Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Fifteen: Bad Machinery

If there’s one thing teens (or preteens) love, it’s solving mysteries. If those mysteries have a supernatural angle, so much the better. And if those mysteries can parallel and illuminate conflicts or developments in their own lives, narratively speaking that’s ideal. Thus, we get the setup for Bad Machinery.

Note: Bad Machinery is a narrative-driven comic and should be read in order from the beginning. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but I’m not overly concerned with revealing details because specific events are less important than the emotional journeys of the characters.

The kids in Tackleford love solving mysteries, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it with practice. Where they live there is frequently some sort of ghost or monster causing mischief, so over time they’ve developed a sense for when something out-of-the-ordinary is happening.

That’s the most obvious difference between Bad Machinery and your typical mystery-solving-teen story. Unlike in Scooby Doo or most of the others, the ghost story isn’t usually a cover-up. Almost every mystery has some genuine supernatural event at its heart.

But the main appeal comes not from the in and outs of the genre or even the compelling mysteries that are presented. The reason I come back to read this comic day after day is the delightful and idiosyncratic dialogue. Characters all speak in a way that is not quite like any mode of speech I’ve ever heard in real life, but if people did speak this way they would be a thousandfold more fun to listen to.

One reason the dialogue is so entertaining is that it reveals the thinking process of the characters, who take turns of phrase and run with the ideas they generate in their brains. Occasionally, instead of just having the character state the wild thing that jumped into their head, it will be illustrated for us to see.

These imagine spots tend to happen with things in Jack’s mind, which makes sense because Jack has a reputation amongst his friends for being quiet and rarely speaking. Since Jack doesn’t vocalize his wild imaginings, we have to see them rendered. I’d say it’s worth it.

The mysteries in Bad Machinery are engaging mainly because the characters find them engaging. From a reader’s perspective, the drama in the characters’ lives and they way they mature and adjust as they grow up is more interesting than the particular case they’re working on. The kids are all ambling toward adulthood, reaching different milestones at different points and finding that their friendships shift and strain as they each find themselves wanting different things.

The comic as a whole maintains a lighthearted tone that makes me think it would be great to give to children at or just under the age of the characters. I’d hesitate to go much younger because occasionally the mysteries are quite serious, involving deaths or significant violence. These instances are always portrayed with a level of frankness that allows the general lighthearted tone to be preserved... despite the existence of upsetting events, the worldview we are presented with is still for the most part an optimistic one.

Bad Machinery is the third comic to be set in the fictional setting of Tackleford. It stands on its own and readers needn’t feel any obligation to read the earlier comics in order to understand what’s going on. Some characters carry over from the earlier comics, but the main characters in Bad Machinery have all received most, if not all, of their development in Bad Machinery. If this is your first time encountering these comics, Bad Machinery is where I’d start.

If you like Bad Machinery and would like to read more by this author, you may choose to read Scary Go Round and/or Bobbins. I read Bobbins first and it’s actually my favorite of them all, but that’s mainly nostalgia talking, and Bobbins is definitely the most crude. Scary Go Round, by contrast, is more slick and ran for a much longer time.

Of course, if you’d rather just stick to Bad Machinery and avoid crawling through the massive Scary Go Round archives, that’s fine too.

One of the nice things about Bad Machinery is that, while most of the danger that the kids find themselves in is somehow supernatural, it does not follow that most supernatural things are inherently dangerous. The kids befriend selkies, try to help ghosts, and find homes for wendigos. Sometimes the creature hanging around the mystery has very little to do with it, and the actual issue is quite mundane. Sometimes humans are the problem, and the “monsters” are the victims in need of assistance. That kind of variety in motives and needs helps to solidify the fictional world as one where the supernatural is just a part of life to be dealt with and lived beside like any other.

Ultimately, the supernatural events always serve to complement some aspect of the characters’ own issues and development. Sometimes the connections are blindingly obvious, and sometimes they’re more subtle. The arc of each storyline proceeds not just to solve a mystery, but to allow the characters to grow as people and overcome some issue in their own lives.

