Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11½ Anniversary Edition

By Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik
176 pages, color
Published by Del Rey Books

Penny Arcade is one of the harder-to-categorize web comics out there. It’s a comic that at a glance appears to be about video games, but can just as easily zoom off on tangents about other real world situations. It’s not a continuing strip, except when it is. Sometimes it shifts into a series of stories about characters that started as a one-off joke. It’s also becoming an empire run by its two creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, which includes charity drives, gaming conventions, and their own video games. It’s with all that in mind, though, that The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11½ Anniversary Edition makes perfect sense, a combination of "best-of" and "behind the scenes" books rolled into one.

The book opens with a history of the creators; their early lives, how they met one another, and began to collaborate. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins wisely stick to information that would interest their readers the most, just about everything leading directly into their particular sense of humor as well as their love of many things geeky. As their backstory unfolds, they explain how different events got folded into the comic itself, sometimes in the form of characters, other times as narratives or even just a particular quirk. Krahulik explains the evolution of his art, showing examples from the late ’90s to the present day, with each stop talking about the techniques behind the art as well as his decision-making process.

Once all that serious stuff is out of the way, though, the book gets delightfully silly. Holkins talks about a lot of the regular "characters" of the strip, explaining how they were first introduced and then how they evolved. The two most notable examples early on are the Cardboard Tube Samurai, and the non-sequitur duo of Twisp and Catsby. With each of those, after we learn the genesis of the characters (both in and outside of the strip), the book then reprints successive appearances as well as a commentary from Holkins on why they stuck around and the ideas behind the later appearances. It’s in many ways the perfect example of the dual nature of the book; it’s reprinting popular strips and characters, but in a way that lets you understand why they existed even as you see Holkins and Krahulik slowly evolve their style and skill. By the time the later Cardboard Tube Samurai strips appear, it’s almost impossible to see the connection between them and the earliest, crude, going-for-a-quick-punchline strip.

From there, the book continues reprinting some of the more notable sequences (a zombie attack at the mall; an over-the-top ping-pong tournament), mixing them up with extended interviews with the creators, plus essays on the PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) conventions they created, their run-ins with a rather unique anti-game lawyer, and even a slightly more standard best of compilation of their favorite strips. For Penny Arcade fans, this is the kind of book where they’ll start to feel like they hit the jackpot.

The one question I had to ask myself at the end, though, was if non-Penny Arcade fans (or rather, people new to the strip) would find the book funny. I’m not entirely sure. A lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff might come across less than interesting if you haven’t read the strip for a while, although I can’t help but think that watching the evolution of the strip would be interesting to anyone who likes comics simply from a technical standpoint. And, there’s enough humor that has nothing to do with games that I think they’d find something to laugh at. It might not be the same level of fun for a new reader, but there’s still interesting material for them to enjoy. While The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11½ Anniversary Edition might be playing to the choir a bit, it’s still an impressive enough overall result. If you’ve read the strip in the past and enjoyed it, you’ll probably like this too.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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