Creator/s: Wes Molebash
Website: It's everything a webcomics website can be, with attractive imagery, an obvious update schedule, an easy-to-use archive with named strips, a frequently updated blog, a cast page, and a bunch of miscellaneous extras. Clearly, a lot of attention's been given towards making the comic more appealing to readers, whether it's by responding to comments, elaborating on the jokes, or even including a parental disclaimer regarding some of the more adult-oriented strips.
Also, the creator seems to be more well-known for his previous webcomics, You'll Have That and Max vs. Max, but I wasn't able to find them anywhere online. The closest I got was a print version of You'll Have That, which is available on Amazon. It isn't clear why these older comics have vanished, but perhaps the creator just felt like he needed a fresh start.
Writing: "The joke is that the artist's name is 'Wes Molebash,' right?"
That's a quote from poster "JustPlainPavek" on the Penny Arcade forums in response to "Bad-Beat" posting a strip from Max vs. Max. In the thread, 10 posters take turns either trying to understand what the joke's supposed to be or making fun of how unfunny the strip is. "MacGuffin" is the most interested in the strip, deconstructing every aspect of it and complaining in frustration, "I don't get it. I'm not even sure if there is something to get. [...] I'm really at a loss here. It's just some people sitting there. Is this some type of meta joke where he made fun of the lack of humor? Is that what's going on here?" Other posters express similar confusion, with "Seriously" adding, "I got nothing," "Wren" stating, "I don't get it," and "L|ama" wondering aloud, "is there a joke? is the lack of a joke the joke?" Finally, "SLyM" chimed in, joking, "This one comic is fueling more speculation than your average homestuck update!"
But, then, with the creator's new, Christian webcomic, Insert Image, you've got some very different kinds of comments. Author/musician Justin McRoberts wrote, "Wes Molebash cracks me up." Author Matt Appling noted, "Wes' 'Insert Image' captures the magic of unwitting comedians," with blogger Sammy Adebiyi calling the creator "laugh-out-loud hilarious" and referring to him as "pretty much the Tom Brady of comic strips." Is it really possible that merely changing projects has had such a profound effect on the creator's ability to tell jokes?
Well, it's probably worth mentioning that all three of the people I just quoted are church pastors, and the creator's actually a pastor as well. Technically, he's considered a "Growth Pastor," and his description of his job is "overseeing our church’s small group ministries." It's understandable, then, that this crowd might get a kick out of references to Rob Bell, Joel Osteen, Donald Miller, Mark Driscoll, and the bands Hillsong and Five Iron Frenzy, who are all, apparently, important figures in Christian subculture. Insert Image is kind of like this group's Penny Arcade, with characters arguing about Bible translations instead of gaming consoles.
And speaking of Penny Arcade, the comparison runs a little deeper than just both webcomics being about two guys who talk about a niche subject. Probably the first thing most readers will notice about this comic is that the art style and layout look really familiar, and it's no surprise that the creator lists PA's Mike Krahulik as one of his biggest inspirations. But the characters are eerily similar as well, with Miles basically being Tycho and JP basically being Gabe. The characterization and writing styles are close enough that I felt like, at times, that I was reading a bizarre, PG-rated Penny Arcade fanfiction, like when JP talks about his character in Guild Wars 2.
PA has a different dynamic going on, though. Since it's made by two creators, it's natural for their avatars to be co-stars, and they each have interesting personalities that play off of each other. With Insert Image, though, JP/Gabe is clearly the main character, with Miles/Tycho having a smaller role as The Straight Man. A typical strip is JP doing something wacky (such as eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dinner), while Miles comments on how wacky JP's behavior is. It's probably more like Ethan and Lucas from Ctrl+Alt+Del, really, which isn't a good sign for this comic considering that Jerry Holkins is a much better writer than Tim Buckley. To give the creator some credit, though, Miles does show a bit of personality in the earliest strips, like when he's depicted as a coffee snob. Unfortunately, about 10 or so strips in, the comic becomes all about JP, and Miles' quirky coffee obsession doesn't even get mentioned again.
