‘Penny Arcade’ Creators Reveal The ‘Splendid Magic’ Of Webcomics, Gaming, And Their First Book Tour

One of the most popular and longest-running webcomics of all time, “Penny Arcade” has become so much more than that since the first strip was posted in 1998. Now, creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik are not only the authors of the regularly updated comic about video games and gaming culture, but also the founders of Child’s Play, a charity that provides toys for children’s hospitals, and Penny Arcade Expo, an annual gaming convention.

This week, the pair kicks off a nationwide book tour for “The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 1/2 Anniversary Edition,” which chronicles the rise of “Penny Arcade” from niche comic to global phenomenon. Beginning February 23 in Seattle, running through PAX East, and concluding March 31 in St. Louis, the “Splendid Magic” tour is the first of its kind for the duo.

MTV News managed to catch the hardworking pair in a rare moment of downtime, and picked their brains about the new book, the evolution of the webcomic medium, gaming, Twitter, and yes… “Penny Arcade: The Movie.”

MTV NEWS: So I’ve seen the dust jacket for “The Splendid Magic,” and I’ve peeked behind it at the original cover — and title — for the book, and I have to ask: Which title is the real title?

JERRY HOLKINS: What you see under [the dust jacket] is the actual title.

MIKE KRAHULIK: Yeah, the front cover is the alternate title.

HOLKINS: I think that’s actually the more accurate of the titles, but it might not receive prime placement on the retail shelf. So it was important to us to retain what we consider the real title, while at the same time…

KRAHULIK: …making a joke title for the cover.

HOLKINS: Exactly.

MTV: Well, this is far from your first book, but it’s the first one that isn’t a collection of your webcomic material. Take me through the process of deciding to publish a book about you, your lives and the growth of “Penny Arcade”…

HOLKINS: It started with creating a timeline — but even before that, it started with the recognition that there was a timeline. There was an arc to Penny Arcade as a company, and for a long time, we didn’t think of it in those terms.

KRAHULIK: Also, realizing that this might be an interesting story to tell.

HOLKINS: It’s very weird. We’re not in the habit of dwelling on those things, and it was an opportunity to recognize that it’s been a very interesting process — one that might provide succor to young creators, as well.

KRAHULIK: At that point, we pretty much decided to share as much as we could. There’s a lot of stuff in there, even down to our legal problems.

MTV: On that note, when you were taking that trip down memory lane, through all of the legal scuffles and such, do you have any regrets about the way you handled things? So much of your legal fight was in the public eye and became the focus of the webcomic while it was happening…

HOLKINS: Absolutely not. When you get down to brass tacks, it’s an interesting story. The way that these things happened, and how frequently the real world and our work intersect — I think this is more or less the core of webcomics as a generalized construct. It’s creators that are much more available and accessible. Creators who aren’t these distant creatures, but have a place in the real world.

MTV: Another fascinating aspect of the book is seeing the evolution of Mike’s art. It must have been great to go back through the archives and see how much your art has developed over time…

KRAHULIK: Was it great? I would say it was painful, actually. I did the piece in the book where I cover from beginning to end how I got to the point I’m at now, but going back through and collecting a lot of the older comics, I cringe when I look at them.

The idea of putting them out there again… I sort of liked the idea that they were lost in the Internet. No one was ever going to go back 10 years and see what I was doing, and now this new book comes out and puts it in front of everyone’s face.

MTV: While “Penny Arcade” has certainly evolved over time, one thing you’ve never really embraced is a pay model for the comics — something we’re starting to see more of around the webcomic landscape as more publishers move to the digital world. Why have you avoided the subscription model or other types of pay-for-content systems?

HOLKINS: I consider that a political discussion, and we don’t really traffic in politics generally. As somebody who’s followed webcomics as you have, you know how strenuous those arguments about pay become. For us, I would take it a step before that and say that we think a webcomic is a freely available comic.

We think that’s one of the things that defines a webcomic. It can’t just be that it’s on the web — though that’s the term we have and it makes sense. For us, a webcomic is a comic that is freely available, with an author who is a real person, and who is accessible to the consumers of their work. I would say those are tenets that we think are inextricable from webcomics.

KRAHULIK: As soon as you put up a pay barrier, you really limit the number of people who are going to be willing to look at your work. As “Penny Arcade” was growing, I don’t think we were ever in the position where we wanted to limit the number of people who could look at the comic. That always seemed like a bad idea.

MTV: Well, it sounds like a lot of people will be seeing the book now, too. This is your first official book tour, right?

HOLKINS: This is our sixth book, but it’s our first book tour. It’s so tough to put something like this together, especially with families. We have to leave them for days at a time in order to take something like this on. It’s a tremendous time and psychological investment, but I’m really glad we have an opportunity to make the time and get out to places we haven’t been.

