With Great Power Comes Dickwolves: Penny Arcade Trips Again

Well, PAX has come and gone, and Dorkadia has reaped mighty rewards, and covered it thoroughly. I missed it myself due to family commitments, but I’m living vicariously through our coverage and the dazed, zombie-like shuffles of the rest of our staff (those who have not already succumbed to PAX Pox). I was already budgeting for next year when I heard about the latest Pratfall of Penny Arcade, and when my first thought was “Augh, not again,” I realized that a reaction like that might be a sign of something. Something that deserves a little examination.

I’ll spare you another Dickwolves recap; if you’re not familiar, Kotaku ran a thorough and unbiased recap of the whole clusterfuck up through the events of PAX. And of course Gabe posted an apology, as is par for the course. It’s a revisiting of events two years old, and that may be the most frustrating thing about it – that nothing seems to have changed, that we can’t put the Dickwolves to bed. And more, what it means to the PAX community that their founders are still struggling with it.

It’d be some glaring foolishness to speak for feminist activists who can speak quite well for themselves, or for troubled game designers struggling to choose between their careers and their ideals. Even MC Frontalot dropped some knowledge on us. Who I can speak for is myself, just another dude who leans towards social justice but also really, really likes a big fan-oriented video game convention. And what I’m seeing troubles me all to hell, because I keep seeing it, over and over, and no signs that it’s ever going to change.

When Gabe & Tycho started out Penny Arcade, they were video game anarchists, lobbing cherry bombs of truth over the fences of Big Pixelation. That’s what made them successful, besides being wildly talented and hard-working; they had something to say that the gaming community wanted to hear and the gaming industry needed to hear. They were sharp, and they were mean, and more often than not, they were right, and from those humble beginnings, they hacked and slashed their way to success. They were satirists, in the grand tradition, helping the nascent idea of the “gamer community” take shape.

And fifteen years later, things have changed. They’re not just two guys drawing dicks in a basement while Khoo turns their work into a handful of t-shirts. Penny Arcade is a multi-million dollar brand that runs three annual conventions, for tens of thousands of gamers. They were in the Time 100, for fuck’s sake! That’s amazing. But it also means that the rules have changed for them; like it or not, Penny Arcade is the establishment now. Gamers take their cues from Gabe & Tycho and the empire they’ve built, draw inspiration from their work and from their statements. When they say “We’re just two guys drawing a webcomic!” that’s just wishful thinking.

There’s an adjustment period for that kind of thing, and that’s fair. But I think that adjustment period expired, oh, a few years ago when they printed the damn Dickwolves shirts in the first place. As with many, I didn’t have a real problem with the strip itself – I mean, say “Dickwolf” out loud, it’s hilarious for a few reasons – but as was pointed out at the time, the same totally on-point joke about MMORPGs could’ve been made with “clobbered to death by the Dickwolves!” or whatever. If you’re going to press the Big Red R-Word Button, you had better be damned sure it’s the only way of making your point.

And when objections were raised, obnoxious as they might be to Gabe & Tycho’s artistic sensibilities, they didn’t respond like leaders of a community. They responded by lashing out at critics, and mocking survivors, and printing t-shirts that were essentially “Team Rape Joke” jerseys. Think about that last one; it wasn’t just that they said “Hey, survivors, fuck you.” They made money off of saying it.

So things carried on (you know the story, and if not, it’s in the links above), and in the course of time Penny Arcade pulled the offending shirts. And I, and many other PAX-going fans of Gabe’s art, Tycho’s wit, and the community launched by Khoo’s acumen, allowed ourselves to think that this is what was called a teachable moment. That these creatives had learned from their misstep, the way so many of us do, because that’s what it’s all about – nobody’s born perfect, nobody’s born with some innate empathy that allows them to immediately register the pain of other people without knowing anything about them. You have to learn those boundaries, and the louder your voice when you cross one of them, the harder it’s going to be.

But two years later, it’s hard to tell if they learned a good god-damn thing.

For me, the most frustrating part, more than Gabe’s statement (ugh) or defensive apology (also ugh) or Tycho’s continual silence (hella ugh), is what Robert Khoo, the legendary adult in the room, said on the panel. “In fact, pulling [the shirts] was a way of engaging.” Think about that. Not printing them. Not promoting them. Not staying silent while fans of their work turned “Dickwolf!” into a rallying cry for harassment. No, it was quietly removing goods from their store after months of outrage that was “engaging” with a situation they created, they exacerbated, and they barely addressed as it imploded. If he said his biggest regret was that they made the shirts at all, sure. But his regret was that they backed off because they were bringing up the issue again. At the end of the day, they shouldn’t have made the shirts in the first place and THAT should have been his biggest regret.

It’s one thing to say “We’re creatives, not social activists, our responsibility stops at the X on your browser tab.” But Gabe & Tycho have never hesitated to put their weight behind things that are important to them, whether it’s the commendable charity juggernaut that is Child’s Play or trolling the veins out of Jack Thompson’s forehead. So why, here, are they abrogating the responsibility their bully pulpit gives them? Because they’ve been scolded; because they don’t want to face the possibility that something that originated with the heart & soul of their franchise – the webcomic itself – might have ended up hurting people? Whatever the cause, what they’re saying is that the survivors who attend their own convention, who want to be part of this community they’ve created, aren’t as important as…as whatever the hell this is about for them.

And maybe that’s just it. Maybe what this is about, and I’m freely speculating here, is the right of Penny Arcade to do what they’ve always done and say what they’ve always said – which is whatever the hell they want. It’s how they got rich and famous, after all. But when you are rich and famous as a humorist, swinging freely is no longer an option. You break the golden rule of satire – punch upwards. Don’t pick on the easy targets; don’t mock the people with no platform to mock back; don’t go for a laugh at the expense of victims and then claim the mantle of victim when you’re called out on it.

Well, Penny Arcade punched downwards with the Dickwolf Crisis, and at PAX, Gabe and Khoo took another swing. Before, in the fallout of the t-shirt crisis, I used big phrases like “abrogation of responsibility” and “obsession with artistic merit” when I was talking about this. Gave Penny Arcade outs in my words, because that way, as a fan and a con-goer and a member of the community, I gave myself an out too. But now I’d be lying if I spoke of it as anything what it is – picking on the powerless, targeting the voiceless, throwing their weight around like the 800-lb gorilla, all for a cheap laugh and a few more bucks. Bullying, from the ultimate anti-bullies of our community, from guys who are now raising that same once-victimized, bully-hunter shield to defend them from the very people they’re picking on.

In the deafening silence of Jerry Holkins, who always has something to say, and the absurd reversals of Robert Khoo, who’s supposed to be keeping this whole thing on the rails, and most of all the defensive anger of Mike Krahulik – he of the Spider-Man worship, who ought to know better than anyone that “With great power comes great responsibility” – I hope I heard something else. I hope I heard the tiniest bit of shame from guys who realize that they’ve become the establishment they opposed and the bullies they hate. I really hope that it was there, and that they act on it soon, cause otherwise, well, I’ll miss going to PAX, and reading that funny comic three days a week.

That’s not a dire threat or anything; don’t mistake the weight of my few shekels for self-importance. It’s just my particular line in the sand. Everyone’s got to draw their own, and I kinda wonder how many potential con-goers and merch-buyers are drawing it. If not, they can always wait the next time the voices of Penny Arcade fail their community.