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Article updated: 3/4/2013 2:46 PM

Suburban artist wins a berth in comics contest


High-end cooking has its "Top Chef," fashion design has its "Project Runway," and now the growing field of web comics has its own reality TV-style online show -- and the suburbs are going to be represented.

Monica Ray, the 22-year-old creator of Phuzzy Comics -- an autobiographical twice-weekly strip at phuzzycomics.monicaray.com/ -- beat out more than a thousand other applicants for the new series. Called "Strip Search," it starts Friday at www.penny-arcade.com.

Ray, of Northbrook, said she understood the gravity of the occasion when she first received the news she'd made the show.

On "Strip Search," 12 young web cartoonists and artists are brought to a mansion and made to compete to determine who has the skills to be the best web cartoonist.

The excitement "Strip Search" has generated is in large part because Penny Arcade, a popular web comics website, is producing the show.

Penny Arcade attracts more than 3.5 million monthly readers, and its creators, best friends Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, have been named to Time magazine's Top 100 influential people list,

Ray said she knew Penny Arcade would make the application process for Strip Search rigorous.

"I was nervous at first -- this was a Penny Arcade competition." Ray said. "They were going to put me through the wringer."

Penny Arcade President Robert Khoo, who is also an executive producer on the show, said over the course of a month, applicants went though about half a dozen rounds with tasks that ranged from standard interview questions to writing poems and filling out blank comic strips.

Ray said it was tough to keep up with the different challenges.

"My creative strings were drawn taut," Ray said. "I was pulling my hair out trying to answer Khoo's questions. I rewrote some answers three or four times. The competition hadn't even begun, and I was sweating."

The winner of "Strip Search" gets $15,000 and is allowed to run his or her web comic out of Penny Arcade's Seattle-based office, which Khoo said made the producers all the pickier.

"Since part of the prize is being integrated into our offices for a year, a big question was if we could actually coexist with this person," Khoo said. "You can get a good idea of what a person is capable of based on their historical work, but seeing if a person is a tenable office mate long term? That's much, much harder to gauge."

Khoo said Ray's sunny disposition helped her stand out among the 1,000 applicants.

"She had a really infectious personality, and we thought her enthusiasm could be a real benefit to all those around her, including us at Penny Arcade if she ended up winning," Khoo said.

The competition portion of the show was filmed in late 2012, so all involved have had time to reflect on the experience.

"If I improved after the show, it was from learning how everyone else balanced their jobs, lives and daily routines with their web comics," Ray said.

"Nobody could have anticipated how close we artists became under those circumstances."

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