Friday, August 11, 2006

The Comics Page #4: The Collected Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade
is one of the most popular webcomics running right now (possibly the most popular, there not being any universal measure we can turn to.) It's popular enough that the site manages to operate at a profit entirely through merchandise and modestly-sized ad banners, not caring how many people hotlink the images somewhere else, and has warranted two hard-copy collections of material you can read online for free (though the first volume, ATTACK OF THE BACON ROBOTS, included material originally hosted at another site and no longer accessible, or so I understand.) The second volume, EPIC LEGENDS OF THE MAGIC SWORD KINGS (collecting all the strips through 2001), came out this Wednesday, so I'll be focusing on that, but the strip in general has stayed pretty consistent, the one major change over the years being that the art is better now.

So, Penny Arcade is written by Jerry Holkins and drawn by Mike Krahulik, who, as "Tycho Brahe" and "Gabriel" respectively (I think), enjoy video games, talking about video games, and inflicting random acts of wanton cruelty on each other. Gabe is the slightly dumber, wackier, more aggressive one, and Tycho is sometimes more the straight man, though it's a subtle distinction. Other wacky characters encountered in these volumes include Div, a surly drunken DivX machine (remember, like DVD but you didn't actually own the discs and had to pay each time?); Charles, a Mac enthusiast/zealot; lecherous newscaster Randy Pinkwood, and of course, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The strip generally uses a three-panel approach, and most every entry stands on its own. Occasionally Holkins and Krahulik go absolutely crazy and do a three or even FIVE part epic, and I think you'll see one or two of the former here. Of course, the strip is about videogames (for the most part), and if you don't know anything at all about said hobby/industry/medium/etc., you might be just a bit lost. Online, every strip nowadays is accompanied by "News" posts which supply any necessary context, though not all of them need it and the posts often go into other subjects. Sometimes the context is obvious, sometimes it ain't, though I have to say, I was only tangentially following video game news when I was first reading the strip, and it made me more interested.

In the books, Holkins/Tycho does provide brief commentary on each strip, which sometimes explains background things we wouldn't know about but usually just adds additional entertainment value. Holkins is, for a writer working in such a short form, verbose. He enjoys taking the English language and twisting it for its own sake, and the clever rhythm of the banter is a major selling point. Krahulik's art is simple and still a bit crude in these collections (the "final forms" of the main characters- who, apparently, look nothing like Holkins and Krahulik- hadn't been settled yet, though you can see the current design on the covers), but that's speaking relatively- it's still good comic art, and the facial expressions add a lot. (Both books contain some bonus art content, the second one a bit more since it seems to be collecting fewer strips.)

So, while each of these volumes costs $13 more than it would to read most of the same content online for free, and while I do recommend plunging through the archives just to get a taste for what PA is or just to pass the time, the books have their advantages. They're easier to read in a diner, easier to bookmark and flip through, and they don't emit photons. I think.

Grade: A-

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