Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong: dawn of the bromance comic

A graphic novel about high school angst and killer robots? Hand it over, says Cara Ellison.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Prudence Shen (writer), Faith Erin Hicks (artist)

First Second, 278pp, £12.99, 13 June 2013 (UK)

It’s officially summer in Brighton as I am sitting outside in the sun trying not to have the black keys of my MacBook sear my fingertips off, which I have begun to contemplate might be a good idea if I wanted to become a cat burglar instead of a writer. Nothing says summer like a good bromance, and I find myself lamenting the fact that I haven’t been paying attention to the bromance genre very closely any more. All those Hollywood blockbusters, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Internship, The Hangover part 20 ½ with extra knob jokes (Zach Gilifnwhatever’s beard is now a character), that sort of thing. I was in the mood for something a little less obvious: bros before hos, but sort of less offensive than that, and also with better drawn characters.

Wait, there’s a comic by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks about high school angst and killer robots?! Hand it over. Momma’s got some work to procrastinate whilst getting heinously sunburnt.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is a high school bromance about battle bot-constructing nerdlinger Nate and his quiet jock friend Charlie. Nate is one of those overpowering control-freak nerds, the sort you get in Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed. enclaves, the ones that say that you can’t punch a dragon in the face because it’s not realistic. He’s probably, in high school terms, that guy that all the girls know isn’t very cool but secretly would do him up against the bandstand if he asked because his curly hair is cute and when he turns thirty he’ll be a millionaire from some deal with Microsoft. Nate wants the student council to fund the science team over pretty much anything else in the world, which is probably a really good way to ensure that he is earmarking all of his sex vouchers ‘valid ten years from now only’. In any case, Nate would never ask for a lay, so this book confirms that this kind of nerd will be girlfriendless until about book six.

Charlie, on the other hand, is a tall hunk, who is quiet in the way that everyone wishes they were quiet. In that: you don’t have to say anything because your face is so monumentally snoggable, and in fact the snogging leads to you saying even less, so then it’s a vicious cycle of face suck and... Anyway, Charlie is a hunky quiet jock who is the star of the school basketball team, and on-off dates a scary cheerleader. Who at the beginning of the book has dumped him by text message.

Both guys get in a car together, and they drive towards shenanigans and quips at full speed.

Then, the science team ends up battling the cheerleaders for the funding, and then a crackpot scheme - if one person from either faction becomes the head of the student council then the money will be certain to go to their cause. Nate puts himself up for election, whilst Charlie is unwittingly bullied into running by his cheerleader tormentors. Things go from bad to worse (like they do in stories, usually) and then they all end up on TV at a national robot wars convention trying to use a small killing machine the robotics club constructed to win both sides a bit of cash.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong does read like a young adult novel adapted for the comic book form, in that it sometimes it seems like it is losing the nuance of prose that might have otherwise been there, and failing to play up to the strength of the comic book form in other ways. There are some very funny punchlines, although it takes a while for the book to warm up to them.

But the artist’s style is striking Scott Pilgrimesque work, and both writer and artist have done a spectacular job picking out the one page panels for focus. Perhaps what is missing is a sense of rhythm, the small narrative payoffs that lead to the final one, and though pretty much everything about the book is charming and cute, I often wondered if there could have at least been some real emotional peaks and troughs: illicit kissing, wretched sobbing, ups downs and back in the mess for breakfast. It does come across as very restrained and measured for a teenage book: I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer all spring and it has surprised me just how much of the emotional issues covered in it I’d consider ‘adult’ now, though they barely had me bat an eyelid as a kid. I don’t remember being emotionally restrained at all as a teenager - quite the opposite. I think I cried once when a nerd gave me a Star Trek love poem. Possibly because I feared for our nerd species as a whole.

One nuanced emotional strand does come to mind though, which is that of Charlie’s home life. Staying with his newly divorced dad and forced to go camping all the time, Charlie is avoiding all calls from his mother, who he feels has betrayed him when she moved off to San Diego. She then announces that she’s getting married to some other guy, and wants to bring him for Thanksgiving. It is a poignant side story, and well told, but it’s somewhat lost in the rest of the rock-em sock-em killer robot with chainsaws plot, so much so that it comes as a surprise at how quickly it’s resolved.

I did wish that the girl characters had been given more words to say: the cheerleaders are steely-eyed silence or perfunctory plot-service, and though alternating silence and yelling initially served to make them terrifying, after a quarter of the book you start to want to know more about them, and wish that they’d just snap out of it and start unleashing some verbal cartwheels on the sorry dudebros who wander around bellyaching in adorable helplessness. In a way the cheerleaders are the most neglected: they are aloof by way of not being given any character-forming issues, even though I’d like a whole comic written about their squabbles and manicures, Mean Girls style.

The comic’s ultimate triumph is Joanna, the little freckled nerd in the robotics club, who is a feel-it say-it sort of kid after my own heart. Quick to beat up Nate when he’s miscalculated, and apt to hug the robot death machine war bastard as if it were a puppy at any point in the story, Joanna is my favourite, and her final contribution to the robot wars that ensue at the end are a pleasure to behold, with some spectacular work in bold lines from Faith Erin Hicks.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is young, interesting and adorable: it has its flaws, but it’s a summer book that is upbeat, full of little gags and charmingly drawn teens. There is even a member of the robotics club that looks suspiciously like Richard Ayoade. For Shen’s first book this is a solid read, and I’ll be looking out for more from both the creators. Now excuse me, I’m off to attach wheels and a chainsaw to my 4-slot toaster. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times