It’s been roughly two years since the last collection of strips from Penny Arcade, the webcomic created by Jerry Holkins and Mike Karhulik, which has become the centre of the modern nerd culture. Now under the Del Rey label, Penny Arcade’s sixth volume, The Halls Below, collects all of the strips from the year 2005 – an eternity ago in video game and tech years – as well as some fascinating extra commentary and material.
Video games inform much of Penny Arcade’s material, so it’s worth looking back at the year in gaming that was 2005. The Sony PlayStation Portable arrived in the first half of the year, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the second, and the Nintendo DS was just gaining some real momentum with new marquee titles like Kirby’s Canvas Curse. The last one provided one of the year’s most colourful strips, “What the eff,” as Gabe rides the rainbow with Kirby as a bewildered Tycho looks on. Meanwhile Gabe sits outside an empty Gamestop for the PSP launch across from a rather mean-spirited Cinnabon merchant, Tycho discovers he is Number 51 in a pre-order queue of only 50 new Xboxes.
The most interesting offerings from the year, though, have little to do directly with les jeux d’année. In the holiday season’s storyline “An Unbelievably Merch Christmas,” the Merch character wreaks gory horror upon the populace until kids buy enough of his merchandise to sate his perverted thirst. Holkins expresses his frankly negative opinion on the arc’s premise and one-note punch-lines in his commentary. Equally controversial is the five-part “Ripped from Today’s Headlines,” wherein Tycho accidentally kills his wife (based on Holkins’ real-life wife Brenna) and then tries to make lot of money from it by suing whoever he can blame the idea on.
The most important development is probably the introduction of Tycho’s smart-mouthed, hardcore gamer niece Annarchy, a character that has attracted much positive and negative feedback from Penny Arcade readers. “She reinterprets all the characters we have in the comic, altering the dynamics around them, putting everyone on their best behaviour,” says Holkins of her first appearance. “In a comic like ours, one that doesn’t really trade on linear time or character progression, that’s a pretty impressive feat.”
Penny Arcade’s change in publishers hasn’t been all positive. Artist Krahulik’s strips are mostly vibrant, but some look a little oversaturated. The fluorescent greens in some strips, usually surrounding Gabe’s omnipotent World of Warcraft character, bleed past the borders and blur the text slightly. Some pages are filled in with blown up panels from strips that appear elsewhere in the book, feeling like cheap filler. The strips’ titles are presented in a bubbly font that, while distinctive, is a little harder to read. The Mr. Period and Twisp and Catsby strips get different fonts, but I’m not really sure why. The volume as a whole is a little flimsier than in the past, despite the comparable page count.
Christopher Perkins, Dungeons & Dragons Creative Manager, writes the foreword, regaling some of his favourite dungeon master moments. The back of the book contains some of Holkins and Krahulik’s favourite material from The Elemenstor Saga, a wiki of sorts that PA fans have contributed to, building the over-the-top fantasy world that only occasionally appears in the strip proper.
It’s more Penny Arcade. It’s more Holkins commentary on strips, picking at his and Karhulik’s creative processes five years after the fact. Despite covering only a year of strips and a small but noticeable dip in print quality, The Halls Below is a must-own for nerds of all stripes.