So what we have here is a funny/dramatic coming-of-age sort of setup with quirky dialogue, enjoyable characters, and frequent mysteries of a supernatural nature. It’s great to get to know these kids and watch them grow up in a world that has so many useful parallels to our own, but is different in ways that almost certainly make it better. It may be more dangerous, in some ways, but it’s definitely more exciting.

I don’t know whether the inhabitants of this world would consider that a fair trade, but from the readers’ perspective, I’d absolutely call that a win.

Bad Machinery is written and drawn by John Allison and updates Monday through Thursday.

Practical note: There is one spot in the archives where you may have a bit of trouble if, as I did, you choose to progress by clicking on the comic image. When you reach this page, clicking on the image brings you to a sort of dead end. Just click “Next” up at the top of the page and you’ll be fine. (EDIT: This has now been fixed!)

Now head on over and read about some teens solving some mysteries! Or, getting in trouble at school, as the case may be.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Fourteen: Broodhollow

Everyone has their coping mechanisms to deal with stress and anxiety. Sometimes this is how traditions evolve... Scary faces to keep monsters at bay when it’s dark out transform over time into fun things to do with pumpkins at Halloween. Personal rituals and public rituals share a significance. They help us to feel comfortable and at ease with a world that contains many real and imagined threats. The use of ritual to protect oneself, and the dangers that this practice can cause, are key components of Broodhollow.

The protagonist of Broodhollow is Wadsworth Zane, a newcomer to the eponymous town, and a man modern readers can easily identify as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the 1930s, however, and the state of mental health treatment leaves a lot to be desired.

Worsening matters, Zane’s fears often revolve around ghosts, and it seems that ghosts pose a real threat to him and others. I’ve read that it’s difficult to treat germaphobia, because fears are treated through exposure to the feared thing, and germs can be genuinely harmful. If ghosts really can harm Zane, and his rituals, or the “pattern,” as he calls it, can keep them away, then there is no safe way to cure him of his compulsions.

NOTE: Broodhollow is a narrative-based comic and must be read in order. I cannot avoid spoilers entirely, though I will not describe plot points in detail. I strongly recommend that when you read Broodhollow you start at the very beginning.

Zane’s personal rituals are reflected in the culture of Broodhollow, with its emphasis on tradition. Broodhollow is known as the “town of a thousand holidays,” since every day the inhabitants are participating in some arcane celebration or another. No one remembers the origin of most of these rituals, but they all adhere to them. Like Zane, they are protecting themselves from ghosts and whatever else is out there, but unlike Zane, they do not consciously acknowledge what they’re doing.

The use of obsessive behavior as a defense against an unsettling presence reminds me of the Salman Rushdie novel Grimus, wherein characters each find their own obsession to keep their minds off the thing that is broken in their world. For most Broodhollow residents, following cultural traditions carefully seems to be enough. Zane has his own set of compulsions, and his late uncle channeled his obsessive energies into researching lineages. The same fears and uncertainties manifest in all sorts of permutations among different people with different coping mechanisms.

There are definitely ghosts, and they can definitely be harmful, but at times it’s not entirely clear whether Zane is frightened of real supernatural beings or mere extensions of his own anxieties. The power of suggestion is strong. Someone predisposed to believe that ghosts are interfering in his life might interpret stressful but mundane situations as having a more sinister edge.

Uncertainty lies at the core of Broodhollow. Zane is frightened by ghosts, but the unknown is far more threatening. Ghosts can at least be named and understood. Whatever else is out there is more difficult to comprehend.

Broodhollow’s traditions may be silly or they may be vital. Zane may be exaggerating dangers or everyone else may be recklessly unaware. Rituals may help keep everyone safe, or they may build a sense of false security that will ultimately betray them. It’s a difficult landscape to navigate, and no one can say for certain where the safest path lies.

For all the horror and the deep personal issues on display in Broodhollow, much of the time it is refreshingly lighthearted. The easy-going, silly, joking-around atmosphere of the comic serves a few purposes. It keeps the work as a whole from becoming a drain to read by offering comic relief and reminders that there is usually something fun not too far off. It provides a sharp contrast, present in both the tone of dialog and the artistic style, between day-to-day life and the darker, more uncertain and scary parts of the setting. It also lets us get to know the characters and appreciate them as fun, relatable people in an ordinary context, so that we have a clear picture of the type of nice, happy people we’d be dealing with if things weren’t so messed up.

