In spite of the more mature, important institutions that have grown up around Penny Arcade, the comic remains more or less unchanged from 13 years ago: an irreverently violent slapstick comic about video games.
On August 11, 2010, Penny Arcade published a strip called "The Sixth Slave." It was not so different from many other comics they have published. It consisted of three panels. It was tasteless, shocking, it involved rape, and it would later come to be known as the first spark in a debate that would divide Penny Arcade fans forever.
The comic is set in a fictional video game that vaguely resembles World of Warcraft. A hero strolls jauntily forward in the first panel. Far behind him, a grizzled, thin man with a wooden cane calls out to him. "Hero!" this man cries out. "Take me with you! Release me from this hell unending!"
The pleading man's face fills the second panel, his eyes wide with sorrow and horror. "Every morning," he says, "we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves."
In the final panel, the hero retorts: "I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete."
The slave interjects. "But — "
"Hey. Pal." The hero points a finger in his face. "Don't make this weird."
A minority of Penny Arcade readers did not think this joke was funny.
A minority of these readers sent e-mails to Krahulik and Holkins, saying as much. Among them was a person using the handle Shaker Milli A., who posted at Shakesville, a feminist blog. She called out Penny Arcade for joking about rape without providing a warning to rape survivors who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder — and who might not necessarily feel like seeing a rape joke mixed in with their usual dose of video-game satire.
This one blog post, along with a handful of offended e-mails, was enough to raise Krahulik and Holkins's defensive hackles. Rather than apologize or ignore the dissent entirely, the pair drew a sarcastic follow-up comic to respond to the complaints, framed as a reminder that Penny Arcade doesn't approve of "rapers." In it, a bemused-looking Tycho addresses his audience directly: "It's possible you read our cartoon, and became a rapist as a direct result. If you're raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave. Go, and rape no more."
The comic seemed designed to call attention to the fact that Krahulik and Holkins had no intention of making a real apology, and to mock anyone who expected otherwise. This flippant response didn't satisfy Shakesville, and now, many other people felt disillusioned with Krahulik and Holkins as well. A Penny Arcade fan at thefremen.blogspot.com wrote that he would no longer be reading the comic, and he then auctioned off all of his Penny Arcade books and merch on eBay. Several other geek blogs voiced their disapproval, including prior PAX speaker Wil Wheaton. Even non-geek spaces like the liberal blog Pandagon took a stand against Penny Arcade's rudeness.
This controversy might still have fizzled out at this point, if not for Krahulik and Holkins continuing to fan the fire. A month later, in September 2010, during their "Make-A-Strip" panel appearance at PAX Prime in Seattle, Krahulik cavalierly drew a dickwolf — a wolf with veiny penises where its legs and tail should be — for an audience of cheering fans.