PAX East is imminent. It’s rapidly approaching. We have some cool new bands this year that we’re going to expose human beings to. Mostly, the music acts at PAX are an opportunity for me to abuse people with my musical tastes. We’re especially happy to have The Protomen, I think that’s going to be an amazing performance. Just in general, we’re excited to be on that side of country finally, and we hope to create an enduring inaugural event.

MTV: One element of the comic that’s always struck me when I check out the site is that the main page (www.penny-arcade.com) goes to your blog instead of directly to the comic. With most webcomics, the comic is the first thing you see when you visit the website — why bring “Penny Arcade” readers to the blog before the comic?

HOLKINS: That’s the accessibility we were talking about before. That’s what we think of as the aesthetic of the webcomic form. We think that being present is a fundamental part of the medium. And also, it’s an accident.

Now that we’ve given you the fancy explanation, the reality was that we weren’t very good at making HTML, so we created a menu structure that helps people navigate the site and understand its information, but for us the comic is just a part of “Penny Arcade” — it’s not about the comic. “Penny Arcade” as a concept is broader than just that JPEG .

MTV: One of the quirky things about covering comics is that I’ve found that I have less time to just sit and read comics for fun. Do you have the same issue with gaming? Do you find yourselves gaming for fun much less often than you used to now that “Penny Arcade” has become such a phenomenon?

HOLKINS: These days, it’s a little bit more codified. We have to make official requests for that kind of time in the home. I have two kids now and Mike has 1.5 kids, so…

KRAHULIK: It’s not that I game less, it’s just that the time I spend gaming is more valuable.

HOLKINS: It’s more purposeful.

KRAHULIK: Where I might have blown off a night trying a bunch of games before the kids and the wife and everything, now those hours after he goes to bed I try to invest in something more valuable.

HOLKINS: Those hours are precious!

MTV: Between the comics and the books and the convention and the charity and so on, it seems like the only thing missing from your empire these days is a movie or some sort of animated series. I know you toyed with this idea in the past, but are you still considering a movie into the live-action or animated world?

HOLKINS: It’s entered the conversation from time to time, and certainly people have tried to discuss creating that kind of phenomenon, but in general, we’ve had a couple of negative experiences with it. Obviously, these were much earlier on and I expect things would be much different now, but we were trying to put together a cartoon and the loss of control for us was unacceptable.

I think that losing control of your work is part of working with Hollywood, and our readers have created a life for us where we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to lose control of our work in order to do that. Maybe a deal will eventually come along that respects what we’ve made and respects what our readers enjoy, and maybe we’ll investigate it at that time. It’s not something we have to do right away.

We actually like making the comic, so we’re in a pretty good spot.

MTV: Okay, so indulge me for a moment. Who plays who in the live-action “Penny Arcade” movie?

KRAHULIK: I think Sean Connery would probably play Gabe, and Scarlett Johansson would play Tycho.

HOLKINS: It sounds like you might have a different movie in mind… but I’m interested in it. I want to see where it goes. [Laughs]

MTV: Well, you did make a cameo in at least one movie: MC Frontalot’s “Nerdcore Rising” documentary. I caught it at last year’s Webcomics Weekend convention, and the whole film culminated with a performance at PAX. Have you seen it?

HOLKINS: I haven’t seen it — is it good?

KRAHULIK: I’ve seen it.

HOLKINS: Is it good?

KRAHULIK: Yeah, it’s good. It shows him playing these tiny, hole-in-the-wall bars all over the country, and his rise, and it ends with him coming out on stage at PAX with the lights and the crowd… It’s pretty epic.

MTV: One last question for you two. It seems like every webcomic creator around is on Twitter these days, and I know you two joined a while back and created some comics about your experience. Jerry hasn’t been updating much lately, but Mike is still going strong. What’s your take on the Twitter-verse and the webcomic presence there?

HOLKINS: I fell away from it. I did try to jump in with both feet, and I enjoyed the span of time I spent on it. But it turns out that it works slightly different than how I thought. … The whole time, I was trying to use Twitter in a way that wasn’t what it was designed for.

I was trying to use it as a way to communicate in a quasi-email fashion with every person who had subscribed to it and with the readership in general. I thought I was responding to everyone when I would respond to a single message.

KRAHULIK: Everything that you just said can be completely removed from the equation if you just use the space button before the “@” symbol, you know… It will work exactly the way you want.

HOLKINS: Hmm. I need to investigate that.

KRAHULIK: But Twitter? I like it. I like the immediate feedback. It’s fun.

“The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade” hits shelves Tuesday, February 23. The “Splendid Magic” book tour kicks off that same day in Seattle. Check out Penny-Arcade.com for details about the tour, as well as information about the Child’s Play charity and the PAX East 2010 convention.

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