Is Penny Arcade being ghost drawn?

Sep 30 2012

Penny Arcade is probably the most popular web comic in existence. It is undoubtably the most financially successful: it has spawned several video games, a card game, two large video game exhibitions, a web series, a news site and even a charity for sick children.

It’s safe to assume that Penny Arcade’s creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have a lot on their plates at any given time.

However, I believe there is evidence that the quality of the web comic itself has suffered: in particular, the art style has deteriorated in a significant way in recent years. Consider the following comic from September 24, 2010:

Sep 24, 2010 Penny Arcade Comic

And compare it to the comic from the same day, 2 years later:

Sep 24, 2012 Penny Arcade Comic

At a first glance, the characters in both strips look similar. They have the same basic shapes, posture and clothing. There’s nothing unusual about that.

However, if you pay attention to the facial expressions they are making, the difference is striking. In the 2010 strip, the character’s faces are much more consistent with what they seem to be saying. In the middle panel, Tycho is doing a great job at nervously breaching the subject with his wife. His wife is clearly watching the television program, yet also unimpressed with what he’s saying. In the final panel, Tycho’s face is pitch perfect at expressing the tragedy, while Gabriel stares away awkwardly.

The top strip looks to me like the work of someone who has been drawing these characters for over a decade. The bottom one? Not so much.

In the first panel of the 2012 strip, Gabe has a very puzzling expression. He looks quite angry. In both dialogue balloons, he is asking questions. In addition, the second question he asks is sarcastic. The anger is just out of place.

The third panel is even worse: It’s hard to even explain how Tycho is responding. His mouth is half way up his head, parallel to his nose. Is he meant to screaming? His right eye has a second outline which looks to me like a twitch, so perhaps the artist was going for a disturbed look? I’m honestly not sure. The dialogue in the final panel has no exclamation. I believe it was meant to be emoted seriously.

Another contrasting factor between the two strips is the pupil placement. It is very rare for a person’s pupils to not be positioned in the same spot on both eyes. In the first strip, this holds true. However, in the second strip, Gabe looks almost cross eyed in the first panel. Tycho’s pupils in the third panel are just as bad. Both of his pupils are about 1/3 of the distance from his nose. If you looked at him dead on, he’d be cross-eyed too.

Are these the work of the same artist?

At first I simply thought that Krahulik had become lazier in his drawing. I don’t even blame him. It must be tedious to draw the same characters over and over after all these years. However, I then saw a pair of tweets from Jason Scott:

And it just made so much sense. If anything, after drawing these characters for over a decade, it should be easier to do it consistently and fast. And Jason Scott is right - the art in his side projects is much better and much more consistent. Check out the concept art for Krahulik’s new board game project:

Thornwatch Concept Art

It looks much closer in style and skill level to the comics from Penny Arcade’s past.

Now, you might be thinking: this isn’t proof. And you’re right. I can’t prove that Penny Arcade is being ghost drawn. But I will offer one more curiosity: They have changed artists on other projects.

The Trenches is another comic created by Krahulik and Holkins, along with Scott Kurtz. Recently, Krahulik announced on Twitter that the artist had already changed:

When asked why her name wasn’t on the strip, he responded:

My gut feeling is that Jason Scott hit the nail on the head here: for some reason they swapped out artists at some point in the last year or two on Penny Arcade as well, and that switch is responsible for the drop in quality of the strips. It is easy for a new artist to match the general style of the old strips. It is must harder to capture the nuance.