Light humor, fantastical intrigue, pervasive mystery... Broodhollow offers a range of attractions that fit into a cohesive whole. As much as I’ve enjoyed the story so far, I’m pretty sure it’s just going to get better. I feel like I’ve hardly begun to grasp the nature of the story. It’s going somewhere, but I wouldn’t hazard to guess the destination. Every time I see a new page, I immediately long for the next one, because the question Broodhollow consistently brings out of me is: “What happens next?”

And that is precisely the question that lets you know a story is engaging.

Broodhollow is written and drawn by Kris Straub and updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. As of this writing, we are in a pause wherein the updates are not the standard comic pages that make up the bulk of Broodhollow. The first storyline has just ended, and the second will begin soon.

There is also a Kickstarter currently running to print the first Broodhollow volume, so now is a great time to head over there and buy a copy if you think you’d like one (I know I would).

If this is your first encounter with Broodhollow, dive right in and enjoy! Just make sure all your doors and windows are completely closed before you start.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Thirteen: A Softer World

There’s a saying that my dad likes, and I’m going to mangle it here. “When a man is in the marketplace, he yearns for the quiet of the cave, and when he is in the cave, he yearns for the bustle of the marketplace.” Discontent is natural to humans. We want stability and excitement and comfort and unpredictability all at once. When you take all of these conflicting desires, and mix them up with a sense of poetry and laughter put them against a suitably beautiful and melancholy photographic background, you get A Softer World.

A Softer World is frequently funny, but it has a sharp edge. Frequently it is less funny than it is poignant. The tone is mixed, like constantly trying to make the best of things in the midst of a terrible depression, or being unable to curtail one’s negative worldview even in the midst of true happiness. This is the kind of comic that can make you feel bad for laughing at it, and it’s kind of amazing.

You don’t need to read every comic, since almost all of them stand alone, (though Baby Doom does show up before the comic above), but I’d recommend it anyway. When I was searching for the installments that I wanted to include here as examples, I almost bookmarked all of them. Nearly every one is exemplary of what makes A Softer World appealing. And though there are a lot of them, they’re short, so the whole archive is still a pretty fast read.

Discontent seems to drive most of the sentiments expressed here. The way to turn discontent into a positive is to embrace life, to go crazy and expand upon what is wonderful in the world. A Softer World contains numerous ideas of how to do that, from the mundane to the criminal to the merely elaborate.

As you can see, the art consists of text overlaid on photographs. At times there is a person in the photograph, who may be the subject or the object of the text. At other times, the relationship between the text and the photographs is less obvious. The tone of the image may inform the reading of the text, or suggest a setting or a new interpretation.

Most of the comics are appropriate (or inappropriate) for any context. Some, though, are clearly related to a particular event or season. Rarely there will be topical humor. The connection to a current event is not always explicit, but reading through the archives there are many comics that will remind me of whatever was going on in the world at that time, and the relationship between the comic and the event always seems clear to me.

This is a recent one!

For some reason, comics about people who don’t fit in with the dating services they’ve selected get me laughing like no other. The speed dating comic up top is my favorite A Softer World of all time, and the one below cracks me up every time I read it.

The perspective changes from installment to installment. Sometimes the speaker or the subject is someone easy to empathize with. Sometimes they are pretty much monsters. Typically they are complicated, messed up people and all we get to know of them in three panels is something that they would normally keep hidden. That’s one of the major components of A Softer World: Internal thoughts and desires made external. Sometimes that’s merely through the text, allowing us to read things that no one would say aloud, but often it’s clear that these people do say unexpected and socially inappropriate things, or act in inappropriate ways, far beyond the realm of "normal" inappropriate behavior.

And sometimes the perspective shifts to come from a different unexpected direction. Not everyone is constantly struggling with conflicting desires. Sometimes hatred and vitriol come from a place of pain. Sometimes we’re jealous of what other people have even when we’re scared to be like them.

