A Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide To: John Allison’s Bad Machinery

From long-running soap operas to comedy-drama slices of life to daily gag strips, the digital comics scene has exploded over the last decade and readers have never had more options. Feeling overwhelmed? Joe Stando is here to take you on an expedition through the webcomics wilderness and show you the best specimens in our monthly Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide.

Bad Machinery by John Allison

Bad Machinery strip from 12/20/2010 by John Allison.

Bad Machinery strip from December 20, 2010.

One of the most compelling aspects of webcomics is how clear their progression and development can be. As a singular voice and work, a webcomic reflects the creator’s skills and experience, as well as their changing tastes and interests. And when someone has been writing webcomics for over a decade, their growth and mastery of the form becomes pretty clear.

This brings me to this month’s spotlight, Bad Machinery, by British writer-artist John Allison. Bad Machinery is the latest in Allison’s ongoing and expansive comics universe, which began with Bobbins in 1998, a scribbly office comedy about twentysomethings, and spun off into Scary Go Round, a whimsical, sometimes melancholy story about the residents of Tackleford, a town plagued with various supernatural or fantastic events. Both shared a dryly goofy sense of humor and colorful, stylish character designs. But they also suffered from some growing pains, especially in the balance of various storylines and consistent tone. In 2009, Allison wrapped up Scary Go Round and launched Bad Machinery, his current project.

Bad Machinery follows mostly new or previously minor characters, so familiarity with the previous series isn’t required. It’s the all-ages story of two groups of mystery-solving students at a middle school in Tackleford and their various interactions and misadventures.The cast features brainy Shauna Wickle, silly Charlotte Grote, and rebellious, determined Mildred Haversham. Their opposite numbers in the boys’ group are bossy Linton Baxter, sensitive Jack Finch, and Sonny Craven, Mildred’s bouncy, bright-eyed cousin. The series is kind of a riff on Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries of old, but with signature Allison supernatural twists. The kids’ cases have pitted them against mythological creatures, aliens, and sent them through time.

It might sound ridiculous, or overly cute, but Bad Machinery is one of the tightest written daily comics I’ve ever read. It’s meticulously plotted, with various small details or throwaway gags coming back as pivotal clues. It’s hard to guess where it’s going, but it always plays fair. Allison has a great handle on the capriciousness of children and watching the kids fight and flirt and mess around is a delight. Charlotte is my favorite (I identify with her constant teasing of her closest friends more than I should probably admit), but all of them have distinct, developed voices and bounce off each other in fun ways.

Bad Machinery strip from 12/13/2010 by John Allison.

Bad Machinery strip from December 13, 2010.

One of the strongest elements of the series is the use of the supernatural or fantastic elements as metaphors or explorations of adolescence. This idea isn’t anything new to comics (Spider-Man’s been dealing with youthful isolation for several times my lifetime) but Bad Machinery is written subtly and believably enough that every time a ghost or a troll pops up, it feels surprising, even though the universe is established to work like that. A new student stealing Shauna’s friends through mind control isn’t inherently more realistic than Doctor Octopus, but it’s contextualized in a relatable way. Scott Pilgrim is an obvious comparison in terms of magical realism but Bad Machinery works on a more intimate level.

The specific highlight for me, so far, has been the period in the second and third books when Shauna and Jack are dating. It captures the cute faux-seriousness of middle school couples well, and the teasing reactions and arguments, especially with the other boys, are pitch perfect. It’s a storyline that wrapped up unfortunately but the latest book seems to be revisiting it, which has me excited.

Allison’s art is phenomenal as well. His lines have gotten much tighter over the years, but he maintains a whimsical style reminiscent of Kate Beaton or Quentin Blake. He has a great eye for fashion, and puts it to good use whenever the kids aren’t in their (admittedly cute) school uniforms. Tackleford feels like a real place, with a distinct visual look and sense of architecture and design.

Bad Machinery just returned from its annual winter hiatus a couple days ago, and since then has been updating seven days a week. This is a new development; the series had previously been posting new strips Monday through Thursday. Regardless, it moves at a pretty fast clip and reading it is always one of the highlights of my day.    

Allison himself commented recently on his progress artistically in the last several years and it’s a pretty good read. Even better, though, is his acknowledgement of some immature drawing quirks he used to have and how he’s moved past him. Bad Machinery was born in large part out of his desire to move away from cool, sexy adults and to less self-conscious, more genuinely fun and silly stories. It’s another great example of a creator knowing what they want in their work and orienting themselves towards it. If you’re interested in fun mysteries, schoolyard antics, or just watching a master of the form at work, check it out.

Bad Machinery strip from August 23, 2010 by John Allison.

Bad Machinery strip from August 23, 2010.

The entire Bad Machinery series to date, as well as links to Allison’s previous and side projects, can be found at scarygoround.com

Check out this previous Deadshirt guide to webcomics by our own Christina Harrington.

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