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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Commons confidential: Putting on the Ritz

Turns out, the young ’uns give even thirsty MPs a bad name.

Smoking is banned in enclosed workplaces including hotel bars and reception rooms but the prohibitions are, in the finest Leona Helmsley tradition, for the little people rather than the Pol Roger Brexit elites. The one-time City speculator Nigel Farage and the gruesome gathering of tycoons untroubled by the costs of an EU exit were, a witness informed me, puffing away on fags at the glitzy anti-establishment establishment bash at the Ritz on the night that a £59bn Brexit bill was presented to the nation.

The backslapping soirée was hosted by the billionaire twins Sirs David and Frederick Barclay, the mock-Gothic-castle-owning habitués of tax havens and proprietors of the five-star Piccadilly boarding house. My snout recalled how Freddie announced ever so grandly: “This is my house and people can smoke if they want to.” I trust that Fred’s hostel is well versed in the smoking ban law.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reincarnated chief whip, Nick “Newcastle” Brown, believes that he is the first Labour bigwig since Arthur Henderson to hold the same party post multiple times in three decades. Brown did the enforcer’s job for Tony Blair in 1997-98, Gordon Brown in 2008-10, Harriet Harman in 2010 and now Jezza in 2016. Uncle Arthur was Labour’s chief whip in 1906-1907, in 1914, in 1920-24 and in 1925-27. Tickled to learn that Henderson was awarded the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize, Newkie Brown was overheard musing: “Perhaps they’ll give it to me if I bring peace to the Parliamentary Labour Party.” Do that, and he’d be invited to run the UN.

The charm of Justin Madders is the shadow health minister’s easygoing nature. Which is probably just as well. The agreeable Ellesmere Port MP and former lawyer received a thank you note and photograph after attending a cancer charity’s event. The picture was of Tories. A high-profile Corbynista could learn from the mild Madders. She asked a paper to use only flattering snaps of her.

I may start an occasional series on jobs that haunt MPs decades after they made it to Westminster, after the shadow cabinet member Teresa Pearce recalled her experiences as a gym receptionist in the days before Lycra was fashionable. “I did it to get free gym use,” explained the Erith MP, “but I also had to clean and monitor the sauna on naked pensioner Tuesdays, so it was not worth the grim sights I had to witness.” Some things once glimpsed can never be unseen.

Westminster staff whisper that empty Tesco wine bottles have been found on the terrace. The finger of suspicion points at drunk and disorderly young researchers, particularly Tories, preloading before piling into the bars. The young ’uns give even thirsty MPs a bad name.

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 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage