The Hardy Boys of our generation?

Reviewed: Bad Machinery, by John Allison.

Bad Machinery: The Case of the Team Spirit
John Allison
Oni Press, 136pp, £14.99

This book has been a long time coming. The first collection of John Allison's Bad Machinery webcomic, it is being released as the web version finishes its fifth story. That's pretty far removed from the print collections of Allison's previous strip, Scary Go Round, of which Bad Machinery is a loose sequel. Those were usually available shortly after the arc they collected was finished, in small self-published paperbacks.

But the delay is for a good reason. Where Scary Go Round was frequently meandering, with story lines and characters fading out of view as he got bored of them and moved on, Bad Machinery is laser-focused. It takes the classic archetype of mystery-solving-teens, throws them in situations that are half-way between Scooby-Do and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (monsters are real, but generally they're more interested in being left alone than taking over the world), and polishes the whole thing off with Allison's unique, and wonderful, authorial voice.

He's been writing webcomics for fifteen years, starting with Bobbins until 2002, then relaunching the series as Scary Go Round, and then Bad Machinery four years ago. Each series has shared characters with the one before, but been a fresh beginning in story terms, and this is no different. But that still means fifteen straight years improving his craft, and it shows. Since an abrupt change in his artistic style in 2005 – moving from a heavily digital style to more traditional-looking cartooning – the focus was on refining the writing and art, until in 2009, Scary Go Round was put to bed and Bad Machinery was launched. As a third-generation webcomic, it skipped the false starts common to so many books with similar provenance, and launched straight into the strong story collected here.

That change – which, given it amounted to killing-off an eight-year-long serial with a devoted fanbase, was hardly minor – has resulted in a book which is perfect for people who don't read comics. And more than that: it's a book perfect for kids who don't read comics. Starring relatable schoolchildren, in a series of stand-alone cases, it stands a chance of being the Hardy Boys or Famous Five of our generation.

And that's precisely why the delay has happened. Because there's no point in writing a book which could be loved by a generation of children and then hiding it on a website and in self-published books. This needs to be in schools, on reading club lists, and in libraries, and for that, it needs a real publisher backing it up.

But finding one which was prepared to take a book which was still available for free online was easier said than done. False starts with some publishers who were unhappy competing against the internet pushed the publication date further and further back, but Allison didn't give up. At one point he was forced to launch subscriptions for the site – ranging from £2 a year, for which subscribers receive "nothing but my gratitude", to £100 a year, for which subscribers receive "nothing but my gratitude" – to make ends meet, but eventually it paid off. Step up Oni Press, the publishers of the Scott Pilgrim series, who have worked with Allison to make a print version with production values to die for. A massive book – roughly the size of two standard-sized comics next to each other – it includes the first case, as well as a short prologue, a chunk of back-matter, and a fair few reworked pages to take advantage of the differences between print and online.

Getting this book into the hands of real-life kids is obviously Allison's aim, but as with all the best children's authors, he's done that by writing a book which doesn't talk down to them. Like Pixar's films, an adult not reading Bad Machinery because it's for kids is missing out – and missing the point. The jokes are sharp, the plot is twisting, and the mystery is engrossing. If the fact that the main characters are 11-year-olds spoils that for you, I don't know what to say.

A little peek inside Bad Machinery, by John Allison. Credit: Oni Press.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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As the language of break-ups changes, are we regarding our ex-partners differently?

From “conscious uncoupling” to “LAT” couples, we are learning to retain friendly – even familial – post-romantic bonds with former lovers.

Is the conversation around break-ups changing?

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” in March 2014, I was among the bemused detractors. Was it just a hippy-dippy euphemism, a nicer way of dressing up a plain old separation? Wasn’t a break-up bound to be easier if you had money and several houses?

Yet, almost two years on, it’s hard to deny that it seems to have worked well for them. “We’re still very much a family, even though we don’t have a romantic relationship. He’s like my brother,” she told Glamour magazine last week.

They’ve holidayed together and been photographed smiling and laughing like dear old friends. Perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t prevented either from moving on to new romantic partners.

Even some of my (non-Hollywood) peer group are starting to come round to the idea. “I may be the only person in the world who likes the term,” posted one friend in a Facebook thread when I announced that I’d done such a volte-face that I was going to call my new solo show The Conscious Uncoupling.

It quickly turned out that she wasn’t the only person at all, as other friends added that they rather liked it too. Mind you, comedian Kate Smurthwaite commented that she’d only be likely to utter the words if she’d “accidentally swallowed poison and needed to regurgitate it”.

Now that we have an alternative phrase, albeit one that carries a divisive whiff of pretension, it does seem to be empowering us to behave differently, thinking more carefully about bringing greater compassion and communication to this life-changing painful process.

A male comedian friend described to me how he and his wife had, “agreed and admitted that this might all be over but we would still want to be friends – because at heart, we are.

He added: “No one teaches us that this can happen. If you split up, you must scream and shout and never talk to the other person again. Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Yet perhaps this behaviour did already exist. In previous decades, lesbians typically went through lengthy, turbulent transitions to form lasting family-like connections with ex-partners. The community was so small and secret that you “simply had to get on”, according to Dr Jane Traies, who conducted a comprehensive survey of older gay women in the UK.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the gay community have been pioneers of trends that have caught on enough to generate their own new language. They were “living apart together” long before anyone talked about so-called “LAT” couples.

So for those of us embracing the concept and ideology of conscious uncoupling yet not wanting to associate too strongly with Paltrow, how about an alternative term?

I’ve tended to talk about “post-romantic” relationships, while the writer Anna Freeman says she has used the word “metamorphosis” to describe “a changing closeness”.

I’ve also mooted the idea of a “decompression year”, a consensually agreed 12-month untangling, as opposed to abrupt endings that usually come as a shock to one party and render ongoing friendship impossible.

New York psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently called for greater “relationship accountability” in the wake of alarming new trends, “ghosting” and “icing”, which respectively see partners disappearing without explanation or finding excuses to suspend a relationship and put it on hold.

If we extend a sense of accountability to online dating and short-term flings, maybe we should offer a suitable substitute match to everyone we reject.

It’s not a million miles from a popular comedy industry ethos whereby you offer a replacement of an equivalent quality and experience level whenever you drop out of a gig.

In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending.

Whatever our feelings about conscious uncoupling, the idea of embracing the good things about your ex seems a pretty sound one. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who claims that she coined the phrase, has added something important to the conversation around breaking up – while celebrity endorsement of it has simply made more of us sit up and pay attention.

Rosie Wilby is a stand-up comedian, broadcaster and writer.