Something that bugs me about JP, though, besides him just being a goofy manchild, is that he really comes across as an asshole in this comic. At first, I thought maybe he just lacked social etiquette and said inappropriate things at times, but it's impossible to ignore how relentlessly mean-spirited he is throughout the comic when he:
- Calls someone "a huge nerd" (link)
- Curses out Mike Driscoll on Twitter (link)
- Brags to Miles about being a better Christian than he is (link)
- Insults someone while bragging about his own popularity (link)
- Makes a blog post titled, "I'm Right, You're Wrong" (link)
- Screams at a mom who's breastfeeding in public (link)
- Yells at a receptionist at Christian Mingle for something she had no control over (link)
- Gets kicked out of a college for harassing non-Christians (link)
- Pretends to be friends with a gay guy he doesn't like in order to boost his "street cred" (link)
Meanwhile, JP never really does anything nice or friendly in the comic to balance out his narcissism. The closest is probably when he buys Miles a ticket to see The Hobbit, but he knows that Miles doesn't want to see the movie, so it's really just another instance of JP being intolerant. It isn't funny seeing him treat other people disrespectfully, and all it does is make him seem annoying and unlikable. What might actually be a little amusing would be to see JP get punished for his arrogant behavior, but that has yet to happen in the comic.
Finally, the webcomic has some merit in the earlier strips when it's being more on the slice-of-life side and covers some of the problems that come with running a small-town church. One of the most interesting strips, in my opinion, is the one where the social media-savvy protagonists express their frustration at trying to promote the church to older people. The autobiographical touches are appealing as well, as Paper City Church seems to be based on the creator's own church in Chillicothe, Ohio, which, like the webcomic version, used to be inside an old movie theater. However, the more realistic aspects of the comic clash with JP's absurdity. Readers are supposed to accept that he's married, owns a house, and has a graphic design job, but it'd be a lot more believable to me if he was unemployed, single, and living with his parents, like Alan from The Hangover movies. Check out, for example, when JP says, with a straight face, "I'm going to sit around in my boxers drinking beer [for an entire year] while Kendra serves me sandwiches," as if she wouldn't just divorce someone who's such a loser (and who already maxed out all of his credit cards so he could afford his "trampoline room addition"). If JP's really a capable adult, then I'd like to see that be explored more fully instead of just being a minor footnote to his wacky shenanigans. Currently, there are only a few strips that show JP sort of working (which include him playing a game on his iPhone during a meeting and suggesting setting fire to the church), and his wife only shows up in one panel of a Valentine's Day strip. It's true that the Penny Arcade guys are pretty goofy as well, but they seem more eccentric than dysfunctional.
Art: It's a decent imitation of Krahulik's style, with JP getting Tycho's rectangular face and Miles getting Gabe's rounder face. The three-panel layout is also very similar to PA's to the point of being almost indistinguishable. (Insert Image's strips are about 5 percent larger, but PA has smaller margins between its panels.) The creator's clearly a pretty good artist, but the strip's going to have the problem of readers viewing it as "Penny Arcade lite" rather than recognizing it for its own merits.
One thing that PA does much better, though, is facial expressions, which are pretty important for a gag comic. I think what this comic gets wrong is that the creator changes the mouth but keeps the eyes, eyebrows, head, and body the same, and it makes the characters look unnatural and puppet-like. One example of this is in first two panels of the Guild Wars 2 strip, where the creator basically just flips and rotates the mouth while keeping everything else virtually identical. And take a look at the breastfeeding strip: JP goes from friendly to outraged, but all that happens is his mouth gets a little wider and his eyebrows change; everything else is copy-pasted, making it a lame visual aid to an unfunny scene. Here's another one where JP's eyes, eyebrows, head, and body are the same in every panel, and it looks really weird, like JP's in some sort of trance; and here, his eyes, eyebrows, and head stay the same for five panels even though his dialogue and mouth go back and forth from silly to serious. On the other hand, the facial expressions can be pretty good when the creator puts some effort into them, such as in the fourth panel here, which is probably the funniest part of the whole comic. A goofy, carefully drawn face can't save a bad joke, but it can turn a mediocre joke into a good one, or a good one into a great one.
Insert Image does top PA with its backgrounds, though, and it probably helps that the former updates once a week versus the latter's three-a-week schedule. Strips like this are fairly detailed for a gag comic, but there are also sometimes longer, full-page strips like this and this, which is something I don't recall PA ever doing, at least not on their website.
Overall: A big part of Penny Arcade's success is that gamers can easily relate to its main characters. The protagonists of Insert Image, though, aren't as relatable, as Miles is boring and JP's a childish egomaniac. Ultimately, though, judging a gag comic like this comes down to one question: Is it funny? Some Christians will think so, but, personally, I found the webcomic to be a chore to get through. Still, it's at least trying to do something new, and it'd be great if it can attract an audience that wouldn't normally be interested in webcomics.