Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 130

Bad Machinery

by John Allison
Genre notes: mystery kids, the super-natural, humour, bildungsroman
Read it here: http://scarygoround.com/ar.php

When I was a budding teen, I was probably just about what you were like. I was whip-smart, sardonic, and had no problems elucidating my every bursting thought with exactitude. I was, for lack of better description, charming. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say “debonaire,” but really that’s probably just modesty speaking. I dressed well, spoke well, and forged relationships well. With either sex. Didn’t matter. I was basically the stuff. Except for the fact that none of that happened. I was instead probably just about what you were like. I was, for all my smarts, a bit of a moron. Couldn’t properly express myself. Flummoxed and self-concerned around both boys and girls, but unconquerably so around girls. And then throw on top of that the fact that I was, as J.M. Barrie describes children, innocent and heartless.

Again, I was probably quite a bit like you. Not because you were a particularly horrible person but simply because budding teens are not very good at being the people they have the potential to be. Junior high is a terribly awkward stage. Our bodies are wrong, being trapped in the uncanny valley betwixt the hopefully adorable child-self and the hopefully awesome adult-self. Limbs jut out here and there in clumsy efforts to rush toward that which we yet aren’t. Breasts leap from the canvas of our bodies. Unwished for erections make tents of our jeans. Strange thatches and patches of hair appear at first as if mirages. New smells collect around us. The blood times, the nighttime ejaculations, the hormonal spasmatics. It’s a tough time to be a person. And all these physical oddities combine with the other demands and expectations of growing older to temporarily hobble the psychological state of the young. Stew all this together and you’ll find that people in the age range of twelve-to-fifteen are some of the most difficult, squirrely, and (sometimes) unlikeable people you know.

And it’s not like its their fault. It’s understandable. It happens to all of us. I just maybe don’t want to read about such people. So the more realistically a book portrays its young teen protagonists, the more I find myself distanced from any ability to enjoy the work. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was nearly unreadable to me. Harry was so thoroughly unlikeable and whiny and stubborn and blind and conceited because Rowling did a fair job at approximating what a good kid in Harry’s position would be like. I hated nearly every minute with him. It got to the point that I wanted him to lose just so it’d knock some sense into him. I mean, congrats to Rowling on writing a believable fifteen-year-old, but I almost left the book unfinished because of her triumph. So then, I’m glad for what John Allison does in Bad Machinery, a book thoroughly concerned with the lives of budding teens.

I’m not even quite sure of the alchemy by which he does it either. Most authors, having recognized that realistic teens are neither enjoyable teens nor entertaining teens, ditch the idea of realism and simply write their characters as adults in kid bodies and then strip out the more, quote-unquote, adult habits (drinking, swearing, sexing, stock-trading) from their characters. This leaves their young protagonists free to operate in generally reasonable demeanor and not flip the heck out over what adults might consider trivialities. It’s okay so far as it goes, but always ends up feeling a bit hollow. Allison, somehow, finds a warm place in between whereby his characters can carry on conversations like ridiculous, amusing, meta-witty young adults while simultaneously skirting into realistic interaction with their world.

Bad Machinery is one of those strange Modern Hybrids that we’ve seen rise up with the advent of the web and its associated comics. The series unfolds in the macro sense over a series of mysteries. These arcs resolve themselves under the taxonomy of cases. The first is “The Case of the Team Spirit,” which is followed by “The Case of the Good Boy.” There are currently eleven (I think?). Within each case however, each page is revealed a day at a time to the reader—and in common webcomic fashion, these each usually resolve in something like a punchline. The story unfolds across these brief punctuations with time and place often shifting dramatically from one page to another. Still, it all keeps together well, and it may be that the promise of a joke or witticism or revelation at the end of each page actually works to spur the reader onward. After all: it’s easy to bookmark a page and let go for the night if you know you’ve got another thirty pages ‘til the next breaking point. Not so easy to let go when there’s a breaking point every page—not enough pressure to stop when it’s only a thirty-second read to get to the next rest area.

Allison’s series is the tale of boy detectives. And girl detectives. Youthful detectives, at any rate. Of either sex. They work, sometimes together and sometimes at odds, to solve various mysteries. It's basically like Scooby Doo except whereas in Scooby Doo every unearthly mystery had a very mundane cause, here every mystery begins easy enough but soon plays court to the supernatural. The reason I may not have noticed this is that even though there’s plot for each of these arcs and you really do want to know how things are going to piece together, the real reason you’re devouring these stories is Allison’s magnificent characters. The kids, who alternate in good measure between realism and wonderful fantasy, are deliciously wrought. Their interaction and distinct personalities mesh so well together that I worry for them as they age, knowing that they’ll eventually all move in their own directions—and we actually see some of this unfold across the years represented in these cases. They start out the series at the ripe old age of 12 years old and in the current case, I believe they are straddling the land of 17 years old or something around there.

Also, these are some of the funniest comics around. I forget if I mentioned that.

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Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

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