Review: The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade

The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins

Penny Arcade is one of my go-to webcomics, despite my being a gamer who only perks up when a new Zelda title is released and can’t bring herself to play Left 4 Dead 2, despite the fact that Ellis is pretty much the funniest character ever. It’s often vulgar and always hilarious, but it doesn’t solely depend on gaming humor. Some of the funniest things the webcomic has ever done are more surreal than anything else.

The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade is both a behind-the-scenes look at Penny Arcade and a celebration of it, covering its history from the first meeting of Mike and Jerry (better known as their avatars, Gabriel and Tycho) in high school to the Penny Arcade Expo turning into the event for video games. It’s certainly a wild ride that may have not even happened at all.

I’ve always been intrigued by how the art of Penny Arcade developed from serviceable to amazing over the years–Krahulik’s line work these days is so organic and fluid that it’s sometimes jarring to look back. I really enjoyed the brief section on the evolution of the art written by Krahulik, especially the great influence Stephen Silver (of Kim Possible fame) had on his work. There’s even a grain of truth to his joke that the secret to success is hating your work–most creative people I know tend to at least flinch when they look back at their older work, myself included.

The sections on the Penny Arcade Expo and Child’s Play were also quite interesting. As a regular attendee of Dragon*Con, I can only guess how hard it is to schedule, program, and manage a convention with a whole fleet of organizers, employees, and volunteers–so imagine trying to do something like that on a shoestring budget and with little to no experience. And then imagine it becoming the foremost event in gaming as other gaming events, including the venerable E3, wither and die. It’s just amazing. Child’s Play, a charity that provides toys, books, movies, money, and, yes, video games to sick children and their families, came about when Krahulik and Holkins were so sick and tired of accusations that gaming made children violent that they decided to give gamers an outlet to give back to their community. The charity has grown from overwhelming Mike’s apartment with items intended for the children to including a formal dinner where an appearance in the strip itself is auctioned off. I always love to see fandom doing good things, so learning about the origins of Child’s Play put a smile on my face.

The book covers side characters, like Twisp and Catsby (a Victorian cat and his demon sidekick that answer to a very tiny Queen), and a few particularly wonderful tangents, including Paint the Line (which I can only describe as Top Gun with ping-pong) and the Cardboard Tube Samurai, which started off as a violent joke but whose last series of strips were actually a moving mediation on fatherhood. There’s also a very sweet section of interpretations of Gabriel and Tycho that includes art from comic book artists, comic strip artists (including Bill Amend of Foxtrot), webcomic artists, and even Krahulik’s inspiration, Stephen Silver.

It can be very self-serving–I’m still not sure whether I’m supposed to take the overblown first chapter seriously or not–but it gets better once the guys speak for themselves and their work. The Q&A and “book podcast”, a narration of how the two guys work together, are content that would work much better on the web than they do in print, and even one of my favorite features in most comic strip anthologies, when authors simply comment on past strips, falls a little flat.

Bottom line: If you’re a fan of Penny Arcade, The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade is an interesting, if limited, look at behind-the-scenes and most of the madness Penny Arcade has spawned. If you’re not a fan, you need to start somewhere else–like the first comic!

I won a galley of this book from Suvudu.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade

  1. I LOVE Penny Arcade! I’ve been a reader since the beginning, and you’re right, the evolution of the art has been astounding.

    I’ve never read any of their books/printed collections, but it sounds like this was a good one for fans. I especially like the inclusion of Penny Arcade “in real life” stuff, like Child’s Play. (Also, I love the cover–Gabe’s obsession with unicorns never fails to make me laugh.)

    Nice review!

    • It’s just so good! I’ve thumbed through a few of them, but this is very different from the other books. The cover makes me giggle- Gabe’s delight and Tycho’s unhappiness just sorts of sums them up. Thanks!

  2. Something like, what, eight or nine years ago, when they released Penny Arcade Year One, Jerry offered to trade his signed edition for something a fan would offer. I offered him a Brotherhood of the Wolf poster to which I received an /immediate/ reply telling me that was easily top three.

    I spent the weekend hoping, hoping, hoping I’d win. Alas, he traded his copy for Canada.

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