Friday, March 19, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 44 (3/19) -- The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade by Krahulic and Holkins

There are plenty of webcomics out there. There are even a dozen or so gaming webcomics. And there are a handful of incredibly popular webcomics. But there is only one -- and there could only be one -- Penny Arcade. Often obscure, frequently profane, nearly always funny. (Though, often, only to those playing the same game as the creators at that moment.)

Similarly, there have been four Penny Arcade books, reprinting the online strips, published by Dark Horse over the past few years, and there will undoubtedly be more collections. But The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade is something else -- look, I'll let writer Jerry Holkins explain:
We are often asked questions of various kinds about the strange life we lead as online image wranglers. Some questions deal with the remainder of our meals, specifically, are we going to eat them? Others refer to our bizarre, frenzied rituals, or the waxy sheen that gives our flesh the cast of death. Beyond this introduction, burning questions such as these receive a proper airing.

This book is, in some way, like a common FAQ that has metastasized into some terrible physical form. Under what circumstances would two misanthropes ever create a charity? We touch on this. How did a handful of people who liked playing video games end up starting the premiere public gaming event in the United States? That is a great question, actually, and we will tell you how. The questions become more and more granular, up to and including items like "What kinds of things do you have on your shelves?"
Splendid Magic is a companion to Penny Arcade, in the popular "coffee table" format, with chapters about the history of the strip, of its creators (Holkins and artist Mike Krahulic), of its various unlikely offshoots (primarily the annual Child's Play charity drive and the PAX live-gaming convention), and its inexorable rise to be one of the central idioms of the modern Internet, up there with StrongBad, Goatse, TV Tropes, and 4chan. (Not everyone would agree that being a central idiom of the modern Internet is a good thing.)

And what is Penny Arcade? Well, there are these two guys -- Tycho Brahe and Gabriel, who are not precisely Holkins and Krahulic -- who live together and play a lot of video games. It's a comic strip, so stranger things happen as well, but the core of the strip is as it has been for the past decade: these two guys really like to play video games, and that's the source of most of their conversations with each other and interactions with the world.

Splendid Magic explains how Penny Arcade went from being just another decently-drawn and pretty funny online comic to being the unstoppable juggernaut that it is today. Along the way, the book reprints a bunch of Penny Arcade strips -- generally the ones you already know, like the Cardboard Tube Samurai stories, the awesomely horrible work of L.H. Franzibald, and "Paint the Line," plus a long section of Jerry and Mike's favorites, with commentary, near the end of the book -- and features both creators writing about their work. It's not an exhaustive guide to Penny Arcade, but no book of reasonable length could be, given that they've done seventeen hundred or so strips, most of which have at least four or five obscure gaming references in them.

The only major complaint I have about Splendid Magic is that its photographs, mostly in the sections about Child's Play and PAX, are completely uncaptioned. I know who Wil Wheaton is, and some of the other faces are vaguely familiar, but it would have been great to actually tell the reader that one figure is Holkins and another is Krahulic, instead of making him guess.

On the other side, there's a section of fan art from professionals -- Kazu Kibuishi, Scott Kurtz, Becky Cloonan, and others -- that includes a totally awesome piece from Bill Amend. The comic itself is just pretty good, but Amend wrote his comments on it in a close approximation of Holkins's clotted, densely allusive and heavily emphasized blog-writing style. (Holkins mostly writes in a calmer style in the book, which is something of a relief.)

The book isn't strongly organized to show off the evolution of Krahulic's artwork, though there is one section where he writes about what he's learned over the past ten years. But Penny Arcade's art has become immensely stronger and more expressive as Krahulic grew as a cartoonist, and today's he's as good as anyone doing humor, in any medium.

If you don't know Penny Arcade, go check out the link -- there's no reason to buy an expensive show-it-off-in-your-living-room book about a property you're not familiar with. (And, if you're not a gamer, don't expect to understand more than half of the strips -- but, still, the ones you do get should more than make up for it. And even the ones that whiz overhead at high speed can be oddly amusing.) But if you're already a fan, you'll want this book.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Harley Poe - Corpse Grindin' Man
via FoxyTunes

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