Oh, and as someone who grew up coastally and has never lived in a place where it snows, I really related to this one.

You should read A Softer World if you’re interested in a funny/sad exploration of obligations and possibilities. It’s a great encouragement to seek out the novel, the exciting, the strange, and to embrace everything about life that makes you want to live it, and to downplay, change or escape the things that make you feel otherwise. Life is a mixture of horrible and beautiful, and sometimes that mixture feels more interesting and wonderful than if all you had was the beautiful.

A Softer World is made out of words written by Joey Comeau and photographs taken by Emily Horne. It updates irregularly, but usually about three new comics go up in any given week.

Part of me feels like I didn't need to write this post because David Morgan-Mar already wrote about A Softer World over on Irregular Webcomic! and what he wrote was better and more succinct than anything I could come up with, but I pressed on anyway.

One more thing: Watch for mouseover text! It’s not on every comic but it’s on most of them. If you can’t get mouseover text on your device just click the image, because the website is designed to accommodate you.

Previous Entry: Wasted Talent

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Twelve: Wasted Talent

Somewhere far north of here, in the land of Canada, there is an engineer who wants to share her life with you. She takes the things that happen to her and turns them into colorful, often hilarious sometimes fantastical musings and anecdotes. Allow me to introduce you to the charm and humor of Wasted Talent.

I am also a female engineer, though not Canadian, so I find a lot of Angela Melick’s experiences relatable or informative. If you’re not an engineer or someone who’s ever studied the subject, there’s still a lot to enjoy. There are occasional jokes that rely on familiarity with technical terms or practices, but the author steers away from inaccessible humor. Often there’s enough context to understand the joke, possibly while learning something new, or the sheer absurdity might be funny and enjoyable on its own.

Wasted Talent covers plenty of subjects outside of engineering. This gives me confidence that non-engineers can enjoy it, because the comics about subjects outside my purview are still accessible to me. I have no experience mountainbiking, but I do enjoy these comics about it.

Reading through every individual comic is not necessary; each installment can typically stand on its own. Since this is a journal comic there’s no need to be concerned about spoilers if you jump in at a random point. If you do read the whole archive from the beginning, you can watch the author grow as an artist, not just in skill but also in confidence. The early comics can be pretty hit-and-miss, but there are some gems in there that, for me, make the experience worth it.

If you’d prefer to start reading at a point where the artwork is more solidified, the transition from black and white to color is a pretty good place.

One thing I enjoy about Wasted Talent is the way that Melick and her friends seem to just take ideas and run with them. Sometimes these are just literal interpretations of common phrases of speech, sometimes they are wild dreams for future technologies, and sometimes they are more practical. Not useful in any way, just things that are perfectly achievable with what’s available.

And, given that this comic is about events from Melick’s life, there are lots of opportunities to vicariously experience the cool, strange or amusing things that happen to her. Sometimes there’s a comic about an event that I only heard about, but which Melick actually got to experience. For instance, this bit about when Stephen Colbert was in Vancouver for the Olympics.

Other times the comics depict things that are more low-key, the kinds of chance encounters and random events that you can’t control, encourage or predict. This run-in with a strange old man sticks with me, almost as if I had met the old man myself, but I only ever read about it.

Melick gets up to plenty of silliness on her own. Plenty of fascinating things happen to her, but it’s her way of looking at them that makes them shine. Reading Wasted Talent is a way not only to see her work her way through the world, but to see the world the way she sees it.

And the things that she chooses to do with her life occasionally make me fall over laughing, like the manner in which she has presented herself waking up her husband.

For me, though, the major appeal of this comic comes from the engineering. It’s pretty rare for people to be both engineers and artistic, so it’s not a world that I often see represented in media. After all, a convincing portrayal of a profession comes best from those who are in that profession. If engineers don’t tell their own stories, then no one will.

Wasted Talent is written and drawn by Angela Melick and updates on Mondays. Fellow engineers: Enjoy reading about people like yourselves! Everyone else: Come laugh at the engineers!