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Soooo… now that there’s some distance… that PAX East thing

From the Producer of Law and Order

You know, I debated a while on if I should report this or even bring it up. I missed the controversy for a couple of days as I was off doing something that weekend. Also, I was a little brained by my Homestuck marathon. But… this being a site that does report on the big going ons in webcomics and this being perhaps the biggest thing to happen in a while… something happened last week at PAX East.

Rachel Edidin discusses things in her Wired piece, “Why I’m Never Going Back to Penny Arcade Expo” (which should clue you in as to what this is going to refer to):

… on Monday at PAX, in front of an audience of thousands, Krahulik told business manager Robert Khoo that he regretted pulling the Dickwolves merchandise from the Penny Arcade store — merchandise he had created as a “screw you” to rape survivors who had had the temerity to complain about a comic strip. While the audience burst into applause, Khoo nodded sagely and said that now they knew better; now they would just leave it and not engage.

This prompted quick response from online types (from who I understand were primarily from Tumblr, but this is second hand knowledge and I have no energy to do a search on this). There was even a response from fellow webcomic creator Rich Stevens from Diesel Sweeties who called them “bullies” and “Rush Limbaugh with tattoos”:

Cartoonist Rich Stevens of Diesel Sweeties reached out to WIRED when he heard we planned to report on the PAX incident. “It’s just so disappointing to see people I’ve known since we were all new and broke turn out to be such tone-deaf, old man bullies. He’s Rush Limbaugh with tattoos. I could get over the original comic if they’d just moved on or apologized, but they had to make merchandise out of rape just to poke back at people and then encourage fans to wear it to a convention that supposedly has pro-woman policies,” said Stevens.

“It’s like he never got the point of growing up having been bullied as a kid. You’re supposed to get older and not repeat it … I wish more people in our field would be open about this, but I think there is a lot of social and economic pressure not to be… I really want to let them know that not everyone in webcomics is scared to stand up to them.”

Again, I was willing to ignore this, but the core of it is a debate that I think will affect webcomics for years to come: free speech vs. responsibility. Penny Arcade, and — let’s face it — a lot of webcomics hit the big time because they were unencumbered by the censorship issues that tamp down the creativity in the more mainstream print fields. The early jokes were how Garfield had been reduced to Monday and lasagna jokes because that’s all he was allowed to do.

But now we’ve reached the point where, while webcomics aren’t exactly mainstream, they’re mainstream enough to garner attention. Most don’t seem to have a problem with the original comic so much as the follow-up responses from the Penny Arcade guys have been really rather cruel.

And, well, compounding that issue are that Krahulik and Holkins aren’t young guys trying to make it in the world anymore. I mentioned during the Strip Search reviews that attempts at being edgy just seemed forced. On the other hand, if Penny Arcade were somehow neutered of that edge? Well… then it’s not Penny Arcade anymore.

Again, there’s no easy solution, as the “free speech vs. responsibility” thing easily boils down to “young and wild forever vs. grow up already.”

On the other hand… I really should’ve gone to CafePress and made a bunch of these shirts for realsies, dontchathink?

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on September 13, 2013, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. In the interest of fairness, here’s Gabe’s “clarification” on that statement he made:

    So let me start by saying I like the Dickwolves strip. I think it’s a strong comic and I still think the joke is funny. Would we make that strip today? Knowing what we know now and seeing how it hurt people, no. We wouldn’t. But at the time, it seemed pretty benign. With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic. I regret the follow up strip, I regret making the merchandise, I regret pulling the merchandise and I regret being such an asshole on twitter to people who were upset. I don’t think any of those things were good ideas. If we had just stopped with the strip and moved on, the Dickwolf never would have become what it is today. Which is a joke at the expense of rape victims or a symbol of the dismissal of people who have suffered a sexual assault. the comic itself obviously points out the absurd morality of the average MMO where you are actually forced to help some people and ignore others in the same situation. Oddly enough, the first comic by itself is exactly the opposite of what this whole thing has turned into.

