Bad Machinery

Created by: John Allison

ISBN: 1620100843 (Amazon)

Pages: 135

Bad Machinery

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.

Bad Machinery by John Allison

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. Bleeding, nighttime ejaculations, 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, uncomfortable 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.

Bad Machinery by John Allison

I’m not even quite sure of the alchemy by which he does it either. Most authors, having recognized that realistic teens are not enjoyable and 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.11This does have the downside of making their flip-outs seem more calculated and trope-ic. Key times for hyperventilation in these books would been when a boy or girl likes you, when your parents wish to ground you for abusing their rules, and when a boy or girl declines your romantic advances. 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, witty young adults while simultaneously skirting into realistic interaction with their world. Still, he sometimes draws close enough to the border that I grew uncomfortable or harboured ill feeling toward those characters.22It was pretty uncommon that I’d yell at the top of my lungs in the echoing dark chamber of my inner being, in my dark inside cupboards. Those moments did happen and I’d want to drag certain characters away from their foolishness so they could go on to enjoy the glorious future I had in their store. But the series is good enough that most all of these adolescent spasms are forgiven and slightly forgotten.

Bad Machinery by John Allison

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 six completed cases and the seventh looks to be winding down soonish. Within each case however, each page is revealed a day at a time—and in common webcomic fashion, these each 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. They work, sometimes together and sometimes at odds, to solve various mysteries. I didn’t consider it until just now, but I’m pretty sure that every mystery actually does have some sort of supernatural element to it. 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.44Looking at how well I kept up with my own junior high friends does not bode terribly well for these kids—and that makes me sad. After all, across the span of six cases, they’ve already aged two years, and now at age fourteen they’re experiencing angsts and mysteries unfathomable to the twelve-year-old’s mind.

Bad Machinery by John Allison

Allison’s illustrations are fun and fluid and his use of expression sells his characters emotion and tone perfectly well. When Lottie says something, you can hear her words cascade exactly in the manner she intends, all due to Allison’s art. It’s easy to tell he’s been at this for years and years. His style is reminiscent of what Bryan Lee O’Malley employs in Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea, only rather than O’Malley’s squat figures, Allison’s are stretched lean—almost perhaps Gorey-esque. In any case, I say reminiscent purposefully. The work reminds but never feels the copycat. It’s pleasing and works for the material.

Bad Machinery surprised me. A friend referenced a page on Twitter and I happened to follow the link and said, “Hey, that looks fun.” She said something along the lines of “Holy smokes, yes!” (I’m making things up at this point.) And then she said what I love to hear about anything I’m about to consume: “I envy you.” She was right to say so and I will envy anyone else their virgin experience with the series. That frantic, flustered thirst to plow through the available material as quickly as possible. The laughs, the introduction to Allison’s amusing blend of the wit and wordplay of the best comments from Imgur or Reddit or Twitter or whichever shortform social platform you may prefer. I can’t wait for you to read this. Not so that we can talk about it, you and me—simply because I’m pretty sure you’ll have a grand old time even as I did.

Bad Machinery by John Allison

Read Bad Machinery on its website.



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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