be filled up with something to make it more interesting. Graffiti, art, posters, or what have you. That’s the first thought that occurs to me when I think of walls.
Walls also remind me of the time I thought to hit my head against the wall because I was so mad with my parents. I can’t even recall what I was angry about, except that it made me want to bang my head against the wall because it’d been something I’d seen on TV. Kids banging their heads against the wall in frustration and anger. Did it help? Or would it just make my head hurt? I was too afraid to try, so I didn’t bang my head against the wall very hard. It was just a few knocks and that alone frustrated me beyond my initial point of anger.
Needless to say, I had a lot of anger issues as a teenager. I was always fighting, quarreling with my parents—especially my mother, even though I was closer to her than I was with my dad. I never really connected with my dad. He always seemed a distant figure, so much so that I felt closer to my uncle than I did to my dad because he was rarely ever around in my life.
Being in the military, dad was always away, posted out to some distant outpost. He returned often, but we never really clicked. More than being physically distant, dad was always emotionally distant, so I never felt as if I could confide in him my problems because he’d always make it about himself. It’s how my dad solved his own problems—by making them about him and dealing with it on his own terms and not on anyone else’s terms. No one ever managed to solve their son’s depression by treating it as a problem to be “fixed” like any other.
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.”