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.

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