The push goal I was most excited for when webcomic Penny Arcade went to Kickstarter to go ad-free for a year was their pitch for a new reality show as season four of Penny Arcade: The Series. They would invite a group of comic artists to fly out to an unspecified location to compete for a chance to win, among other things, a year’s stay in the PA offices and a cash prize. The Kickstarter earned enough for the show, so the casting process was on.
Though I very much doubted my chances, I applied for a spot on Strip Search. I used clips from my first webcomic, Food Don’t Go Stale in Space, as well as my now-defunct due to time constraints (and eaten by ComicPress) Week in Media series. I also used examples of my actual painting and graphic design work and even some of my reality TV recaps that used webcomic formatting in my portfolio. The application was one of the more challenging ones I’ve filled out for a reality TV show (always good to know the aim of casting when critiquing a show) because of its breadth. Strip Search was looking for the total webcomic package: art, writing, marketing, and merchandising. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get past the open call stage.
The contestants who did make it onto the show represent a wide range of style and experience. Some of the contestants are pretty inexperienced at creating a webcomic and some are professional artists for animation studios. Some run their own businesses and some had to quit their jobs to even go on the show.
What they share, and what comes across so strongly in Strip Search, is a passion for what they do. The artists are there to compete for a life-changing prize but they all seem to realize how fortunate they are to have this opportunity. The level of game playing after the first complete challenge to elimination experience is strategically choosing to not be the villain.Even more telling is the confessional montage at the end of the first episode. All but three of the contestants admit that they don’t know if they can win. The three who do admit it aren’t super aggressive about it. There’s no “Send everyone else home, I came to win” aspect on this show like so many other competitive reality series. The season preview has one contestant saying the infamous “I’m not here to make friends” sound byte but I have a feeling she’s not being malicious in that moment.
The challenges are a mix of having fun and actually running a webcomic. In the second episode, the artists play a very long game of Fax Machine. Each artist starts by writing a caption for the next person to draw. The next person draws the prompt on a separate page. The person after them has to write what they think the caption was for the previous illustration. The Fax Machine challenge did have a prize and a winner, but it was a totally casual affair to warm the contestants up.
The elimination challenge shown in episode three brought the artists right into the business side of running a webcomic. They had to design a t-shirt inspired by the Strip Search graphic with no more than four colors–black plus three others. The winner would have their shirt sold on the Penny Arcade website and earn all the profits from it. Even within what was essentially a challenge to market someone else’s brand, the artists had plenty of room to show their own style.