It's a little past noon, and Jerry Holkins is just waking up. He might get out of bed, make himself some tea, and sit down in front of his computer. Or he might just decide that he wants to go back to sleep. Either way, tens of thousands of people will be reading what he has to say, when he gets around to saying it. That's how he makes his living.
Jerry is half of the team responsible for the online comic Penny Arcade. Holkins and his friend Mike Krahulik started the three-panel pop culture/video game-themed strip in 1998, when they were living together in Spokane. Now on any given day, even when there is no new comic to read, no fewer than 20,000 people visit www.penny-arcade.com, but 32,000 is normal. In online terms, the site receives 6 million hits a month, and that doesn't count the strips that get pasted into e-mails and sent to friends around the globe. There's a Penny Arcade book coming out, and a fan club that calls itself the "Penny Arcade Cult." Both Holkins and Krahulik are 24 years old.
For all that is said about Spokane's potential as a high-tech haven, actual Internet success stories seem few and far between. But Holkins and Krahulik quietly went about creating an outlet for their ideas -- and an income for themselves -- all without leaving their home in the Inland Northwest.
Like their online comic-strip counterparts -- a character named Tycho Brahe for Holkins and one named Gabe for Krahulik -- the two are continually engaged in some form of dialogue. They interrupt each other so frequently, it's hard to tell if one is trying to irritate the other, or if they simply know how to work together remarkably well.
The scene also seems to extend itself into the writing of the comic strip. "Mike will call me up, sometimes before I'm awake, wanting to talk about the script," Holkins explains. "Then anything can happen. It would be hard to say where it begins. The methodology that we use to berate each other is ever changing."
That tone, one of friendly loathing, also works itself into the strip's subject matter, which is drawn from anything that catches their attention. Movie trailers, video game demos and cultural icons all find themselves in the context of two guys expressing their candid thoughts; it's sort of like Punch and Judy or The Honeymooners for young adults circa 2001. They have written ironic strips about the history of art criticism and confusing strips about changing light bulbs. Krahulik even proposed to his wife in a comic on the Web site.
The real trick that the two managed to pull off, however, was finally transforming their pastime into a full-time occupation. When they started to write the cartoons, Krahulik was working at a computer retail store and Holkins did tech support for Spokane Public School District 81.
"We were living together at the time, playing video games," explains Krahulik, who does the artwork. "We wanted to write a comic book. Like an actual full-page superhero comic book type thing..."
Holkins, who co-writes the strip and updates the Web site, interjects: "You've seen it, you know: magical people."
"...but we were always too busy playing video games," Krahulik continues. "So we'd get two pages done, and think they were stupid."
"And we'd quit."
The two did manage, however, to put together several small comic strips for submission to an online video game site that was looking for a cartoon to run regularly. Nothing ended up happening with that first endeavor, but they had gotten a taste for doing the comic, so they began shopping it around. Before long, their comic was picked up by one Web site, and readers began to respond. "We were under the impression that we would be making money in relatively short order," says Holkins.
But it did not work out that way.
"This is an old story, apparently, for anyone who's ever had to essentially work on the grace of another person, especially on the Internet, Holkins continues. "You meet these people on occasion, but you never actually see them. And I would imagine that our experience is not uncommon. Essentially, you have these distant, unaccountable human beings, and they make promises and say that they're making plans."
Krahulik interrupts: "There are always plans. There is always something in the works."
"If you hear that," Holkins finishes, "don't even take it with a grain of salt, because a grain of salt is too damn big for the kind of value they are actually imparting."
When what seemed like their first big break never yielded any cash, they started their own site, and began posting three new comics each week. Eventually they did find a company that wanted to carry their increasingly popular site, and could pay them for their work and the traffic it was generating, and they began making money. More money than they were making at their other jobs, which they quit. Soon they were doing the things they wanted to do, like pay off bills and buy arcade machines. But that was not necessarily their initial goal.
"Those values, and the idea that you'd be able to make money on this, is still alien to us, even though we're doing it," observes Holkins.
Krahulik clarifies: "Yeah, the concept that it might not be enough is even more alien. It's like, well, this is all I have to do. What more do you want? I quit my job selling computers, and I draw cartoons all day. And then people ask, 'Well, are you being paid enough?' I quit my job selling computers, and I draw cartoons all day."
Of course, the Internet is the Internet, and companies that were once raking in virtual dollars often now find themselves sifting ones and zeros. Very recently, Penny Arcade's online sponsor made the decision to drop the site. What exactly will happen next is still uncertain.
But it doesn't change the fact that both Holkins and Krahulik, in their early 20s and from Spokane, connected with thousands of fans, simply by doing what they felt like doing. Krahulik's art has gained enough exposure that he currently has the luxury of turning down jobs doing artwork for magazines and Web sites. Holkins moved to Seattle this summer, not because he wanted to be around more dot-com companies, but because his wife works there, in a non-virtual job. And they recently signed a deal with a Spokane publisher, Kiwe Publishing, to release a collection of their comics in book form. The limited edition is already selling well on the publisher's Web site.
Perhaps Penny Arcade can attribute its status as an underground hit to the fact that its subject fills a specific niche. But beyond the specific entertainment topics, the sadistically snappy dialogue, and the slick visuals, it is easy to see that the characters do have things in common with real people. They just happen to know a lot more about video games and care less about what the world thinks of them.
"When it comes right down to it, we're both dorks," explains Holkins. "We're best friends, but we've also worked together day in and day out for over two years. At 24 years old, I don't remember being this committed to anything or anyone other than my wife. My transition to adulthood was with Penny Arcade. It's a wonderful hobby/job/whatever. We didn't plan to start doing it. I guess at some point, when it gets really boring, we'll stop."