A Breakdown of Hidden Meanings in Penny Arcade’s New Webcomic, “The Trenches”

Approximately three weeks ago, the creators of the popular video game webcomic Penny Arcade announced they were forming a partnership with Scott Kurtz, the rival creator of another popular video game webcomic called PvP.

Together, they would be collaborating on an exciting new online project.  This experiment promised to break boundaries, rewrite narrative tradition and usher audiences into a new age of art and illustration.

After countless speculation, this undertaking was soon revealed to be… another video game webcomic.

A webcomic called The Trenches.

Thus far, a total of five entries have been released under the Trenches’ relatively young banner.  In the following essay, it is my aim to examine and illuminate the profound metadata woven throughout these few digital pages and show the astonishing complexity that this webcomic already challenges us with.

Some of you may balk at this article. You might claim it is too early to provide any formal analysis of a work that’s still in its relative infancy, let alone this one. I respectfully disagree.

I will demonstrate not only that The Trenches stands apart from its predecessors, but that by sheer richness of content, it surpasses all others in the pantheon of webcomics and, I daresay, can stand proudly amongst the grand output of all contemporary human culture.

Let us begin.

Comic #1: “Isaac” (8/9/11)

In “Isaac”, we are given a brief (but telling) first glimpse of our protagonist, Isaac Cox.  At a glance, this might appear to be a simple (if somewhat unmemorable) character introduction and nothing more. Man drives up. Man faxes resume. Man gives blithe joke to fulfill requirements of 3-panel structure.

I implore you to look again.

Notice the first panel.  Our initial exposure to Isaac and, by extension, the entire comic of The Trenches, rests on this single image.  A young male in an expensive sports car, sitting with his top down in the rain. The car, no doubt, is meant as a signifier of wealth and status; a bold choice in a global economic downturn.

Isaac is not one of us. He is elite, set apart, removed from the plight of the common working man. Somehow, either through an undeserved inheritance from a blueblood lineage or the perhaps the dumb luck of an unjust and broken corporate system, Isaac the fool can afford what we cannot.

We, the audience, the gamer on the other side of the computer screen, are not meant to identify with him at all.  His story is the unexamined life of privilege. His hands, soft and uncalloused. His mind, rotten with entitlement.

Isaac is the villain.

He doesn’t need this job, working in “video games”. His only desire is to steal it from you. His life of constant luxury has driven him to ennui, and the only thrill left for him is to slum as the prole he never was, pretending to be a sadsack joe scraping by until he himself believes it himself to be true.

Overqualified, indeed.

Comic #2: “Once More Unto the Trench” (8/11/11)

Here, our theory from the first strip is confirmed. Isaac enters the job interview with the casual dismissiveness that is to be expected from someone who has never had to work hard for any position that wasn’t bequeathed to him on a silver platter.

Over the course of the “interview”, his hatred for the bourgeois lower middle management seeps through and nearly pierces the veil of his elaborate lie.  In the second panel, those born without the money and family connections to go to Yale or Oxford and have a high-paying executive job waiting for them are considered by Isaac to be so “stupid” that the only way someone of his stature could become their equal is by blunt trauma to his precious brain.

In the third panel, Isaac struggles to control his disgust, but only after he makes the unpleasant realization that the “Ivy League” education he wears on his sleeve might unravel his sadomasochistic scheme to destroy the dreams of those beneath him.

If he doesn’t usurp the livelihood of those he hates… he will be empty, hollow and alone.

Comic #3: “Subterfuge” (8/16/11)

Isaac’s descent into depravity continues unabated.  In an effort to overcompensate for his previous outburst, he does an insulting impersonation of “low-brow” conversation that he believes the receptionist will find disarming and easy to understand.

“Why yes, I do believe people like you can’t tell time,” Isaac seems to say. “I, too, am subhuman.”

The racial overtones go without saying.

Having mastered the art of deception, Isaac gleefully revels in the kitsch of a Highlights magazine, which also hides his excitement (now bordering on eroticism).

Comic #4: “Cora” (8/18/11)

Isaac is interrupted before he completes his act of perversion by the sudden appearance of exactly what he needs — authenticity. Cora is what Isaac’s withered self-identity secretly craves in every respect; unabashed selfishness, pride in her ignorance, and a salt-of-the-earth suspicion of intellectuals. If Isaac signifies the overeducated urban sprawl of big city America, then Cora is the Heartland.

As their relationship continues, it can only be assumed that their uneasy co-habitation will reflect the society they represent, and will fracture heinously and painfully.

Drama at its finest.

Comic #5: “Progress” (8/23/11)

The egg-shaped boss can only be interpreted one way: a source of figurative rebirth.  Prospective employees, such as the nameless drone given center stage in Panel 1, file ceaselessly in and out from his office during a period of endemic unemployment nationwide. In this light, the jobless masses that Isaac so detests in the previous strips can be seen as a kind of stillborn or unwanted afterbirth.  An unpleasant side-effect of the capitalist system.

Truly, the world of The Trenches is bleak and Orwellian in scope.


I hope this academic primer has given you some sense of the brilliance that The Trenches has to offer, even in its crude early stages. I invite you to read it for yourself and watch it blossom into a conduit of angst, withering confusion and betrayal brought on by the routine monetization of post-postmodern social constructs.

I, for one, am overwhelmed by not only its potential, but its resonance with video game enthusiasts the world over.  It takes a stroke of genius to create a webcomic aimed at debasing and demoralizing the very people who read them.

And I assure you, the creators of this webcomic have most certainly had that stroke.


About Aaron J. Waltke

Aaron J. Waltke is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the National Lampoon, Comedy Central and in his secret diary that his older sister is never, ever supposed to find. He enjoys antiquarianism, obscurantism and sesquipedalianism.

Posted on August 25, 2011, in Aaron Waltke, Comics, Pop Culture, Videogames and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I remain convinced that the main character is named “Isaac Cox” for the sole purpose of someone eventually pointing out that it sounds like “I suck cocks”. Oh, how the hilarity will ensue.

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