The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade

The 11½ Anniversary Edition

I don’t like Penny Arcade. I don’t get the jokes, since I’m not a gamer or extreme geek, the art doesn’t have much to recommend it, and I’m too old to find the attitude amusing most of the time. But this hardcover starting point is the best webcomic book I’ve ever seen.

The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade cover
The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade
Buy this book

(Note that I didn’t say “collection”. If you just want to read the strip, you want the smaller paperbacks, five volumes so far with the sixth due this summer.)

The quality shouldn’t surprise me, since Penny Arcade is THE most successful webcomic out there, with a readership of over 3.5 million (according to the book’s press release), its own gaming convention (now with two locations, East and West), and even its own charity, Child’s Play, responsible for raising almost $10 million to give toys to kids in hospitals. This is the webcomic every artist with a tablet, a scanner, and webspace dreams of creating.

The book’s large size and slick paper attest to its significance and cause the contents to pop. And what does it contain? Pretty much everything you’d want to know about the strip and its creators, Mike Krahulik (Gabe) and Jerry Holkins (Tycho Brahe).

  • It starts with a text history written by Chris Baker (who profiled Krahulik and Holkins for Wired in 2007).
  • Krahulik (the artist, whose formative influences were Garfield and Image comics) discusses how the character designs have changed over time.
  • The character guide covers some supporting cast members.
  • A transcript of the two guys discussing a strip, accompanied by process images.
  • Pictures of their office and of things fans have made for them.
  • Articles on the history of Child’s Play and PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo, the largest gaming festival in North America.
  • My favorite, a piece on three major legal confrontations by Robert Khoo (PA president of business development).
  • A long section of responses to reader questions.
  • The guys’ favorite strips, with commentary. Sort of.
  • Plenty of art and sketches, including a gallery of the characters by other artists such as Becky Cloonan, Erika Moen, Kazu Kibuishi, Scott Kurtz, and Bill Amend.

A timeline of key moments in Penny Arcade history runs along the bottom of the pages. Some of the contents will make more sense to strip fans, especially the reprints of certain storylines or “Twisp and Catsby” appearances or a bunch of “Cardboard Tube Samurai” page reprints. They aren’t sufficiently explained to the novice, but as Holkins says in one introduction, “That’s all right with me … After all, it’s not for them.”

You could consider this a 164-page FAQ with lots of pictures and the best-ever production values for its type, but that would be silly. Whether or not you like the actual comic, you’ll come away from this with a whole lot of respect for the guys who made webcomics into a viable business. I found it a terrific read as a popular history and for what it says about how the comic industry has changed in the last decade. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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4 Responses to “The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade”

  1. Lynn Says:

    A lot of what they do leaves me cold or actively annoyed, but I do have to give them credit for Child’s Play.

    Its a wonderfully simple, zero overhead and ensures you’re getting the recipient what they need.

  2. Kenny Cather Says:

    I guess I’m alone here, but I enjoy the strip a lot. I guess it’s because I “get” gamer culture. Anyway, the guys themselves are pretty enjoyable guys. They’re gracious with their time to readers and the charity is a nice thing, too.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this review. I wasn’t planning on buying this book, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest!

  3. Lynn Says:

    I consider myself a gamer, but gamer culture having a lot of the same issues comic culture is the source of a lot of my annoyance with PA recently.

    I originally was drawn to PA because of their inclusion of characters like their wives and Annarchy…representatives of consumers that are actively ignored by most game related media.

    Since then, they,ve been a lot more dudebro. I stopped tracking them after the whole Love Systems discussion and its explicit dismissal of female fans.

  4. Trisha Lynn Says:

    Kenny: You’re not the only PA fan here. I think what I appreciate about them the most is that they “made comics” their way and helped define how one can put their work out there and make a decent living doing so.

    I even remember doing an interview with them a long time ago and I think the most important thing they said (and still say) is that the thing they do the best is produce a comic on time three days a week, which means that they understand the importance of deadlines.

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