The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 ½ Anniversary Edition, Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins

Del Rey, 2010, 164 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-51226-0

One of the great things about book collections of web-comics is that I can use them as an excuse to talk about some of my favourite on-line destinations.

I’m not much of a gamer any more, but I still pay enough attention to the field to appreciate the genre criticism barely disguised behind the often-profane humour that the Penny Arcade guys offer three times per week.  You can read all of the archives at any time, or get the six annual collections covering the strip up until 2005 so far, but for a truly good look at Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins‘s Penny Arcade empire so far, you can’t do better than The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 ½ Anniversary Edition (take off the dust jacket for a slightly coarser alternate title)

The book brings together a number of pieces written about Penny Arcade, its creators, the massive PAX gaming events and (more responsibly) the Child’s Play charity dedicated to providing games to sick children.  Essays describe how PAX first began (and the mistakes along the way), and how the usual “games are bad for kids” articles led Krahulik and Holkins to throw back clichés in the face of their critics by raising the social responsibility of the gaming community.  Another highlight is Penny Arcade Manager Robert Khoo’s article “Breaking the Law”, detailing Penny Arcade’s run-ins with American Greetings, now-discredited Jack Thompson and “Publisher X”. But for long-time readers of the series, much of the book’s value is in (re)reading the lengthy Wired profile about the two creators.  Penny Arcade is, in many ways, an accidental success: the article clearly establishes how everything began and then evolved.

Weightier material aside, the chief attraction of The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade remains the comic strips, here selected and presented out of chronology for various purposes.  Even though I can’t imagine Penny Arcade picking up new readers from this book (it’s got “for existing fans” all over it, down to an impressive gallery of tribute pieces by other geek-favourite artists), this would in fact be an ideal way to ease oneself into the universe of the strip.  There’s an introduction to the recurring characters (including a few minor ones that only fans with long memories will remember), various continuity highlights (“Paint the Line”, “Cardboard Tube Samurai”, “Twisp and Catsby”, “Armadeaddon”, “On Sorcelation”…) and a few strips selected by Krahulik and Holkins as being “the best”, with commentary throughout.  While some of the references remain obscure to people who didn’t play a particular game at the time of the comic’s publication, it’s about as quick a refresher on the various in-jokes, conventions and overall atmosphere of the strip.  (Much to my dismay, I realized during the best-of retrospective that many of my favourite pieces either featured extreme profanity or obscure geeky references that I may not even remember in five years.)

It’s all handsomely collected in a full-sized hardcover with generous margins and plenty of incidental illustrations.  Unfortunately, a lot of the filler consists in blown-up, sometimes-edited comics panels.  (You can see the pixels!).  Another relatively low point is the unedited transcript of the Q&A section.  It’s needlessly hard to read; some editing would have been a judicious choice.

But all in all, this is a perfect gift for the Penny Arcade fans.  Whoever is seduced by this book can already look forward to six annual collections already on shelves, and the entire run of the series on the web.  Don’t worry if some of the references are obscure: Only Gabe and Tycho understood them all in the first place, and they may have forgotten many of them already.  Just go on to the next strip and wonder in amazement at how the web has made such high-quality niche content possible.

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