Marshal McLuahn as any Canadian will tell you, codified the idea that the medium is the message; that modes of communication are greater than the ideas that we communicate with them, changing infrastructure around them. Consider this:
One of these is edited in some fairly inconsequential ways. One of them is the original. Any serious scrutiny will tell which is which. But could you, without the comparison, tell easily what was ‘wrong’ with the strip?
The comic panel is a visual medium that allows us to convey a wealth of information through single slices of momentary time, instances where we do not see animation but its cessation. A panel invites scrutiny and we construct time through the transition of panels.
A man opens a door, a wide panel showing much of the street; a narrow panel, showing little, focusing our attention. The second space becomes smaller, threatening, and the man becomes less distinct. We observe him then we become the observor he approaches.
Narrower still. A frame within a frame. We are observing the man moving away from us, within the building now (look at the stairs), a neighbour peeking out. He is not unnoticed. He is not unfeared – even as we know nothing about him from this. I am not, I want to underscore, saying that Penny Arcade needs to be Watchmen. But Watchmen has in it valuable lessons about how comics work, what comic panels do and how you can use them. Moore famously wrote entire pages of description about world, setting, tone and the space of each panel so that Gibson had the tools to actualise the right visual atmosphere.
Here now is literally every single thing that needs to be provided to convey to an artist the information in the PA strip:
here is that exact same idea:
Now here’s the funny thing. Penny Arcade know that this is a bad way to do comics. compare and contrast, 2000 to 2012
The first one is just the same joke held for three panels; effort was done to re-draw them but they only show a degree of animation, the enthusiasm for the Hat Of Money that, y’know, we’re all learning, I’m not going to complain and the line was pretty funny at the time.
The second one is, like the first, basically a monologue, but they use the cinematic space of the comic panel to do something. You get an implementation of the art: Setting, diner, public space.
Tycho’s haunted expression, closing in on the face.
That near-reverential moment where he closes his eyes
and struggles to vocalise what he has learned,
what he has experienced.
What this has made of him,
what he has become.
It’s a poop joke.
Now here’s a similar application of the idea: The camera conveys that this conversation is slow and peaceful, that there is a pastoral gentleness to this comic. It’s not funny but it is warm and nice and I don’t hate it.
Maybe this was just a lazy day. Maybe this was just one day where they decided they wanted to spend 68 words (not even nice) to make a 10 word joke. A 10 word joke they’d made before! It’s like the most basic of gamer jokes, following only after That Person Didn’t Understand Our Jargon, Therefore We Must Overreact Massively. This strip is just Genesis Does What Nintendon’t for arseholes who don’t like Polygon.
I don’t know what comparisons YOU want to make about Penny Arcade, but here’s mine:
The comic as a medium is visual. You can do talking-head dialogue if you want, and lords knows a couple of millionaires are entitled to phone it in on a day to day basis. It’s only poor people who get graded on the quality of their work.
The strange thing is, that as a projection of its author, of the things that I feel this comic is trying to do, I feel this comic very deeply. I feel it because I know I want to do the same thing. I know that I love the feeling of a rolling avalanche of Oh BURN! of mocking someone over and over, with multiple hilarious off-the-cuff comparisons. You start with something small and dismissive, then you double down and then you double down again and again when the sheer depth and quantity of your endless riffing becomes, itself, a source of comedy. It’s an amazing moment!
Then imagine going home, sitting down, working all day on that rolling avalanche of burn, coming up with your list, then getting an artist to make a visual for it for which you had NO ACTUAL NEED, and put it before your audience
And it’s this.
L’esprit de l’escalier mécanique.