    There are people who were offended by or hurt by the joke in the strip and rather than just let it go we decided to make a second strip. That was a mistake and I apologize to this day for that strip. It was a knee jerk reaction and rather than the precision strike back at our detractors that we intended, it was a massive AOE that hurt a lot of innocent people. We should have just stopped right then but we kept going and made the merchandise. Had we left it alone, the ongoing tension about the whole thing might have subsided but Robert made the call to pull the shirts. In hindsight all this did was open the wound back up and bring on a whole new wave of debate. Any action we took at the time just dug us deeper regardless of what it was. What we needed to do was stop. just stop. I apologized for it at the time and I will still apologize for it. Everything we did after that initial comic strip was a mistake and I regret all of it.

    (emphasis mine)

    Judging by this statement, it does appear that Gabe realizes that he and Tycho made a mistake in escalating the whole Dickwolves situation, and now regrets the action. I’m not entirely sure exactly how this squares with his comment that he also regrets the decision to pull the merchandise, but there you go.

    • Thanks! It’s weird reading that statement and the response at PAX East, and I’m have a hard time reconciling with the two myself, but it’s nice to see that statement. (Though, going by the letter of the post, I think he’s saying that pulling the shirts escalated the issue, which… I don’t think was case at all.)

    • I appreciate that he wrote that statement about the issue. My only problem is his total lack of forethought about the whole thing. It was a long-term drawn-out joke that pissed off a lot of people while rallying others stupidly behind it making matters worse. It felt a little like a train wreck that Gabe saw coming a mile away and had plenty of time to react properly to, but instead he kept his engines on full steam barreling toward it. Then after the crash, he stands beside the wreckage and says “Hm. This was a mistake and I regret all of it.” — Kind of a bit late for that? Still, it’s better than saying nothing, definitely.

  2. I don’t exactly get the whole controversy surrounding Dickwolves? I mean it was part of a joke and it was hilarious due to how over the top it was.
    Why did this become such a big deal?

    • Personally, I was perfectly fine with the original comic, and I initially agreed that the complaints were overreactions. But then Gabe and Tycho did that second strip, and starting doing the merchandise, and my reaction was basically, “what the hell, guys?”.

      The whole situation went from one where any offense was clearly unintentional, to one where they were deliberately provoking a group of people for no good reason.

    • I’ve got a short version of that I’ve been using for a couple years now: Freedom of Speech does not equal immunity to response.

  3. Just by way of reminder: Free speech only has to do with the individual and the state/state institutions. People like to throw it around like they’re entitled to be assholes where ever and whenever they like. It doesn’t apply to websites that ban you, it’s not a defence to other people making fun of what you said, and as others have said, whatever rights someone might think they have to express themselves, if you make a rape joke on the internet, anyone else the same right to boo you into submission.

    In summary; no entitlement to free speech in private forums/interactions, and don’t dish it if you can’t take.

  4. “Limbaugh with tattoos”! Oh! How *cutting*!

    I don’t bother with Limbaugh either – too busy with Vox Day, Mencius Moldbug, and Radish ;^)

  5. Hmm, I’m a little late to the party here but I have something to add.

    One thing I’ve noticed about Gabe’s reaction to the whole mess is that he can’t understand why people would be offended by a rape joke because he personally is not. Krahulik is not the most empathetic of people. In one of the recent podcasts, he mocked people who announced they came out as atheists and Holkins had to remind Krahulik that Holkins’ Christian family are still disappointed after decades that he doesn’t believe in God.

    To Krahulik, it was written as a joke about NPC amorality. Therefore it can only be about NPC amorality. However in the PATV series, he describes the writing style of the comic as the second panel containing the punchline and then the third panel is what happens afterwards. So by that logic, rape was the punchline of the strip. But that’s not the way he sees it and so he will never understand why people have a problem with it. He can understand he reacted wrongly to it, but not much else.

    Honestly, the original strip doesn’t bother me. Mike’s willful ignorance kind of does though, but it’s not like that’s going to change.

    • Oh, hey there, David! Good to see you posting here again.

      And yeah, I completely agree that the problem wasn’t so much the comic per se, as it was what the comic (and the subsequent reaction) revealed about the Penny Arcade guys, particularly Gabe. It’s the same general situation as with Gabe’s recent Twitter comments about trans folks, where he just didn’t seem to understand (or, perhaps, care) how his comments could be seen as offensive towards the trans community.

  1. Pingback: The Webcomic Overlook #234: Penny Arcade (2013) | The Webcomic Overlook

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