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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Commons confidential: Comrade Corbyn the coverstar

Milne's messages, Chilcot rumours, and why the Evening Standard may have backed Zac.

Tony Blair’s first flatmate, Charlie Falconer, will find himself in a difficult spot should Jeremy Corbyn stick to his guns when the Chilcot report is published on 6 July. The current Labour leader, a former chair of the Stop the War Coalition, is on record denouncing the campaign in Iraq as an “illegal war” and supporting a war crimes trial for his predecessor-but-two.

Every nudge and leak suggests that Chilcot’s weapon of mass destruction will eviscerate Bomber Blair. The whisper in Westminster is that Baron Falconer might feel honour-bound to quit as shadow justice secretary in the House of Lords should Comrade Corbyn back a plan to send his old housemate to the Hague.

My snout recalled overhearing a conversation in which Falconer’s solicitor wife asked her hubby: “How can you work for a man who thinks Tony is a war criminal?” Please do tell us, Charlie.

Comrade Corbyn is the first Labour leader for many a year, perhaps the first in the history of the class struggle, to be chosen as a cover star by Theory & Struggle, the journal of the Marx Memorial Library. The front-page pose is entirely social-realist by design: the bearded leader is pictured staring purposefully off to the reader’s left – of course. We may be sure that any likeness to an image of Karl Marx on the same page was purely non-coincidental.

An old school chum of the bombastic backbencher Karl McCartney let slip a clue about the source of the Lincoln Tory’s touchiness with regard to his personal brand. Back in 2013, the MP failed to persuade parliamentary authorities to spend £15,000 reprinting his surname on Commons documents, including the Hansard verbatim report of proceedings and business, with a superscript “c” instead of the lower case “Mc” on the line. Perhaps his obsession with presentation dates from when classmates nicknamed him Shergy, after Shergar, the Epsom Derby winner that was stolen and killed 33 years ago. On the upside, equine comparisons never unseated Princess Anne.

Maybe Sadiq Khan’s team, still puzzling over why the London Evening Standard editor, Sarah Sands, endorsed its rival Zac Goldsmith when the Tory was a nailed-on loser, should examine its man’s housing policy. Sands’s purchase of two flats in the redeveloped BBC TV Centre at White City wasn’t exactly the “first dibs” scheme envisaged by the Mayor of London to widen ownership.

Hacks using the Telegram encrypted messaging app, handy for receiving clandestine documents from anxious leakers, were amused to discover that Seumas Milne signed up for the service in May. Corbyn’s spin doctor may be unaware that everybody on the network with his number was notified of the covert arrival.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad